Source: Borrowed – Scribd
Publisher: Macmillian Audio
Narrator: Kevin R. Free
Edition: Audiobook, 3 Hours 9 Minutes
Purchase: Amazon / Audible / Barnes & Noble
Rating: 3/5 Stars
People move to New York looking for magic, and nothing will convince them it isn’t there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his black skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their trained cops.
But when he delivers an occult page to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic and earns the attention of things best left sleeping. A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?
The Ballad of Black Tom is a reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, which was the author’s most racist piece of work. In an effort to recreate and reshape the tale Victor LaValle turns a story laden with fear and hatred of differences into one that instead examines that racism. I will preface this review by stating that I have not read The Horror at Red Hook, mostly because I knew it was racist and I don’t have time for that. I know the gist of the story and I think my opinion of LaValle’s version wouldn’t be any different if I had read it.
This was a book that came with a little hype attached to it and most of the time I shy away from those, but I have been branching out a bit within the sci-fi fantasy world lately and this one was calling to me. The story itself is one that is very subtle in its execution, and that left me kind of unsure on how I stand on it. Lovecraft’s horror is in general one of slow descents into madness, one that even the reader starts to feel by the end. This one doesn’t have that same feel, which is fine but if you are coming into this looking for that same eldritch horror then you may be somewhat disappointed. It does have those themes and that same creepiness, but this felt more like a horror novel within a lens that is more focused on the racism at play. The read is stark both in the terms of ‘great other’ that haunts the streets and the rampant racism that Tom and others experience.
I think where this book failed to blow me away was the somewhat unfocused nature of the narrative, which is also present in the original it seems. The way the story almost seems to shy away from admitting anything outright in terms of the eldritch, and the kind of the oddly distant way the narrative seems to focus on each character just made it a bit hard for me to get into. It definitely has that moody atmosphere and provided those chills that I was expecting, but it was almost like something just blocked my ability to become immersed in it.
Kevin R. Free’s narration of the audiobook is excellent and pairs well with LaValle’s excellent prose. I’m a big advocate of the audio treatment of Lovecraftian works, as it takes your control of the pacing away and you get that sense of sliding down a hill towards something unknowable.
I do think this one is going to be highly subjective in terms of if you will like it, and it goes a bit beyond “if you like Lovecraft then try this”. It just doesn’t fit in that mold easily. It’s relatively short and worth a try!