Pros: Dark, swirling, magnificent
Rating: 5 out of 5
Victor LaValle’s short book The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Thomas Tester lives in Harlem and hustles to make a living and support his aging father. His jobs take him to all sorts of neighborhoods, including some places where the color of his skin places him in danger. He gets hired to play some music for a wealthy white man, Suydam, who wants to enlist the help of a bunch of discontented immigrants to rouse the Sleeping King, one of the Great Old Ones. But when a vicious private eye brings Thomas’s life down around his ears, and the police, in the person of one Detective Malone, are on the private eye’s side, Thomas has to take matters into his own hands. Soon he becomes known as Suydam’s lieutenant, Black Tom.
The Ballad of Black Tom gives a stunning, vivid, and painful look into the world of a black man in 1920s Harlem. It’s at once both engrossing and sobering. I’m trying to figure out how best to put my experience of it into words, and I’ve now written and deleted another sentence four times. I’m no Lovecraft scholar, so I can’t give you any insight on that end; considering the number of awards this has gone up for I imagine there are other reviews you could read for that anyway. The intricate relationship between Tom and the other characters in this tale defy expectations. Is he the servant or the master? If he is the servant, who exactly does he serve? And how, and why? And what will he do with that?
Malone, like Suydam, is a seeker of esoteric knowledge. As for Thomas, he’s aware enough of the subject that when hired to deliver an occult book to a mysterious woman, he took the last page out to keep her from doing any harm with it. The three of them can’t help but be drawn into the Sleeping King’s legend. What happens next pulled me in and refused to let go. If you like Lovecraftian horrors, esoteric mysteries, and dread Elder Gods, The Ballad of Black Tom is a must-read.