Thomas Tester is a hustler, but only to put food on the table for himself and his aging father. His father has the gift of music, but Tom’s voice is broken and his fingers weak, so he uses his guitar case and a frayed suit to earn money in other ways. But in 1924 Harlem, Tom also knows that the color of his skin negatively attracts the attention of cops and the wealthy white folks, so he is extra careful delivering a rare book to a reclusive witch in Queens.
The Ballad of Black Tom is a re-telling of the Lovecraft story The Horror at Red Hook, from the perspective of a young black con-man in 1920’s New York. I have not read the original story, and this review only concerns the standalone novella. Tom is a fantastically empathetic character, and the small injustices against him draw relevant parallels to modern-day racism and police brutality. Although it’s a spoiler, I don’t mind sharing that Tom’s circumstances shape his transformation into the traditional Lovecraftian villain, so that the story cleverly upholds the craft that is Lovecraft, but critiques and appropriates for its own justified agenda.
Whereas I like the character arc in theory, the execution was less enthralling. In order to aid the protagonist’s transformation into the antagonist, the narrative switch that occurs is jarring in such a short work. In addition, I like Thomas Tester, and I want recompense for his injustices, but the horror of Black Tom’s revenge is not satisfying but uncomfortable and gruesome. The end result is an abstractness, however well-conceived, that does not hold my compassion and imagination like I expected, but for which I am still impressed.
Highly recommended for literary fiction-types who have a secret love of Lovecraft!
“I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”