The Ballad of Black Tom: Brief but Powerful

The Ballad of Black Tom (2016)
Written by: Victor LaValle
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Historical Fiction
Pages: 149 (Paperback)
Publisher: Doherty Associates

Why I Chose It: I’m not normally a novella reader. When I find characters and a universe that I like, I prefer sweeping epics with multiple, lengthy books, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Novellas are usually too short to satisfy me, and I never know whether or not I should count them on my yearly reading list. I was intrigued that The Ballad of Black Tom was set in Jazz Age New York City because I love historical fiction. When I learned that the novella was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2016 and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Awards, it motivated me to overcome my dislike of novellas and give it a chance.

The premise:

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas (“Tommy”) 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 skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome 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?

No Spoilers.

Discussion: I only learned that The Ballad of Black Tom is actually a retelling of H.P. Lovecraft’s story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” after I finished reading it. The novella was inspired by Lovecraft but also intended as a rebuke to his racism. I have never read the original story, and I’m not at all familiar with Lovecraft. While I thoroughly enjoyed the book on its own merits, reading the original story might make for a richer experience.

LaValle does an excellent job of transporting the reader to New York City in the Jazz Age. The city itself is almost a character. Tommy reflects that “walking through Harlem first thing in the morning was like being a single drop of blood inside an enormous body that was waking up. Brick and mortar, elevated train tracks, and miles of underground pipe, this city lived; day and night it thrived” (p 11-12). Even the food that Tommy and his father eat at the mysterious Victoria Society, pineapple chow, cow heel soup, and tall cups of passion fruit juice, helps to establish the sense of place.

I was surprised to make such a strong connection to Tommy in such a short piece. Tommy is a vividly drawn character, who looks like “a gentleman without a gentleman’s bank account” (p 10), who knows that “a good hustler isn’t curious. A good hustler only wants his pay” (p 14). LaValle makes you feel Tommy’s love for his father, Otis, who is a crippled, broken, old man at the age of forty-one. Otis shows that he cares for Tommy by giving him a straight razor and teaching him conjure music. You also experience Tommy’s rage and frustration as he copes with the virulent racism of the time period. He gets harassed on the train, and he is told to be out of Queens before dark. Whenever he leaves Harlem, he is forced to act compliant and pretend to be stupid for his own safety.

Although the book is set in 1924, it is very topical in regard to racism and police brutality against African-Americans. The police hassle Tommy, steal money from him, and commit a shocking act of prejudice. One officer says, “these (black) people really don’t have the same connections to each other as we do. That’s been scientifically proven. They’re like ants or bees” (p 62). The ultimate message of the book is that injustice can be just as dangerous as black magic.

In conclusion: Victor LaValle did not completely win me over to novellas because I do wish that The Ballad of Black Tom was 200 pages longer. However, I cannot deny that this book packs an extremely powerful punch in only 149 pages. Although I have not read the other novella nominees for the Hugo, Nebula, or Bram Stoker Awards, it’s hard to imagine that any novella could be better than The Ballad of Black Tom. I will definitely be looking for LaValle’s other works, and I look forward to reading what he writes next. I sincerely hope that this is not the last that we see of Black Tom.


  • Lane Robins May 18, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    I have a lot of thoughts about this novella. Too many to put here without spoilers, or just sheer wordiness. I liked this novella with a few caveats. I thought that it was very faithful to the Red Hook plot, and that sort of hampered the story, because the ending was never really in doubt. Only the players. I felt like LaValle’s racist characters (violent, actively malign, dismissive, or institutional) were pushing one theme–that Tom was primitive, unthinking, and dangerous, just by dint of his skin color. And then the ending happened, and it felt like a weird sort of agreement? They made Tom the monster they feared him to be? I found an interesting interview with LaValle where he touched on this.

    It’s funny though that this book left you discontent with novellas, because this is the one that reminded me how much I liked the novella length.

    • Kelly McCarty May 23, 2017 at 11:07 pm

      I somewhat regret reading the novella without reading the Lovecraft story first. I felt like LaValle made me understand how horrific circumstances turned Tom into a monster. The only thing I could think of to compare it to is how Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face in the Batman universe, but I worried that comparing the novella to a comic book would make it sound silly and less intelligent than it is. I think I just have a personal hang-up about novellas.


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