Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom
by Victor LaValle
Review by Mida

A retelling of Lovecraft’s ‘Horror at Red Hook’ but with a young Black man as our focal character.

This slow-burn story delicately crafts suspense and perfectly maintains the terror of the unknown that the Lovecraftian horror genre is known for. I shuddered while reading, which is just what you want from a story like this! 

Tackling issues of police brutality, classism and racism with an unapologetic and angry hand, this story is full of emotion, making us feel pity for the demonized characters in the works that inspired it. Tom is very much an antihero, but he has no other choice. The true dangers of this story are not just the ‘deities’ but the cold, corrupt human forces – namely the police – that our main character comes up against. You feel his exhaustion, exasperation, anger and sense of betrayal as the institutions that are supposed to protect him instead leave him vulnerable, or hurt those who he is close to.

The setting is grounded, gritty and real, with environments so vividly described that I feel like I’ve seen them in a photograph. Each is distinct and unique, yet they’re tiny glimpses, which accentuates the horror of the unknown.

This adaptation really feels like a love letter to the genre. It captures the feeling of creeping horror in Lovecraft’s work but also feels a lot like ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, with Tom starting with no knowledge of this hidden world that he stumbles into, and slowly turning into the ‘villain’ through very little of his volition.

While any lover of horror is going to have some mixed feelings around Lovecraft, this book is a fitting tribute to the genre, addressing some of the problems that the original work has while still displaying love and respect for the genre. Anyone who is a fan of horror or wants to dip their toe in should read this.