H. P. Lovecraft had a particular style-lots of weirdly descriptive words, edging right up to the description of horrors without ever giving us a clear picture. He also had several themes that he kept coming back to: vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. He had real issues with miscegenation pretty much everyone who wasn’t a white man, including Jews, black people, and people of low class. This fear and influence creeps into almost everything he wrote, and can be a nasty shock to people reading them for the first time.
Author Victor LaValle (who has a pretty Lovecraft-y name himself) grew up reading Howard Phillip Lovecraft, and he didn’t absorb the issues that obsessed the author at first. However, as a young black man it was difficult to overlook. This inspired him to write a story of his own: The Ballad of Black Tom. It deals with vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. Set in New York in 1942, it follows the story of Tommy Tester, a young man who makes his money by making secret deliveries all over the city, as well as by pretending to be a “bluesman” by carrying a guitar and pretending to play in parts of the City where the sight of a black man is a rarity. On the hunt for a good spot, he is approached by a strange old man, and the real adventure begins.
“Ballad” is not a long book-92 pages, but LaValle packs a lot into it-Tommy is a fun character, and the story does manage to create a feeling of cosmic horror around each corner of the City. It’s not a story about that per se and LaValle doesn’t write in the same florid style as Lovecraft, but the flavor is the same, while also delivering a picture of the prejudice and police brutality of the time, issues that we have happily overcome in our own century.
Check it out if you like Lovecraft, historical writing and want to meet an intriguing writing talent.