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The Ballad of Black Tom

Narrated by: Kevin R. Free
Length: 3 hrs and 9 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (901 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

People move to New York looking for magic, and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas 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 black skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their trained cops.

But when he delivers an occult page 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?

©2016 Victor LaValle (P)2016 Macmillan Audio

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  • Jason
  • United States
  • 05-24-16

One of the best books I've heard all year.

Utilizing some of the established Lovecraftian mythos almost as an afterthought, Victor LaValle spins his tale in a manner so engrossing that you lose yourself in the New York of yesteryear.

By the end of the tale, you're unsure exactly who to root for- Black Tom or the world he would destroy- and the story's monsters are so vile and detestable that you'll find yourself wishing they were supernatural.

My highest possible recommendation- both for story and for Kevin R. Free's nuanced storytelling.
Five of Five stars- in all categories.

12 of 13 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Cosmic horror for the modern reader.

The story builds pace rather quickly and grips the reader. Very unlike the slow burn lovecraftian horror I was expecting. However, it slows down towards the mid point but picks up again a little later.

The prose is fantastically written, Victor Lavalle's prose is like poetry but never feels over done.

The only gripe I have with this book, is that it kind of fizzles out and never does end properly. But then again, it's horror on a cosmic scale, us puny humans wouldn't get it anyway.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Good Start Sloppy Finish

This was a decent listen, I must say listening to the source material first (H.P. Lovecraft's The Horror at Red Hook) makes this far more enjoyable -at least the first half anyway. Not to mention since this story is supposed to be about Tom I would have much preferred the whole book focus on Tom's story instead of only giving us half of a story about Tom. After the first half of the book the end feels rushed as if the author just wanted to move on to something else.

Anyhow, the narrator is pretty talented. I wish he'd voiced Malone differently, but that may have to do with the way the character has been written in this book. Tom and everyone else is handled pretty well in my opinion though.
So not an amazing book, but a decent enough ride that I'd say it's worth listening too.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Worth a listen

A great plot and one of Lavalle's better works...the actor did a great job embodying the voices of the characters.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A Perfect response to Mr Lovecraft.

Wow. Just wow. Have you ever read any Lovecraft and loved his mythos but wished he were a better writer and not such a xenophobic twat? Read Lovecraft's 'The Horror at Red Hook'....then read this. It's spectacular.

11 of 14 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Great twist on a genre

This is well worthy your time. The author does a great job of using New York City as a backdrop for a complex story that takes Lovecraft racial hysteria and turns it on his head.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Absorbing, sad, and uncanny Lovecraftian tale of an outsider from Harlem

This story does a lot in a short space but never loses its cool focus. The author played with all the tropes just right to dig into the atmosphere, the character, and the unknowable, untameable, supernatural forces at play. Having blues music (its lyrics, its power, its emotion, its loss, its use as plot lure for the protagonist as musician) merge with a well-paced Lovecraftian tale of temptations and mistakes was a treat, and that state of segregation and blatant racism from whites with blacks and chinese and whoever else deemed foreign and as low as a beast in society of that time is emphasized by, and helps to emphasize, the sense of dangerous boundaries, of being an outsider and of having outside forces lurking in the corner of our lives. But besides these societal and Lovecraftian forces at play, we also have the protagonist's personal relationships and self-awareness bringing in a sad, touching thread of humanity struggling to survive its fall. I also enjoyed having the story flip to another character's view in the middle to give us another layer to the horror. Highly recommended listen. The narrator was spot on, and gave justice to different character accents. Get it.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Entertaining

I liked the idea and the writing was good. The narrative and the voice seemed at odds in some passages. Those looking for Lovecraftian horror should pass on this one. it is a supernatural detective story with some light 'old gods' backstory.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

“I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day”

Victor LaValle’s award-winning novella The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) is an entertaining and scathing pastiche of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Rock” (1925), at once laying bare the invidious racism of the source story and out-Lovecrafting it.

Lovecraft’s story depicts the “hellish revelation” experienced by Thomas F. Malone, a sensitive white 42-year-old NYC policeman who’s interested in folklore and hence drawn to Brooklyn’s Red Hook slum: “a babel of sound and filth” full of “spiritual putrescence” and “the blasphemies of an hundred dialects” and modern crimes as well as sins handed down from pre-Aryan and even pre-human fertility rites, all due to the mongrel hybrid nature of the legal and illegal immigrant denizens--blacks, Asians, Syrians, Italians, and their like--the worst of whom are some mongoloid devil-worshipers. The story climaxes beneath the streets of NYC in a vast basement under a dilapidated Red Hook tenement, wherein a Babylonian revel takes place featuring said immigrants, a black magic orgy, white child sacrifice, Lilith, hell’s organ, a foul resurrection, a police raid, and a passive eye witness (Malone, who wants to believe it was all a dream).

LaValle’s reworking of that story highlights its racism. His novella is comprised of two parts, the first of which is told from the point of view of the 20-year-old African American hustler Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester. Living in Harlem in 1924, Tommy knows that if he worked a typical job open to a black man he’d never earn much money and would be broken by hard, unprotected labor, like his slowly dying former bricklayer 41-year-old father. So Tommy plays the role of “the dazzling, down-and-out [negro] musician,” (even though he has no musical talent and knows only three songs) in neighborhoods where black performers are rare, thereby attracting white attention so as to be chosen for “arcane” courier work or similar jobs, earning more money in a night or two than his father could earn in a year or two.

In the opening scene Tommy delivers an ominous yellow book (The Supreme Alphabet) to one Ma Att in Queens, minus the last page, which he’s had his illiterate father remove so as to render the compact tome useless for its infernal intended purpose. This flawed product will play a role later in the story. Tommy then is hired by an eccentric wealthy old white man named Robert Suydam to play at a party at his mansion in a few days. Suydam is being monitored by NYC police Detective Thomas F. Malone (tall and thin) and private detective Mr. Howard (short and wide), who tell Tommy to return to Harlem and stay there where he belongs. The story, in Lovecraftian spirit, will soon provide Tommy with some revelations into the true reality lurking beneath the everyday world, but will also make him confront the worst reality of racism.

The scenes where Tommy takes the train into white neighborhoods like Queens and Flatbush are fascinating, darkly humorous, and horrible (without requiring cosmic Lovecraftian horror), as he’s constantly questioned by white conductors and passengers as to his destination, followed by white teens intent on beating him up, forced to play “the simple Negro” and to become “unremarkable, invisible, compliant” to avoid being lynched or arrested, and so on.

The second part of the story shifts to the point of view of Detective Malone (the white protagonist of Lovecraft’s story) as the would be seeker after occult lore becomes ever more aware that something ominous is happening in Red Hook and is finally made to stop shutting his eyes (literally!) on the terrors lurking behind the veil of everyday reality.

La Valle introduces into Lovecraft’s “story” an awful villain in Howard, a racist white ex-cop from Texas who acts and talks not unlike some of the more recent real-world white policemen who shoot unarmed black men to death and then say they feared for their lives. He also introduces Ma Att, a demonic female from Karnak who may possess an extraordinarily long body and tail. He writes more about Robert Suydam, making him the target of greedy relatives out to prove him insane so as to get at his wealth. He plays up the role of the raiding NYC police in the destruction of the tenements rented by Suydam in the climax. (Browning anti-aircraft machine guns!) He also adds a fair amount of graphic gore in the climax. (A straight-edge razor!) And he leaves out the rejuvenation, marriage, and temporary resurrection of Suydam.

Finally, LaValle’s additions and subtractions and refocusings of Lovecraft’s story and his writing of his own story all work to pose an excellent question: if there are Great Old Ones who care nothing for humanity, wouldn’t they be preferable to the small-minded evil hostility of racists? To quote Tommy’s great line, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.” Indeed, one of the most impressive parts of the novella is the waking of the powerless Tommy Tester into the prodigious Black Tom.

LaValle is especially good with irony and humor, e.g., “A negro walking through this white neighborhood at damn near midnight? He might as well be Satan strolling through Eden.” He can outwrite Lovecraft, as when you compare his description of Suydam’s hair (“his hair blew out wildly like a dandelion’s soft white blowball”) with HP’s (“unkempt white hair”). LaValle’s vivid depiction of Tommy’s first entrance into Suydam’s creepy mansion (bigger inside than out, floorboards splintered and parched, the winds of the present not blowing there, and an invisible something following him and kicking his guitar case) is more uncanny than anything in Lovecraft’s story.

Kevin R. Free gives a great, savory and intelligent reading of the novella.

Fans of Lovecraft uncomfortable with his racism should like LaValle’s story, as should people interested in the savory side of 1920s NYC, cosmic horror, and authentic depictions of the racism once rampant and still too present in America.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

loved it

great short story. really got the 1920's feel with the attitude of cops in NY. painted a beautiful tapestry of life in Harlem independent of what was going on in other parts of the city.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Beccameriel
  • 12-01-16

Quirky Lovecraftian horror

An interesting short story that provides a corrective to the vile racism of Lovecraft's Horror at Red Hook. It's atmospheric and well-written but possibly best enjoyed if you are already a fan of Lovecraftian weird fiction.

Well narrated by Kevin R. Free

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Donna
  • 02-09-17

Different but in a good way.

Enjoyed reading something I had to think about especially the underlying story which was very sad but believable.

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  • Josh
  • 06-20-16

Amazing

Once again Lavalle delivers an awesome story. It’s weird and creepy and entertaining and a little messed up.

Definitely worth listening to!