The Ballad of Black Tom


Victor LaValle


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

June 26 2021

he Ballad of Black Tom certainly has an impressive list of credentials. Nominated for best novella by the 2017 Hugo Awards, the 2016 Nebula Awards and the 2017 Locus Awards, this 149 page story also made NPR's list of best books for 2016. Yet despite that great praise, I was not greatly impressed by the story. It is meant to be a "Lovecraft" style of a tale, with the hints of ancient malevolent gods that lurk at the boundaries of experience. But I found this novella failed to convey the same atmosphere of cosmic dread and creeping horror found in the original Lovecraft tales.

Tommy is a young black man living in Harlem in the 1920s. He roams the city, hoping to perform minor scams, strumming his guitar, trying to make enough money to support himself and his dad, who is retired and lives with him. But a hustler can only make money if the people on the streets have money to give him, so Tommy leaves Harlem and ventures in Brooklyn, and other white enclaves. Naturally, Tommy runs afoul of tough talking, corrupt policemen, who try to scare him back to Harlem. But while the cops are hassling Tommy, a wealthy white man approaches them. This is Robert Suydam. He hires Tommy to come and play his guitar at an upcoming party. Suydam offers Tommy $400 - a tremendous sum in those days. Tommy ventures into Suydam's house prior to the party, and discovers that the home has some decidedly strange aspects to it. Is Suydam a sorcerer? It seems that the doors and windows in Suydam's house don't always connect to our world.

Despite the huge promised payday, Tommy considers not playing at Suydam's party - the house is just that weird. But then tragedy strikes, and Tommy is angry enough to do anything.

At 149 pages, this is a quick read, so it is an okay way to spend a few hours (I read it on an airplane ride). But I wasn't impressed enough to look for more of LaValle's work.