The Ballad of Black Tom
When I reviewed Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country, Jenny mentioned another novella coming out that combined Lovecraftian horror with the horror of racism, so of course I had to find a copy of that as soon as it came out, Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.
Set in jazz age New York City, The Ballad of Black Tom is about the past. But because it begins with those who move to New York “looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here,” it also ends up being about the future, when “the world will be remade for Him, and His kind….I don’t know how long it’ll take. Our time and their time isn’t counted the same. Maybe a month? Maybe a hundred years? All this will pass. Humanity will be washed away.” So the author traps the naive reader who might want to believe that the kind of treatment the protagonist Tom and his father receive is because of racism that’s all in the past.
This is the kind of treatment Tom’s father received:
“Otis Tester had earned a Negro’s wage, not a white man’s, as was common in 1924, and even that money was withheld if the foreman sometimes wanted a bit more in his pocket. What was a Negro going to do? Complain to whom? There was a union, but Negroes weren’t allowed to join. Less money and erratic pay were the job. Just as surely as mixing the mortar when laborers didn’t show up to do it. The companies that’d hired Otis Tester, that’d always assured him he was one of them, had filled his job the same day his body finally broke down.”
And this is the kind of treatment Tom receives for having the temerity to take a train out to Queens:
“The farther Tommy Tester rode into Queens the more conspicuous he became. Far fewer Negroes lived in Flushing than in Harlem. Tommy bumped his hat slightly lower on his head. The conductor entered the car twice, and both times he stopped to make conversation with Tommy. Once to ask if he was a musician, knocking the guitar case as if it were his own, and the second time to ask if Tommy had missed his stop. The other passengers feigned disinterest even as Tommy saw them listening for his replies. Tommy kept the answers simple: “Yes sir, I play guitar” and “No sir, got a couple more stops still.” Becoming unremarkable, invisible, compliant—these were useful tricks for a black man in an all-white neighborhood. Survival techniques.”
Tom forgets these techniques for a moment when he is surprised by a private detective named Malone and a cop named Howard, who “kept his hand on Tommy’s neck….Up in Harlem they called this grip John’s Handshake.” They take the money that a mysterious Mr. Robert Suydam has given him and tell him to go home.
When he takes the same train towards Queens in the evening after the sun is down, it’s even worse:
“Throughout the train car people squinted at him. At four different times white men asked him exactly where he was going. These weren’t offers to help him get there. If he didn’t have an exact location—Robert Suydam’s mansion on Martense Street–he believed he would’ve been thrown off the train. Or under it.
When he arrived at the station, he was trailed by three loud-talking young men. The loud talk concerned Tommy. Tommy tried his best not to listen to it because he knew they were trying to scare him. If he shouted back, turned to fight, that would be the end of the night, no money earned, just a trip to jail.”
After Tommy’s visit to the mysterious Mr. Suydam, where he learns a little about the Supreme Alphabet and the “sleeping king,” he meets Malone and Howard again, and Malone tells him that his father is dead.
“Outwardly Tester took the news with great calm. Inwardly he felt the sun close its distance from the earth; it came near enough to melt the great majority of Tommy’s internal organs. A fire ran through his body, but he couldn’t show it. He couldn’t open his mouth to ask what happened to Otis, because he’d forgotten he had a mouth. He stood there as blank as a stone.”
Howard, observing Tom’s lack of reaction, says “Tell me my father’s dead and I’m going to take a swing at you,” Mr. Howard said. ‘But these 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.” He then goes on to reveal that he broke into Otis’ house and emptied his revolver into the old man, who was sitting on a bed holding a guitar. Tom thinks of his night with Robert Suydam and “the breathless terror with which the old man spoke of the Sleeping King. A fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naïve….What was indifference compared to malice? ‘Indifference would be such a relief,’ Tommy said.”
After Malone and Tom see each other through a portal in Suydam’s house, it becomes clear to the reader that the order of events in this world and the timeline through the portal are skewed. Malone begins hearing about “a Negro heretofore unknown in the crime logs of Brooklyn. He acted as Suydam’s mouthpiece….Black Tom is what they all call him.”
In a magnificently over-the-top and Lovecraftian payback scene, Black Tom gives Malone “John’s Handshake,” writes the Supreme Alphabet in Howard’s blood, cuts Suydam’s throat, and makes Malone witness all the horror he is unleashing:
“I bear a hell within me,” Black Tom growled. “And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.”
“You’re a monster, then,” Malone said.
“I was made one.”
Through a portal, Malone sees a figure with
“enormous features—a face, or the perversion of one. The upper portions of its visage smooth like the dome of a man’s skull, but below the eyes the face pulsed and curled, tentacles, tendrils. Eyelids the size of unfurled sails remained, blessedly, shut, but they quivered as if to open.”
“No more!” Malone wailed, closing his eyes. “I don’t want to see!”
Soon enough, however, Black Tom literally cuts off Malone’s eyelids.
“Try to shut them now,” Black Tom said. “You can’t choose blindness when it suits you. Not anymore.”
Malone is forced to retire but the terror of Black Tom’s final scene stays with him. When he looks at clouds, he sees “a pair of inhuman eyes…shining like starlight” and he hears “the last words Black Tom whispered… I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”
Black Tom, “the former Charles Thomas Tester,” is now able to “move through time and dimension,” which is why the events of the story taking place in our past is no excuse for complacency on the part of the reader.