“People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flatbush Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here.”
Charles Thomas Tester could be called a scammer, a swindler, a con, or a charlatan. He calls himself an entertainer, and hustles for room and board for himself and his father, a middle-aged man made old by back-breaking labour as a bricklayer. Tommy puts on a good appearance in his second-hand suit, hustling the arcane by skirting the rules without ever breaking them. But when he catches the attention of Robert Suydam, a wealthy, reclusive scholar of ancient traditions, he finds himself in deep with New York’s magical underworld. Human and supernatural forces are descending on Red Hook, and Black Tom is caught in the middle.
In Tommy Tester, Victor LaValle has created a flawed but sympathetic character. Though his profession isn’t strictly legal, Tommy’s motives are understandable, and he tries to stay out of the really deep, dark magic. But the idea of making a quick buck gets the better of him when he meets Robert Suydam, and slowly he is drawn into his orbit. Tommy’s father is an honest man, but one who is perhaps too trusting of a system that worked him to the bone, and left him poor and decrepit. Indeed, the relationship between Tommy and Otis is one of the most interesting parts of the story. Sometimes they are a team, and sometimes they are fundamentally at odds in their principles. Nevertheless, he values his father’s advice, and turns often to him for counsel.
LaValle’s dedication reads “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings,” referring to the fact that The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook.” Although he is regarded as a foundational author, as best I can remember, I’ve never read any Lovecraft before. My interests lie more in the realm of science fiction and fantasy than the weird or horror genres, but I decided to request the Oxford University Press Classic Horror Stories from my library to get of sense of his work. I was amply aware that Lovecraft was a eugenicist and a racist, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the level of vitriol I encountered in “The Horror at Red Hook.” Lovecraft describes the immigrant neighbourhood of Red Hook as a “polyglot abyss” and “a maze of hybrid squalor.” But these xenophobic descriptors have nothing on the descriptions he applies to people of colour, from “swarthy, sin-pitted faces” to “squinting physiognomies” and “a hatefully negroid mouth.” His fiction is so permeated by his racist philosophy that he cannot describe a Black or Asian person with spewing vitriol. As Roger Luckhurst puts it in his introduction to the OUP edition of Lovecraft’s stories, the question of race is “not superficial, but integral to his work.”
In LaValle’s retelling, race is equally integral, but explored entirely differently. Though the story is set in 1924, and LaValle recreates the atmosphere of that time, the issues the story addresses feel remarkably relevant today. Facing hostility and even police inquiry into his presence in a white suburb, Tommy observes “Becoming unremarkable, invisible, compliant—these were useful tricks for a black man in an all-white neighbourhood. Survival techniques.” Perhaps the most chilling scene comes with the raid on Parker Place, which addresses the militarization of the police. “At the sight of the heavy machine guns the whole neighborhood gasped as one. These guns were designed to shoot airplanes out of the sky. Much of the local population had fled countries under siege, in the midst of war, and had not expected to find such artillery used against citizens of the United States.” That these passages feel both modern and historical ought to give us pause about the current state of affairs. Much of the horror of this tale comes not from the supernatural elements borrowed from Lovecraft, but from the human interactions: “Mankind didn’t make messes; mankind was the mess.” To some extent, racism becomes the horror at Red Hook.
Lovecraft’s original story doesn’t seem to be regarded as one of his best, even by his hard core admirers. There are lots of guides for where to start in his large oeuvre, but this story rarely makes the list. My local library stocks more than a hundred Lovecraft collections, but only four of them include “The Horror at Red Hook.” But Victor LaValle has managed to take a plodding and shockingly racist story, and spin it into a nuanced exploration both of Lovecraft’s continued influence on the horror genre, and its correlation to the continued strain on race relations in America today.
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