What It’s About
Charles Thomas Tester is a Black man and a bit of a dreamer. Working as a consummate hustler, he has long shrugged off his father’s warnings about the dangers that white people pose.
Thomas believes in magic, however—the magic of money—so when a rich white man offers him an absurd amount of cash to play music at a private event, Thomas accepts. Little does he realizes that the price for this “magic” comes at the expense of all he holds dear, or that his rich white patron is dabbling in dangerous magic of a different sort.
It would be difficult to give a BALLAD OF BLACK TOM summary without dipping into spoilers, especially since this is one of those books where I feel the mystery hits better when it comes as a surprise.
A quiet narrative that sneaks up on you with inexplicable, growing dread, THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM is rife with an everyday sort of horror that draws directly from the racial horror of 20th Century America. The internal voice of Charles Thomas Tester, how he feels about the world around him, and how he operates within it immediately caught my attention.
The plot itself took a little more time, but once I was hooked, I was hooked. I’m still thinking about it, actually, months after I read the novel. So I’d say this story has some staying power for sure.
The fact that I didn’t immediately gel with the plot is no fault of the book’s, and I say this because I think I went into it with mismatched expectations. BLACK TOM is a novella, so I expected a quicker pace. Horror effuses the pages right from the get-go, but I guess I was looking for more Lovecraftian elements upfront.
My mismatch over the pacing aside: Victor LaValle’s interview with NPR really expands on where LaValle was coming from when writing this book, and the sources of inspiration. It gives great insight into LaValle’s entire process, too.
The conclusion to this novella was fantastic: unflinching, brutal, and harsh.
Would I Recommend This Book To Others?
If you like Lovecraftian fiction (especially fiction that deconstructs Lovecraft’s racism), then yes, absolutely. My only caveat is that the book is potentially upsetting with its vivid, on-page depictions of police brutality. Things can get pretty dark.