I've said before I'm not a Lovecraft fan. Besides his personal beliefs that are repugnant, I find most of his stories hard to get into. I did read him though due to his being the creator of Chulthu. Most modern horror writers pay homage to him in their works so it's nice to get a good base of what they are drawing from.
LaValle's "The Ballad of Black Tom" takes one of Lovecraft's short stories "The Horror at Red Hook" and twists it. I want to high five LaValle for having the main character to be a 20 year old African American man too (especially considering Lovecraft's racism) who in the end die to what actions have taken against him would be the bringer of the end of humanity as we know it.
Charles Thomas Tester (Tommy) does what he can to take care of himself and his father. Since his mother has died, Charles father has aged practically overnight and barely seems part of the world. Living in Harlem during the Jazz Age has different meaning to African Americans. LaValle smartly gives readers quick looks into the small and big slights made against Tommy and others who are not white. When Tommy takes some work to deliver a book to a very odd woman, there begins an action that will leave repercussions for Charles.
I do love that LaValle in the second part of the story focused the POV on Detective Thomas Malone (a character that appears in Lovecraft's story too). I loathe Malone. He wants an understanding of the occult and things he can see on the periphery of the world. But is indifferent to the immigrants, African Americans and other races he walks among in Red Hook. He and a private investigator end up entwined with Tommy due to actions they take and I'm probably a terrible person for enjoying what ends up becoming of that character and Malone.
We also get another character from the Lovecraft story (Robert Suydam) who wants to free the African Americans other immigrants from the world they live in. I also took delight into what becomes of him too.
The writing was lyrical to me. I could picture everything while reading. LaValle managed to transport me back to an earlier and uglier time in our country's history. When Tommy turns away from what he knows after a terrible blow I got it. The book is gruesome in parts so if you have a weak stomach you may want to skip it.
" Walking through Harlem first thing in the morning was like being a single drop of blood inside an enormous body that was waking up. Brick and mortar, elevated train tracks, and miles of underground pipe, this city lived; day and night it thrived."
"He decided to play a role that always worked on whites. The Clueless Negro."
"Tell me my father's dead and I'm going to take a I swing at you, Mr. Howard said. But these people really don't have the same connections I to each other as we do. That's been scientifically proven. They're like ants or bees. Mr. Howard waved one hand at the building beside them. That's why they can live like this."
"I'll take Chulthu over you devils any day."
The ending was great and LaValle leaves you with a sense of a ticking clock on humanity and Tommy's own soul.