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A Lovecraftian novella on the horrors of police violence against African Americans


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At Public Books, Kinohi Nishikawa, a professor of English and African American studies at Princeton, reviews The Ballad of Black Tom, a wildly inventive and political horror novella by the US fiction writer Victor LaValle. The book is a radical rewrite of the 1927 short story “The Horror at Red Hook” by H. P. Lovecraft. But while Lovecraft’s short story expressed the author’s own racist paranoia about New York’s growing immigrant population, LaValle uses the framework of the story to explore the horrors of police violence against people of color, especially African Americans. As Nishikawa writes,“LaValle employs the paranormal not to reject reality, but to open a portal into the experience of everyday social marginalization.”

Check out an excerpt of the review below, or read the full text here.

Although Tommy takes the place of Suydam in LaValle’s vision of hell, the reader—in a decidedly un-Lovecraftian move—actually empathizes with Black Tom. This is because an even greater horror pervades the novella: namely, that black lives do not matter. Indeed the most horrifying moment in this horror story—Howard’s cool-headed justification for shooting Otis—is all too realistic. “I felt in danger for my life,” Howard recounts, as if reading from a script. “I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded and did it again.” Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, it has become routine—sickeningly so—to bear witness to police shootings of black men, unarmed or lawfully armed, only to then hear law enforcement’s justification for why they committed murder. In these narratives, any action, reaction, or even non-action by a black man warrants violent suppression by the police. In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle turns the very familiarity of these racist clichés into an indictment of how the stories justifying police brutality have themselves become a genre following familiar rules.

As soon as Tommy becomes Black Tom, possessed of the occult power to destroy the world, the novella switches to police officer Malone’s perspective. Lovecraft made Malone an authoritative point of view character. LaValle makes Malone unreliable, a man whose prejudices hinder his investigation and lead to his undoing. At one point, frustrated with pursuing leads in Red Hook, Malone wonders, “Why hadn’t he ever learned how to speak with these people?” Why indeed.