Victor LaValle has a knack for colliding the mundane and the horrific in works that marry fantasy with social realism. In his last novel, The Devil in Silver, the uncanny horrors of an asylum are shown to be the product of late-capitalist decline. His latest offering, a novella called The Ballad of Black Tom, continues this journey into darkness with a “love letter-slash-rebuke” to H.P. Lovecraft, the progenitor of a particular brand of dark fantasy, and an author who is enjoying a kind of revival that remembers his work while reviling his racism.
The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s “The Horror of Red Hook.” While absent Lovecraft’s most famous monster, Cthulhu, “The Horror at Red Hook” features vague glimpses of supernatural horrors, “half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” But these supernatural horrors are clearly symbols for Lovecraft’s more mundane terrors: the increasingly diverse inhabitants of New York. Red Hook’s real horror, for Lovecraft, “is a babel of sound and filth,” a population that is “a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another.” This supernatural horror as allegory for virulent racism is what has increasingly tarnished Lovecraft’s legacy, and what makes LaValle’s rebuke so sharp.
Unlike Lovecraft’s story, The Ballad of Black Tom is resistant, like all of LaValle’s work, to allegory. Black Tom, both the hero and the villain of this novella, delivers LaValle’s rebuke to Malone, the police officer who is the protagonist of “The Horror at Red Hook,” and who shares the center of LaValle’s revision with Black Tom himself. Tommy Tester, as Black Tom is known at the beginning of the book, is seduced by the supernatural in part out of a desire for revenge. A small-time, self-described hustler, Tommy lands on the wrong side of a pair of detectives, who turn out to represent a much more terrifying evil than any ancient god, killing Tommy’s father in his bed and justifying the killing by claiming to have seen a gun. This murder, sanctioned by the same ugliness that motivated Lovecraft’s work, quite explicitly drives Tommy to Lovecraft’s supernatural realm, “Outside,” a terrifying world invisible to those without knowledge of the occult. At the end, Tommy, now Black Tom, tells Malone, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”
I spoke with LaValle about his lexicon of horror and how it shapes his thinking about narrative and language (during a reading at McNally Jackson promoting his novel Big Machine, he screened 12 minutes of John Carpenter’s The Thing). Representing monsters is one of LaValle’s strengths, from the Devils of the Marsh in Big Machine to the buffalo-headed demon that torments New Hyde hospital in The Devil in Silver. Not surprisingly, LaValle’s monster references come from an exhaustive knowledge of horror. “A few summers ago I reread the first six or seven Stephen King novels,” he told me. “In Salem’s Lot, there’s a moment when the main character finally, finally, finally sees the vampire, the count. And he does this amazing thing. He’s brought you — with all the tension — up to the house, this abandoned house, and then the guy breaks into the house, and he’s going up the stairs, and then there’s the moment when it appears — and I’ve noticed he does this all the time — he then picks a thing that is disgusting or horrifying, or weird, but is completely normal, realist…So he might say, the Count came out and it felt like when a cat licks you on the back of your hand with its tongue. It burns at your skin and sort of cuts. And the point is not that he’s seven feet tall and has fangs, it’s that you probably know what this feeling of the cat tongue is, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. And it’s visceral.”
That visceral horror of suggestion is quite different from Lovecraft, who tends toward the overblown: “In the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved.” This couldn’t be more of a departure from Tommy Tester’s Harlem cool: “This is how you hustle the arcane.” I ask about this contrast, and about Lovecraft’s appeal. I began reading him in my early teens, as did LaValle, yet if I tried to include prose like Lovecraft’s in my courses for first- and second-year college students, I’m sure they would rebel. LaValle theorizes that Lovecraft’s tone — “someone who comes in and says, like, ‘THE WORLD IS SO BIG!!!!’” — is “not cool” for people at the skeptical ages of 19 or 20: “I had friends who would laugh at me at 14 or whatever because I loved Lovecraft, and then they turn around and love The Smiths. And it’s the same thing!”
LaValle’s horror lexicon allows The Ballad of Black Tom to pay homage to its source, while also transcending Lovecraft’s own paranoia, in which throngs of immigrants overrun the good, “Aryan,” in his word, inhabitants of New York, using supernatural horrors as allegory for overwhelming racist paranoia. I ask whether LaValle thinks that good horror is possible without Lovecraftian allegory, without a pathological fear: “I can’t think of any good horror, any horror that has lasted with me that isn’t based on some kind of ugly terror.” But LaValle expects more of existential terror: “One of the reasons that ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ is not one of his best is because he doesn’t do quite enough of the magic.” Pathological fear should be universal, LaValle thinks. “His really good stories, are also about a lot of fear, but the fear might be about the fear of the scientific revolution going on at the time. Even if he loved it and he was himself an atheist, it still rattled him to find out, or have proof of the insignificance of humanity in the larger realm of things. But by embodying it in Cthulhu or in the Old Ones and all this stuff, he finds a way to not just have a guy sit around saying, like, ‘isn’t it crazy! We’re insignificant!’”
The racism underlying “Red Hook” is too parochial to resonate; LaValle’s paraphrase is apt: “I’m being rattled in my cage by my fear of non-whites, and my fear of human insignificance. Here’s a giant octopus head.” LaValle’s assertion of ownership doesn’t supersede Lovecraft, but rather situates him, forcing him out into the violent, messy world he was so afraid of, showing him what’s really frightening.
LaValle’s current work-in-progress is about the particular, modern terrors of the Internet, dealing with fears at once more benign and ubiquitous than the monsters of The Devil in Silver and The Ballad of Black Tom. The new book is about parents posting pictures of their children on Facebook, something he does regularly. “It’s about the technology but really even more particularly it’s about what are the ways that we volunteer to lose control or we choose to open a door to monsters. You know, a vampire can’t enter your home unless you invite it in, that kind of thing.” True to form, however, LaValle is quick to see through any moralizing about whether or not parents invite and thus deserve these monsters. Such moralism, LaValle observes, “is a way of policing each other,” and, in particular, a way of policing women. In the new book, “the father is more often than not applauded or rewarded for exactly the things that the mother is punished for.”
Finally, I ask whether we will see more work in this LaValle-Lovecraft universe. LaValle has said elsewhere that, although he intended Tommy Tester to die at the end of The Ballad of Black Tom, his editor suggested he leave things in a more ambiguous place. LaValle’s response is profoundly revealing in its reckoning with Lovecraft — not only the world he created, but the world in which he lived. While he expresses enthusiasm for supernatural ghost stories, the real monsters, the ones to which LaValle lays the strongest claim, are not imaginary: “There would be a certain pleasure in expanding that universe and continuing the story, continuing a story. And certainly there’s tons of ghosts. But there’s also human violence. So much violence. So many people getting shot up. Cut. Drowned. Die of drink. Die of cocaine. All this great stuff. What if you could take all of that in, Lovecraft too, and just say, ‘all of this is mine.’”