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The Ballad of Black Tom
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2020 books > October 2020 - The Ballad of Black Tom

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message 1: by Z. (last edited Sep 28, 2020 07:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Z. F. (zee_eff) Our October selection is Victor LaValle's horror-tinged 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle's book reframes and expands upon the H.P. Lovecraft short story "The Horror at Red Hook," first published in 1927. Lovecraft, as you may know, was both a hugely influential writer largely responsible for the invention of the "cosmic horror" genre, and a virulent racist even by the standards of his own day. LaValle, meanwhile, is a Black author both fascinated and repulsed by Lovecraft's work.

If you feel up to it I'd suggest reading the original Lovecraft story first (you can find it here or in any number of Lovecraft collections), though, again, be prepared for the racism and xenophobia. You'll be happy to know that LaValle's book is very short, about 150 pages, so even with the extra homework it'll still be less reading than our last two months' selections. 😅

We'll meet to discuss on October 21 at 7 pm CST. Here's the link:

See you then!

message 2: by Z. (new) - rated it 4 stars

Z. F. (zee_eff) If you'd like even more extracurricular content, one of my favorite podcasts recently did an episode about Black or otherwise-marginalized writers grappling with Lovecraft's legacy. The host interviews LaValle and several other authors, though I'll warn you there are some minor spoilers for this book. Here's a link:

Imaginary Worlds Podcast - Episode 148: Inverting Lovecraft

You can also download it through Apple Podcasts or your service of choice.

Kathy | 38 comments Hi Zach, if I come into the library on Monday, will I be able to get a copy of this month’s book? We are finally driving back to STL on Saturday after our pandemic summer spent in New Jersey. Since the book is short, I’ll have time to finish it by Wednesday’s meeting. (Doing my homework now...)

message 4: by Z. (new) - rated it 4 stars

Z. F. (zee_eff) Kathy wrote: "Hi Zach, if I come into the library on Monday, will I be able to get a copy of this month’s book? We are finally driving back to STL on Saturday after our pandemic summer spent in New Jersey. Since..."

Hi Kathy - we've still got copies at the reference desk, so that should be fine! We're open 11 - 5 on Monday, and it's a very easy read. I don't expect it will be a problem for you at all.

Kathy | 38 comments Thanks Zach!

Anne | 57 comments Hot tips for finishing the book in time:

1) have a short book
2) think the meeting is a week before the meeting is actually scheduled

Maybe I’ll watch Lovecraft Country to keep in theme.

message 7: by Rachel (new) - added it

Rachel Hough I'm actually managing to read this one with all of you (on TIME), I'm shocked and amazed at myself. The short length is helping. I'll try to give my impressions on here and make Zach hold me to it.

message 8: by Lucy (new)

Lucy (lucy47) | 167 comments Mod
Rachel, wish you could be there for the Zoom discussion, missed hearing your comments on The Good Lord Bird.
I finished The Ballad... a few days ago, and look forward to discussing it.

message 9: by Z. (last edited Oct 15, 2020 09:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Z. F. (zee_eff) Glad everyone's finding this one easy to get through. I personally finished it in what must be record time for me. Hopefully that'll ease the burden of our back-to-back Blender and Global discussions this month! 😉

message 10: by Z. (new) - rated it 4 stars

Z. F. (zee_eff) Just a reminder to everyone that we will be meeting to discuss The Ballad of Black Tom TONIGHT at 7 CST! See you then!

Here's the link:

message 11: by Z. (new) - rated it 4 stars


1) Did you read the H.P. Lovecraft story prior to the Victor LaValle novel? If not, were you able to follow the novel without that background? Do you think the novel would work as a standalone?

2) Why did LaValle add the Tommy Tester character? What does Tom’s perspective add to the story, and how does it change the message?

3) What about the characters who were in the original story (namely Malone and Suydam)? How did LaValle stay true to their original characterizations, and how did he alter them? What did you make of these white characters in both works?

4) In addition to the key players, “Black Tom” has a number of important side characters. Which of these stood out to you, and why?

5) What are some of the major themes or messages of LaValle’s novel, and how do they contrast with Lovecraft’s? Is “Black Tom” an effective rebuttal of Lovecraft’s prejudiced worldview?

6) Why does Tommy decide to cooperate with the supernatural forces, and why does he commit suicide when the deed is done?

7) Lovecraft and LaValle have very different writing styles. Lovecraft’s prose is extremely ornate, while LaValle’s is stripped-down. How do these styles contribute to their respective stories’ atmosphere and tone?

8) There’s a growing genre of horror books and films rooted in the Black experience (“Get Out,” “Us,” “Antebellum,” etc.). Do you think horror fiction is an effective way to address real-life terrors like racism?

9) Likewise, “Black Tom” is one of many Lovecraftian reimaginings to come out in recent years (see “Lovecraft Country,” the new HBO show based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, which also uses a Lovecraft lens to examine American racism). What benefit is there in reframing old authors in this way, and why is Lovecraft in particular such a popular choice?

10) What other reframed classics have you read (“Wide Sargasso Sea” for “Jane Eyre,” “A Thousand Acres” for “King Lear,” etc.)? What books or authors would you like to see treated in this way?

message 12: by Lucy (new)

Lucy (lucy47) | 167 comments Mod
Well, that's how stupid I am -- the debate is tomorrow p.m.! Sorry for my hasty exit tonight.

message 13: by Rachel (new) - added it

Rachel Hough Sorry about my late reply, the season change is hard on my body!

So, just going to leave some general impressions instead of attempting to answer Zach's discussion questions as I don't have a ton of time!
I read the H.P. Lovecraft story as preparation for this novel and was glad I did, to give it some context and to draw parallels in order to really get a sense about what Lavelle was trying to achieve with a retelling. I was of course disgusted by Lovecraft. He is really just a horrible, bitter, racist little man. I admitted to Zach I couldn't understand why he was so popular, as there are plenty of creative people who aren't xenophobic that I can appreciate freely.
I tried to put myself in Lavelle's shoes when I read the book--why he was so fascinated with taking a story like Lovecraft's and instead of putting it where it belongs (in a dark dusty corner never to be seen again), he retells instead. I often have this problem with modern adaptations of things (Hamilton for example) because there are so many artists being ignored who don't have a racist past we have to ignore or retell or hide somewhere in our minds. But I tried and I think I understood better why which is a testament to Lavelle's talent. I definitely loved the first half of the story, Black Tom's profession of choice was so great, his casual disinterest in the very wares he peddled, how he was never a victim to racism but only a player in it, how he had his own unique voice and wasn't just a set piece for a story about race. I liked his self awareness and his clear minded choices. I also really liked his "downfall" if you will, why he made the choice to work with Suydam made a lot of sense to me as a reaction to something out of his control and a means to take back power/control.
What I didn't like about the book was Malone's characterization. I just didn't get why Lavelle had to make him more empathetic and more "sensitive" in this one. He could have remained what he was in the original story and been a stronger character with a stronger examination about racism. I guess I did appreciate the nuance, something a lot of stories about racism do lack. I didn't mind the perspective switch halfway, because it did add tension to the last scene of Black Tom leaving out of the magiked doorway.
I have so much more to say but those are my general impressions and I want to stop myself before I really get going. Hope you make sense of it!

message 14: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne | 57 comments Pulled this up last night but didn't finish reading until tonight--a great encapsulation, as Rachel says, of a horrible, bitter, racist little man and how elevating and attempting to "separate" his racism from his writing is both impossible and harmful. I hadn't gotten to the Michael Brown connection last night either and definitely had so many white people tell me at the time (and since) that Wilson was "so scared" and Michael Brown must have been "so aggressive" to have provoked the murder. I guess indifference would have been better in this case as well :(

Thanks for sharing, Rachel.

message 15: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne | 57 comments

I guess I can include the link this time.

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