The World Fantasy Awards, prestigious fantasy prizes for the best fantasy fiction published in English during the previous calendar year, are annually awarded at the World Fantasy Convention. That convention is being held this year in San Antonio on November 2-5. One of the award categories is Long Fiction — stories that are between 10,000 and 40,000 words (around 100-160 pages). The nominees in that category are:
- The Ballad of Black Tom ~ Victor LaValle
- The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe ~ Kij Johnson
- Every Heart a Doorway ~ Seanan McGuire
- A Taste of Honey ~ Kai Ashante Wilson
- Bloodybones ~ Paul F. Olson
Four out of the five nominees (all but Bloodybones) also received Nebula and Hugo nominations. It is unprecedented for the same four books to be nominated for those three major speculative fiction awards. This post is the first of a series of reviews of these Long Fiction nominees as well as the other Long Fiction/Novella nominees for the Hugo and Nebula.
He thought of himself as an entertainer. The were others who would have called him a scammer, a swindler, a con, but he never thought of himself this way. No good charlatan ever did.
H.P. Lovecraft was one of the earliest and most influential horror writers. Among other things, he created the Cthulu Mythos. His writing has inspired countless generations of fans and writers. In honor of his contributions to the formation of horror and dark fantasy, the trophy for the World Fantasy Awards was a caricature bust of Lovecraft and those awards were referred to as the “Howard.”
H.P. Lovecraft was a racist. Most of his work is about anxiety over white civilization being under attack by inferior races. And it’s not just subtext: he also wrote a poem entitled “On the Creation of Niggers.“
Many fantasy writers expressed discomfort with being awarded a trophy that featured such an outspoken racist. The World Fantasy Awards recently changed the design of the award. All of this spurred a discussion on Lovecraft and his work. Writers began applying the Lovecraft settings and Cthulu Mythos to minority experiences, co-opting the style or universes of Lovecraft for their own purposes.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is one of those stories. It’s based on The Horror at Red Hook. I’d read a few Lovecraft stories before I read The Ballad of Black Tom (but not The Horror at Red Hook), and I’m a fan of the Cthulu Mythos (I own the board game Eldritch Horror). I looked forward to LaValle’s interpretation.
After I finished the book, I was disappointed. Lovecraft stories are effective at creating a sense of mysterious existential dread, of cosmic horror slightly outside of the reader’s perception, of anxiety and pressure and tension. This book didn’t do that. The protagonist Tom struck me as being more of a cipher than a real person. I felt the same way about the main character in LaValle’s The Changeling, so perhaps there is something about LaValle’s writing style that I do not personally respond to with regards to the characterization of his protagonists. The plot did not feel naturally generated by the personalities or actions of its characters or even from a desire by the author to provide well-plotted thrills (or other emotions) for the reader. Instead, it felt like LaValle had Something to Say and he used Lovecraft’s tropes and universe to say it. I wished the book’s themes had been a more subtle part of an engaging story rather than acting AS the story.
Then I read The Horror at Red Hook. It made me better appreciate The Ballad of Black Tom. The Ballad of Black Tom cleverly subverts the many racist and xenophobic viewpoints of The Horror at Red Hook and provides a sort of commentary on Lovecraft’s overall worldview. While I still believe that The Ballad of Black Tom might have been better if it were longer and contained more of the protagonist’s backstory — or a longer prologue showing the extent of his experience of basis of his knowledge — I had a greater intellectual appreciation of it after reading The Horror at Red Hook.
If you want to read other stuff in this vein, I recommend Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. Or the next book in this series…The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.
My rating: 4 stars