Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle | #SpooktasticReads

Genre : Historical Fiction, Horror

Publisher : Tordotcom

Length : 149 pages

Format : Audiobook, ebook

Rating : 4 stars

Publication Date : February 16th 2016

Publisher’s Description

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

Book Review

Charles Thomas Tester or Tommy, is a young black man living in Harlem in the 1920’s. Some people call him a swindler but Tommy sees himself as an artist. He usually wears an old suit and empty guitar case, both innocuous enough to blend in when needed.

Tommy’s new job is to bring an occult tome to a client who may or may not be human. Sensing that the book isn’t quite ordinary, Tommy decides to keep the last page to himself. However, he doesn’t expect that small act to bring him to the attention of people he usually prefers to avoid at all cost: the police and rich white people. And the only one who might be able to protect him is an elder god living on another world.

The Ballad of Black Tom is LaValle’s own take on Lovecraftian horror and more specifically on one of his short stories called The Horror at Red Hook.

I have been meaning to read this novella for years and Spooktastic Reads was the perfect opportunity to do so. The fact that it was available as an audiobook on Scribd was another sign that I should it pick it up. I don’t know if listening to a horror story before going to bed is a sign of courage or stupidity on my part but, it was a great way to experience this creepy and atmospheric novella.

I really enjoyed the setting of The Ballad of Black Tom, I have not read a lot of stories set in New York but, I had such a great time with this one that the moment I finished it, I started When No One is Watching, another horror book set in New York! LaValle’s description of New York were so vivid that it almost seemed like it was its own character.

“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.”

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle

Speaking of characters, I loved reading from the perspective of Tommy; his character development from Tommy to Black Tom was fascinating and his relationship with his dad was beautiful and heartbreaking. Some of the white characters felt like caricatures (especially Robert Suydam) but, the book wasn’t really about them anyway so I didn’t care.

The atmosphere was also great, it was cool to see how a story that started as a historical fiction story with a few magical elements slowly morphed into a Lovecraftian tale. Though, I will say that the real horror of the story has nothing to do with Cthulhu and everything to do with being a black man at this time, with being seen as a monster by every single white people in the street. All the interactions that Tommy had with the police (or with white people in general) were frankly disturbing. One scene at the end of the first part made me so angry that I wanted to jump into the book to strangle a few people. I even had to stop reading for a while to calm down.

My only issue with this book was the pacing. I really liked the first part of the story but, the moment the perspective changed, the story felt rushed. A couple of transitions were awkward and the last action scene ended so quickly that I had to listen to it again to understand what had happened. I tend to lose focus easily while listening to audiobooks but still, I was only distracted for a few minutes and I missed all the big events. I’m not sure this particular format suited the story. I think it would have worked better as a longer novella, even 10 to 15 pages more would have allowed the story to “breathe” a bit more.

However, even if it wasn’t perfect, I’m glad I finally read The Ballad of Black Tom. It is a creepy and disturbing story that ought to be read by many.

Four stars.

“Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!”


Art by Sergey Nivens from

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle | #SpooktasticReads

  1. I saw this book on another post, and was intrigued by the cover: now that I know more about the story, I’m convinced I would love to read it – if that first quote you shared is a good example of the writing style, I know I will enjoy it quite a bit. And it’s the right season for this kind of tale, isn’t it? 😉
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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