“That slippery science has made me so bare
That I have no possessions, wherever I fare!”
—The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, VIII, 732-733
Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale is set in “the old days of King Arthur” (III, 857). In the past, she says, fairies and the elf queen roamed about, enchanting the land with their very presence. This, after all, is why we still tell stories of this mystical past. The present, by contrast—and in a typically-Chaucerian joke—leaves women travelling around with only one thing to fear: the sexual advances of licentious friars. Past terrors were singularly attractive and mesmerizing, if dangerous, while modern ones are tedious, fleshly, and uninspired. The Wife’s tale must be set in the days of Camelot, because “now no man can see any more elves” (III, 864).
Writing at the cusp of what has come to be called “modernity,” Chaucer expresses an idea that is still very much with us; he clues us in to an instinct that survives primarily in our works of genre fiction: horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Texts like Tolkien’s “The Smith of Wootton Major,” Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun carry us away to some past or future, some distinctly different world, in which sacrality and magic remain. In doing so, they reckon with what Max Weber famously called modernity’s power to “disenchant,” the ways in which post-medieval life seems devoid of obvious meaning, sense, or suspense. It is no surprise, then, that many religious authors have found genre fiction a powerful outlet for the sacramental imagination. These men and women have used imaginative works to inch us back toward belief, if not in one God, then at least in a created world. Through horror and science fiction the depths of the human soul can be probed even as tinges of the spiritual are re-implanted into mundane modern existence.
Many such writers, however, are not Catholic, or even religious. Investigating their texts is of supreme importance for us today as we continue to imagine a post-secular future through literature. One of these, The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, is particularly worth investigating for the way that it builds upon the history of horror fiction. It speaks to the past in what we might call a traditional way; it deals with “what has been handed down,” and in doing so offers a trenchant analysis of modern social dynamics through chthonic violence. While not an explicitly-Christian book, thinking with the novella allows modern Catholics to address more clearly how horror fiction might help us look backward to the pre-modern even as we push forward through secular modernity into, we hope, a more enchanted world. It offers us, in other words, a meditation on both the past and the future, and, in doing so, invites us to do the same for ourselves.
The Ballad of Black Tom is a rewriting of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook.” It is in this sense that it can be said to re-imagine the past, specifically the ways in which the past itself tried to imagine a more-mystical world. What sort of universe does Lovecraft’s story imagine? The answer is obvious from its epigraph:
There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead. (“The Horror at Red Hook”)
“The Horror at Red Hook” imagines that modernity has not so much destroyed the old ways as it has papered over them. Magic remains among the forgotten, impoverished peoples of the non-Western world, whose ancient myths and rituals preserve power of which they are only dimly aware. In the American context, this means that such dark arts are preserved only among amorphous groups of immigrants, in this case, in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. The narrator does not hide his contempt for the unknowing bearers of such arcane knowledge:
From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion. (“The Horror at Red Hook”)
Squalid and poor, supreme wisdom is lost on them. As a result, they require the discerning mind of a Western man, who can combine an understanding of the occult with his superior analytic abilities to harness these preternatural powers. The protagonist of the tale, Thomas Malone, plays this role well enough. Malone is a police detective, sharp-witted, but separate from his colleagues. A loner, this officer of the law does not quite fit in among his fellows because of his belief in magic, that is, because he knows the world is enchanted and magical, even if in very destructive and dangerous ways. The narrator’s description of Malone’s dual abilities merits quoting at length:
To Malone the sense of latent mystery in existence was always present. In youth he had felt the hidden beauty and ecstasy of things, and had been a poet; but poverty and sorrow and exile had turned his gaze in darker directions, and he had thrilled at the imputations of evil in the world around. Daily life had for him come to be a phantasmagoria of macabre shadow- studies; now glittering and leering with concealed rottenness as in Beardsley’s best manner, now hinting terrors behind the commonest shapes and objects as in the subtler and less obvious work of Gustave Doré. He would often regard it as merciful that most persons of high intelligence jeer at the inmost mysteries; for, he argued, if superior minds were ever placed in fullest contact with the secrets preserved by ancient and lowly cults, the resultant abnormalities would soon not only wreck the world, but threaten the very integrity of the universe. All this reflection was no doubt morbid, but keen logic and a deep sense of humour ably offset it. Malone was satisfied to let his notions remain as half-spied and forbidden visions to be lightly played with; and hysteria came only when duty flung him into a hell of revelation too sudden and insidious to escape. (“The Horror at Red Hook”)
This is the crux of “The Horror at Red Hook,” as it is for many Lovecraft stories: yes, magic exists, but we should wish it did not. Its powers are unimaginable, its essence destructive. Modern reason fused with ancient truth can only result in the desolation of everything that is, bringing existence back to the primordial chaos before anything was. This is not a Christian imagination; it is a species of nihilism, so disaffected that it can only bear speculating about inherent meaning if the discovery of that meaning would destroy the world. “The Horror at Red Hook” turns “we live in a created world” from an exclamation of theistic joy into a statement of macabre hopelessness. It is Tess of the d’Urbervilles with all the hopelessness and none of the good-natured sympathy. Here, genre fiction is turned on its head: the utopian hope of so much science fiction and fantasy becomes the recipe for existential catastrophe; ancient truth becomes something to be hidden and whispered about, lest the void reclaim us. Modernity is not imagined away, but re-inscribed to the point of self-destructive inescapability.
Lovecraft’s tale has not been received fondly. The author himself, in a letter, wrote that it was “rather long and rambling, and I don’t think it is very good” (Letters, Vol. 2, 20). Its racism is blatant; its non-white characters never become more than unwitting conduits for chthonic annihilation. Even its ending cannot help becoming a meditation on the dumb inferiority of the neighborhood’s residents:
As for Red Hook […] the evil spirit of darkness and squalor broods on amongst the mongrels in the old brick houses, and prowling bands still parade on unknown errands past windows where lights and twisted faces unaccountably appear and disappear. Age-old horror is a hydra with a thousand heads, and the cults of darkness are rooted in blasphemies deeper than the well of Democritus. The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant, and Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand. (“The Horror at Red Hook”)
The story’s failure of imagination is, however, precisely what makes its retelling by Victor LaValle so worthwhile. His attitude toward tradition—both that of modernity and that of Lovecraft himself—is one of ambivalence. The text’s dedication spells this out: “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.” The Ballad of Black Tom is a work of inversion; it functions by taking what is nihilistic about “The Horror at Red Hook” and making it liberating. This is most clear in two changes LaValle effects: the inclusion of Tommy Tester (who is not in the original) and the transformation of the nature and role of magic.
We first meet the “Black Tom” of the title under his given name: Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester. The narrator identifies Tommy with 1920s Harlem, a hub of Black culture. He is African-American, a shabby street musician who can barely play; his primary aim is supporting his middle-aged father, Otis, whose body has been broken by a lifetime of manual labor and chronic under-payment on account of his race. His best friend is Buckeye, a Caribbean immigrant who comes to America seeking a better life, only to discover “what Otis Tester had long known: Negroes had no protection” (27). We follow Tommy as he transitions from this constantly bothered and oppressed version of himself into Black Tom, a sort of mage, a practitioner of the dark arts as imagined by Lovecraft.
In this sense, magic, in LaValle’s story, is a double-edged sword. Early in the novella, our protagonist brings a woman named Ma Att a “book, no larger than the palm of Tommy’s hand” (14). This book, we later learn, is “The Supreme Alphabet,” a text so powerful, so literally dark that “even glancing contact with daylight had set […it…] on fire” (15). The narrator puts the tone of this meeting very directly: “[m]ystery lingered in the air like the scent of scorched book” (15). Magic, in other words, remains foreign and volatile in LaValle’s world. It differs from that in Lovecraft’s story, however, in its potential for liberatory transformation. By the end of the novella, Tommy Tester is working with Robert Suydam, the villain from “The Horror at Red Hook,” the white man whose rational mind might transform the ancient knowledge of ignorant peoples. How does he end up becoming “Black Tom”?
At first, Tester is afraid to go out into Queens (where Ma Att and Suydam live) too late at night. He knows that, as a Black man, his presence will be suspect; he knows that he risks bodily harm if he stays out. This all changes, however, when a cop and a private detective kill his father. These men have seen Tommy with Suydam, whom they are investigating; this leads them to tail him, and eventually go to his apartment, where his father lives. They burst in late at night and gun the ailing, sick man down, claiming he was going for a weapon (when he had none). Our protagonist reflects:
Charles Thomas Tester had a sudden flash, an image of his father, half asleep, looking up to find some white man at the doorway in the semidark. What did Otis Tester think at the moment? Was there time, at least, to picture his loving wife or the son who’d worshipped him? Was there time for a breath, an exclamation? Time for a prayer? Maybe better to imagine Otis never woke up. That made it easier on Tommy, at least. (65)
This is his breaking point. He has already seen his father’s tough, muscled body broken by years of under-valued labor, used up by a society that doesn’t care. Now that society has killed him with impunity, all because Tommy himself was seen in Queens talking to a white man, Suydam. At this second, Tommy Tester begins to become Black Tom. He goes to Suydam’s house, is introduced to magic more directly, and begins to take on powers for himself, aiding his rich patron as he brings together the huddled immigrant masses of Red Hook.
Magic thus becomes a means of empowerment. LaValle, however, does not leave things there; the enchantment of the world remains—like the fairies in the Wife of Bath’s Tale or the nymphs of Greek mythology—complicated, dangerous, and other. At the end of the novella, there is a showdown between the now-powerful Black Tom, Thomas Malone (the protagonist of the Lovecraft story), and Robert Suydam. Tom turns on his patron and disfigures the detective: “‘I bear a hell within me,’ Black Tom growled. ‘And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruins’” (130). Changed by his experiences, transformed by magic, Tommy, now Black Tom, remarks, just as the tale ends: “I wish I’d been more like my father […] He didn’t have much, but he never lost his soul” (148).
Arcane knowledge, in other words, becomes a way of offering liberation to the voiceless hordes of Lovecraft’s original story. It never, however, loses its destructive quality. LaValle adds Black Tom to reclaim non-white people from Lovecraft’s WASPy grasp. In doing so, he refuses to make the world’s enchantment something simple or easy, something merely freeing; rather,
he suggests that, while liberation is possible, it can be done in such a way that it destroys identity, demolishes who one is. Put otherwise, in LaValle’s retelling Lovecraftian tradition is stretched and pulled, made socially salient, but never made totally anew.
We’ve come a long way from Gene Wolfe and George MacDonald. Or so it seems. What we have here is a story of tradition and progress, an example of an author taking something other, something terrible, and remaking it for his own ends. Is this not the goal of Christian authors in approaching a secular world? Has our role not been—since Sts. Paul and Justin Martyr—to baptize what has come before to the end of what must come after? Was this not the life’s work of Tolkien and Lewis? We find ourselves challenged by modernity; we grasp and claw looking for some way to remind ourselves and others about how mystical the world truly is. The Ballad of Black Tom offers us a schematic, a way to use popular genres and forms to reclaim and baptize history; it presents us with an opportunity to reflect on how the sacred can be made to speak through the mundane. I, for one, think we ought to listen.