Victor LaValle’s New Novel Is H. P. Lovecraft, Without the Horrific Racism
We spoke to the novelist about 'The Ballad of Black Tom,' which repurposes Lovecraft's most racist story in a brilliant and timely way.
There are two things everyone knows about H. P. Lovecraft. The first is that he's one of the most important horror writers of all time. His cosmic horror works helped shape the trajectory of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, while influencing everyone from Stephen King to George R. R. Martin. The second thing is that he was super racist. The two facts are not unrelated, as Lovecraft's racist fears are central to his worldview and appear either subtly or very, very overtly in most of his fiction (including, infamously, a cat with a racial epithet for a name). Consequentially, the genre world seems to never stop debating what to do with Lovecraft's legacy. Can his racism be dismissed as merely "of his time"? Should his work be ignored by modern readers, despite its influence? With his newest book, author Victor LaValle finds a third way to respond to Lovecraft's complicated legacy: the literary clapback.
In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle repurposes Lovecraft's most racist story, " The Horror at Red Hook," in a way that both pays tribute to the horror giant and repurposes his work for LaValle's own ends. The short novel follows Charles Thomas Tester, a Jazz Age Harlem hustler who sometimes transports occult material across the city for a quick buck. Soon he gets wrapped up with Robert Suydam, a rich occultist dabbling in strange powers he doesn't fully grasp. Tester is initially wary, but he is driven fully into Suydam's world by the violence of racist police.
LaValle is a tremendous writer of what might be labeled literary horror—add Big Machine and The Devil in Silver to your reading lists if you haven't already—and The Ballad of Black Tom is tightly written, beautifully creepy, and politically resonant (LaValle described it to me as "a literary mash-up of H. P. Lovecraft with a Black Lives Matter undercurrent"). But above all, the slim novel is a tremendously fun read. LaValle, who is mixed race, grew up adoring Lovecraft and it shows. Even as LaValle uses the novel as rebuttal, he makes sure to spin a thrilling Lovecraftian tale of mystery, monsters, and madness. If you've ever wanted a Lovecraft novel without the affected diction or racism, you should pick this up today.
I recently talked with LaValle over the phone to discuss his novel, Lovecraft's legacy, and Cthulhu GIFs.
VICE: Do you think we'll ever finish debating Lovecraft's legacy?
Victor LaValle: I certainly hope not. I really do think it's amazing to imagine that a spoiled shut-in from Providence, Rhode Island—who was by all accounts utterly antisocial but also charismatic—was writing this ridiculous, purely ridiculous fiction, and we're talking about him even now and will continue talking about him. That's one of the reasons I hope it never stops, because that guy really did embody so many interesting things about these large cosmic ideas, but also about America and especially white America—a particular kind of white America and its fear of extinction. I really do think that's one of the things that he was wrestling with. He posited it as humanity's fear of extinction, but I feel like it doesn't reduce it in any way to suggest that he's talking about a very specific kind of fear of extinction, not necessarily universal, the way he put it on paper.
The perfect example of that fear of extinction in Lovecraft is his story "The Horror at Red Hook." He describes New York as "a maze of hybrid squalor" and "the poisoned cauldron where all the varied dregs of unwholesome ages mix their venom and perpetuate their obscene terrors."
I really do love him, because that is a version of the private conversations that people might have at Thanksgiving with the grandparents and the uncles and aunts. You know, on some level, they actually say these things when they talk about Obama's presidency, the swell of Hispanic immigrants, or the coming Arab horde. They're talking about the same fear. He actually put it on paper and did it in a way that didn't try to hide or didn't even think, I need to hide this. Forget about thinking I should hide it—no, I should say this. This is a real concern.
One thing I really liked about The Ballad of Black Tom is that it reads like a love letter to New York and specifically the parts of New York that Lovecraft despised: the diversity and the throngs of crowds. Can you talk about how growing up in Queens influenced your writing or approach to literature?
My upbringing in Queens, and in New York as a whole, was not a homogenous upbringing. As a result, it became how I think life should look. So, for me, when I read work that doesn't seem to have that breadth of classes in it, it always strikes me as false. Because I think, How could the author not have seen the broad variety of people who existed ? Not that they need to be always central, but how could the author not have noted, if not different races, then different cultures within a race, whether that's class-wise, religion, whatever it is. When that lack of diversity is not noted in some way, I always think it's fake. I always think the book has missed something. And if the author in the book has missed something, I start to be skeptical about what it is he or she could actually have to teach me or surprise me with. I think that all of this comes from being raised in this unbelievably mixed community, and being racially mixed myself. I have a black mom and a white dad. My mom is also international—she's an African immigrant. My dad is a white guy from upstate New York. So the idea that worlds always collide and shape each other is in my DNA, literally. And I would argue in everyone's.
That is like the shaping worldview of my life. Whereas Lovecraft's life was in many ways the absolute opposite. Raised in Providence, Rhode Island—and Providence presumably has always been in some way diverse and mixed, even if it was all white people, which I'm sure it wasn't. From the fishermen to people like his family, who were sort of old money who'd fallen on hard times. But then Lovecraft was trapped inside this house with his mother and his aunts, and all of them have sort of agreed to keep out the world for the preservation of that family's ideals to themselves and the world, and that's what "The Horror at Red Hook" is. It's almost a manifesto of how important that is, and so it made sense for me to say, "Well, here's my counter-manifesto."
Lovecraft has a really distinctive style, which is alternatively loved or mocked by readers, even fans. All the "Cyclopian horrors of the unknown writhing their ancient Stygian tentacles to drive people to utter madness" stuff. How did you approach Lovecraft's style and language when you were writing this counter-manifesto?
I knew that the kiss of death is to mimic his style. It seems like he was very inspired by a writer named Lord Dunsany, who was a high-fantasy writer who came before Lovecraft. In many ways, Lord Dunsany and Lovecraft are both writing from a place of great nostalgia—for places and times and sort of ways of living and cultures that probably never existed. It's sort of high-church language. I'm Episcopalian, and I know when we end up at a high Episcopalian church—or my wife's Catholic and if we end up at an almost Latin mass—it's like a time machine. I just get thrown into this time warp, listening to this service. It's the same reading Lovecraft.
The inspiration for the voice of the book was actually Denis Johnson's Train Dreams . It's an astoundingly good historical novel, and what Johnson figured out was how to write something historical without sounding arch. It's perfect, it's almost invisible, but it pulls you along. I felt like if I told my version closer to the Denis Johnson voice, but unaffected, then you would have room to just think about Harlem in the 20s and how interesting that place was. Queens in the 20s. Brooklyn in the 20s. Race relations then. What I see as the shortcomings of Lovecraft's cosmic indifference philosophy. All of that is so interesting. I don't need to add a layer of really noticeable style.
I think you did that really well, and at the same time, you also kept in the core Lovecraftian way of telling horror where it's kind of obscure and invading the text from the fringes. Sometimes, someone will do an homage to Lovecraft, and it's just like, "Oh, here's a tentacle monster rampaging killing things," instead of, "Here's the madness of the cosmos that you can't even fathom."
Certainly Lovecraft was well aware of how inference was much better than straight-out explanation. I always found it interesting that Cthulhu has become the great Lovecraftian monster, when he is one of the ones who is most hidden and dormant in Lovecraft's work. Literally the only time, if I remember correctly, that you get a sense of him is in " The Call of Cthulhu," when he rises. The idea is that he's trapped at the bottom of the ocean somewhere in the South Pacific. He rises from the bottom, in this one story, and for like one brief moment, the sailor spies this hideous tentacle being, and then no sooner has that happened, the tomb of the ocean or whatever the hell it is snaps shut and Cthulhu goes back to the ocean's depths.
Right, you just see like the top of his head or something. Unlike the drawings, he's not standing astride a mountain and bellowing weird things. And in fact, there are other Lovecraft gods who are more active in some of his stories.
And then there's something weird about Lovecraft's influence on popular culture, where Cthulhu has been taken out and recycled into what some people I know call "Cute-thulhu." Those joke-y images of Cthulhu as Hello Kitty or mash-ups of tentacle monsters dancing with Taylor Swift GIFs or whatever.
But again, whether intentional or not—probably intentionally—he smartly left so much mystery to Cthulhu that people could reinterpret him. Like earlier generations only viewed him with horror and disgust. I remember my introduction to Cthulhu was, reading the books, obviously, but then Metallica had a song called " The Thing That Should Not Be" on the Master of Puppets album that was about Cthulhu. It says like, "Not dead, which eternal lie / strange eons death may die." Straight-up quotes from the story, and it was still kind of eerie. But maybe enough time has passed that he's entering the culture. Because once he enters it fully and really, then he becomes a thing of play, as opposed to pure terror. But that just suggests how deeply he's embedded in our culture.
I mean, just think about serial killers. The idea that there are people who have joke-y GIFs of Charles Manson. Like joke-y, funny—he's just a wacky guy with a swastika on his head. Only because enough time has passed, and enough generations have come after the horrific murders that he orchestrated. The terror of him is no longer important. It's just that he is a part of the cultural framework. So, here's Hello Kitty Charles Manson.
Well, the book came out great. What's the next book and when is it coming out?
That one is gonna come out in the spring of 2017, barring any crazy delays. It's basically about how posting pictures of your children on Facebook is you helping this group of underground people steal your children from you. Something that will be really disturbing to people. I'm really praying. Because it's disturbing to me.
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