Solitair vs. The Hugos 3: The Ballad of Black Tom

Imagine a universe in which all the powers of the NYPD could not defeat a single Negro with a razor blade. Impossible. Impossible.

(The following post contains spoilers. This novella is great; read it first if you can.)

As much as I like The Litany of Earth for its fresh take on the Cthulhu mythos, I can appreciate how it would be too much of a difference for more dedicated fans. It changes a significant piece of established lore, making the people of Innsmouth into victims of government persecution instead of the malevolent cultists they were in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. As luck would have it, the first (and best) two novellas I read off the ballot are also modern takes on the mythos, ones that don’t change the lore, just the context the reader sees it from.

The perspective in the second half of The Ballad of Black Tom, for instance, seems typical for what I understand is a mythos story. A character who expresses interest in the supernatural laws underpinning the fabric of reality gets more than he bargained for, undergoing events involving cultists of dark gods that scar his psyche, probably for life, in this case leaving a more physical injury. However, context matters, and this climax is framed from a different pair of eyes: Black Tom himself.

What’s genius about The Ballad is that in Tom’s part of the story, he experiences a pervasive horror in his own right, one that suffuses his society to the point that nobody bats an eye at it. As an African-American in 1920s New York City, Tom has to schedule his life around the whims of white people, making calculations on where to go based on what is least likely to get him murdered by white people for no good reason. Usually in a cosmic horror story, the protagonist finds out the hard way that the world is at the mercy a higher power that is variably indifferent or hostile to human existence, the revelation of which breaks something deep inside them. Tom has known that the world works that way all his life, and what breaks him is an outrageous injustice that still happens in real life today.

After the perspective shift from Tom to the white police officer Malone, both perspectives pose the question of who the hypothetical reader is more sympathetic to. Malone worked with a man who insulted and harassed Tom after he shot Tom’s father in alleged self-defense. The killer rubs it in Tom’s face, loudly citing Tom’s lack of rage as proof of the sheep-like simpleness of the negro race rather than not provoking a violent reaction and making the problem worse. Malone, as part of the existing system keeping Tom’s people down, does nothing then. He only springs into action once Tom starts using eldritch forces to start an uprising. A heroic act in other becomes ambiguous. Not villainous, since Tom wants to burn everything down, but Malone is aiding a police crackdown on lower-class people in the process of trying to stop him.

Personally, and I don’t mean this as an insult to any upstanding, reasonable police officers reading this, but the moment referenced in the quote at the start of the post made me cheer. Malone isn’t straight-up evil, but he’s also a milquetoast dabbler in both arcane secrets and palling around with the disenfranchised, a tourist poking where he doesn’t belong. The context provided by Tom’s perspective makes Malone seem unempathetic and oblivious. Instead of letting him have the last word, the final chapter switches back to Tom, showing one last human moment before he vanishes into the night. His actions were destructive in the end, but it’s hard for me to hold them against him.

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