The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor.com, Feb. 16th, 2016)-I already know that Victor LaValle is a great author, so I knew I was in store for something good. You know those books and stories that immediately transport you to a certain place and time, immersing you in its sights, sounds, and smells? This is one of those. The bustling Harlem of 1924 is the destination, and LaValle brings it to brilliant life through the eyes of Tommy Tester, a young black man that makes money busking and doing odd jobs. “Odd” jobs indeed. He never could carry a tune, but he strums his git fiddle and hums along, and people throw a bit of change his way. But, it’s the other jobs that keep food on the table for him and his father, whose health is declining. One day, a wealthy man, Robert Suydam, offers him a ridiculous sum of money to perform at a get together in his stately home. What results is one of the creepiest “parties” since that bar scene in The Shining. Tommy finds himself at the center of great power, one that will ensure he’s never victimized again, or treated as an outcast, but it comes with an unspeakable price.
LaValle dives into the weird with this atmospheric, chilling story, and it’s a testament of this talent that I continued to root for Tommy, even when he spirals into something murderous, a screaming shadow of his former self. There are genuinely disconcerting scenes in this story, particularly when Tommy first visits Suydam’s ballroom, in his shabby mansion. It’s a creeping dread that will raise the little hairs on the back of your neck. Tommy’s life has been rooted in pain, making his murderous descent, strangely enough, more poignant. My only complaint is that it wasn’t longer. A superb story by a fantastic author.