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The Ballad of Black Tom Summary, Characters and Themes

The Ballad of Black Tom is a novella by Victor LaValle that retells H.P. Lovecraft’s horror story from a new perspective.

The story takes place in 1920s Harlem where Charles “Tommy” Tester, a hustler posing as a musician, gets tangled in a wealthy man’s occult scheme. Unlike Lovecraft’s racist characters, Tommy fights back using his wits and knowledge of African American mysticism. The story blends fantasy, horror, and social commentary on race and poverty in America.

Summary

In 1920s Harlem, Charles “Tommy” Tester, a streetwise hustler with hidden musical talent, struggles to make ends meet and care for his ailing father. His life takes a dark turn when he becomes entangled with Robert Suydam, an eccentric, wealthy white man obsessed with ancient occult power.

After Tommy delivers a mysterious book for a powerful witch, Ma Att, he’s questioned by Detective Malone and private investigator Mr. Howard regarding Suydam. 

The wealthy man offers Tommy an absurdly large sum to play music at a party, but when Tommy arrives, Suydam reveals his true sinister intentions. 

He believes in a “Sleeping King”, a monstrous entity from another dimension, and wants to wake it to destroy humanity. Suydam demonstrates his power by magically manipulating space and time, shocking Tommy.

Things take a personal turn when Mr. Howard, hunting for a stolen occult page, kills Tommy’s father. This senseless act of cruelty and injustice shatters Tommy, fueling his determination to join Suydam, but for his own purposes.

The narrative shifts to Detective Malone, who believes Suydam is harmless and only dabbles in the occult out of curiosity. He’s initially focused on cracking down on illegal immigration in Red Hook. 

When Suydam begins operating out of Red Hook tenements, assisted by Tommy (now known as Black Tom), Malone still underestimates the threat. 

Fueled by a false allegation that Black Tom kidnapped a white woman, Malone leads a brutal police raid that terrorizes the predominantly immigrant neighborhood.

Following a hidden magical sigil, Malone stumbles upon Suydam and Black Tom’s ritual. 

They’re opening a portal, and Malone sees the terrifying Sleeping King. When Suydam is murdered by his own protege and Malone refuses to submit to the dark power, Black Tom blinds him, vanishing as police open fire.

Scarred and haunted, Malone tries to rebuild his life while suppressing his nightmarish memories. 

Meanwhile, Tommy – his friend “Buckeye” the last witness to his former life – fully transforms into the persona of Black Tom. 

He helped unleash an apocalypse, losing his soul and sense of self, reflecting the destructive power of both unchecked evil and the profound injustices he endured.

the ballad of black tom summary

Characters

Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester / Black Tom

Tommy is a young man filled with contradictions. Initially, he appears as a street smart hustler, doing what he can to survive in a world stacked against him. 

Yet, there’s an undercurrent of quiet ambition, evidenced in his love of music and a certain pride in his abilities. 

Tommy possesses a deep well of resourcefulness and strength that is tested severely throughout the story. His father’s death shatters his sense of what’s fair, leading him down a path of vengeance and a desire for power he might never have considered otherwise. 

His transformation into Black Tom is tragic, but also a twisted form of empowerment in a society that consistently devalues him. By embracing the monstrous, he gains agency, but at a terrible cost to his soul and identity.

Detective Malone

Malone embodies a kind of casual racism and entitlement that’s all too familiar. He treats cases within marginalized communities with apathy at best, and brutal enforcement of his prejudices at worst. 

Malone’s limited perspective blinds him to the true horror brewing with Suydam. When he finally sees, it drives him to the brink of madness. 

He survives, but broken, clinging to a comfortable delusion while the real threat festers. Malone represents how the complacency of the privileged allows evil to thrive.

Robert Suydam

Suydam is a study in the seductive nature of forbidden power. Initially, he seems like a harmless, eccentric rich man dabbling in the occult. 

Yet, we quickly see obsession has consumed him. Suydam lacks any moral anchor, treating the lives around him as mere tools in his pursuit of a terrible, world-changing goal. 

Despite his power, he’s remarkably naive about human nature, underestimating both Tommy and the cosmic forces he’s playing with. This blend of arrogance and cosmic ambition makes him the architect of his own doom.

Ma Att

Ma Att exudes power and knowledge beyond the ordinary. 

She exists as a force in Tommy’s path, both a potential source of aid and an implied threat. The extent of her role is deliberately left mysterious; she’s not so much a character as a catalyst. 

Ma Att represents the traditions and folk magic of the African diaspora, a counterpoint to Suydam’s privileged dabbling in forces neither of them fully understand.

Themes

The Corrosive Power of Racism

Racism doesn’t merely exist as a backdrop in the story. 

Instead, it is a force that drives the plot and warps the characters’ lives. The story constantly reminds us that even a street-smart hustler like Tommy is constantly vulnerable. 

Police see him as a criminal by default, wealthy white men like Suydam see him as disposable, and even seeking justice for his father’s death is a dangerous gamble. 

LaValle illustrates how a society built on systemic oppression poisons everyone within it. 

Tommy’s journey to becoming Black Tom is as much a twisted act of self-preservation as it is revenge. The novella suggests that even the most justified rage born from injustice can have terrible consequences.

The Allure and Danger of Forbidden Knowledge

The pursuit of occult power sits at the heart of the story. 

Yet, what’s intriguing is how differently this theme plays out for Suydam and Tommy. 

For Suydam, born into wealth and privilege, his quest comes down to boredom and a thirst for control. He lacks a fundamental understanding of the danger he’s courting. For Tommy, on the other hand, it’s about agency. Denied fair access to the world and its opportunities, he sees knowledge, even dangerous knowledge, as a tool to escape his circumstances. 

LaValle doesn’t romanticize this; the darkness catches up with Tommy, corrupting him along the way. 

The book poses the unsettling question: when traditional paths to power are blocked by injustice, what desperate measures might a person take, and at what cost?

The Fragility of Identity

Tommy Tester starts the story with a certain defined, if scrappy, sense of self. He’s a son, a hustler, a musician with potential. 

As the narrative progresses, this identity crumbles under the weight of loss, anger, and the seductive promise of power. His transformation into Black Tom isn’t merely a change of name, it’s a rejection of his past limitations. 

However, this newfound power comes at a terrible price. By the end, he’s an apocalyptic figure, haunted by fragments of his old life. 

LaValle uses Tommy’s story to question what makes us who we are. 

Is it our background, our actions, or the masks we wear to survive?

Complicity and the Cycle of Evil

The story subtly indicts those who stand by as injustice takes root. Detective Malone’s initial disinterest in Suydam’s activities, born out of his own prejudices, facilitates the villain’s plans. 

Similarly, Suydam’s family, though concerned, prefers the illusion that his obsession is harmless rather than confront the truth. 

This theme is even hinted at in the cosmic elements: the Sleeping King is indifferent to morality, a force that can be summoned by anyone willing to pay the price. 

The novella suggests that evil thrives not solely through grand villainy, but also through everyday complacency and the refusal to acknowledge the suffering of others.

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