Friday, December 30, 2016

The swamp gas of European anxiety

Mystery lingered in the air like the scent of a scorched book.
As a teenager I tried reading H.P. Lovecraft — my big brother wouldn't shut up about him. But I didn't get very far; it just wasn't for me. I tried again in my twenties. This time, with a decent liberal arts education behind me, while the concepts intrigued, I just couldn't get past the poor quality of the writing. Today, I have a passing familiarity the Cthulhu mythos, despite never having read the source material.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor Lavalle, is a retelling of Lovecraft's 1925 story The Horror at Red Hook, generally acknowledged to be not particularly good. The original story is also widely considered to be offensive in its bigoted, xenophobic attitude. (After finishing Lavalle's Ballad, I decided to skim through the source. I am ashamed to admit that the racism wasn't entirely obvious to me; if I weren't looking for it, I might miss it, not because it's not there, but because it is so much a part of my cultural context. Is the story exceptionally offensive for its time or merely a mirror of society? Am I that oblivious? I don't know.)
"Your people," Robert Suydam began. "Your people are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It's all sound and filth and spiritual putrescence."
Lavalle manages to spin the negativity and bring it front and centre, making it essential to this story of otherness, of anger, corruption, power, entitlement.

The Ballad is told in two parts, the first from the perspective of minor hustler Charles Thomas Tester, the second from police detective Malone. Malone has for some time been watching the activities of Robert Suydam, a rich old eccentric, who is apparently connected to various nefarious goings-on relating to the immigrant community of Red Hook.
Locals attributed the rumors of abduction to the swamp gas of European anxiety known to flare up with a neighborhood's proximity to Red Hook.
Tommy Tester finds his marks, picks up jobs, while playing his guitar on sidewalks. He's not very good, so why would Suydam hire him to play for a party he's giving?
The idea troubled him like a pinched nerve.
Of course it's part of Suydam's bid for world domination, and his plan to summon Cthulhu. But, surprise: things go terribly wrong.

There's a fantastic review at Fantasy Fiction that explains the story better than I ever could (but be warned, it's rife with spoilers).
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Ballad of Black Tom, and the experience has been truly enriched by reading commentary about it.

One interview with Lavalle in particular in The Lovecraft eZine gave me a great deal of perspective:
I switched to Malone for a few reasons, but one of the biggest was that I wanted to spend time with Malone and show the journey of a white character who is a passive racist. There's a private detective in the book, Mr. Howard, who is the more virulent — and easily dismissed — kind of racist. He says terrible things about black people, he’s physically abusive to black people, he kills them without any guilt. Of course he's terrible. Malone, on the other hand, seems to have a greater respect for Tommy. He doesn't say racist things and he doesn't seem to relish being brutal to black people. And yet he never stands up against the system in which he works. He sits at the same table as police who have very recently murdered an innocent black man and he doesn't object, or try to bring criminal charges against them. He's good in the sense that he isn't overtly evil but if that's the best he can do then what the hell good is he? I wanted to write that guy because I find that kind of perspective interesting. "Well I've never called anyone a nigger." Or, "But my family never owned slaves." It's that kind of person, the one who simply stays silent in the face of oppression, who in fact looks away from it when he sees it, that is as much to blame for the situation as the more overt Mr. Howard. I didn't worry about making him too sympathetic, instead I simply tried to show him as someone who was blind but didn’t know he was blind. I've known lots of people like that. I've liked many of them but that didn't make them blameless.
Lavalle's novella ends with "Zig zag zig." It kind of made sense, in a passively random this-is-the-way-the-world-ends way, but it didn't make any sense at all, so I looked it up. The last letter of the Supreme Alphabet, signifying "from knowledge to wisdom to understanding." This be the last page of the book Tommy Tester is delivering when the novella opens, a page he withheld.

This makes me want to read the novella all over again, realizing that there are other mythologies woven into this story, that there a different levels of knowledge, types of arcana — the Ballad is rich with it. The writing is compelling, the plot and characters are well crafted, and there's a wonderful sense of unease throughout, making this my kind of horror story. Plus, a new kind of swamp gas of anxiety hangs is the air, which makes it relevant.
This is how you hustle the arcane. Skirt the rules but don't break them.

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