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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Ardi Alspach Chats with Victor LaValle About Lovecraft, Racism and THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM

Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, three novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver, an ebook-only novella, Lucretia and the Kroons, and The Ballad of Black Tom, out now from Tor.com Publishing.

He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers’ Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the key to Southeast Queens.

He was raised in Queens, New York. He now lives in Washington Heights with his wife and son. He teaches at Columbia University.

Below, Victor talks with Ardi Alspach about his relationships with the horror genre and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as his thoughts on racism.


Ardi Alspach: First of all, you dedicate this work to H.P. Lovecraft, a literary figure who has been the center of controversy of late because of his racism and World Fantasy’s use of his bust for their award. Your dedication, “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings,” addresses those issues and I think speaks directly to the heart of the matter: “conflicted feelings.” Can you talk about this some more?

Victor LaValle: As you say, the discussion of Lovecraft’s fears and prejudices has become louder and louder in recent years. It only matters though, in a literary context, because his writing has had such an outsized impact on weird fiction, on horror and the fantastic in the decades since his death. If he hadn’t been such a singular writer, his racism would be forgotten because his work would’ve been forgotten. But the longer he sticks around, the more time there is to pore over the pages and, at some point, you just can’t ignore that shit any longer. In fact, it becomes bewildering that these problematic aspects were ever ignored at all. That’s what I wanted to get into with the novella. How you can love someone and loathe him, not one or the other but both, often simultaneously.

AA: What first drew you to Lovecraft’s work?

VL: I’d been a big reader of more contemporary horror, contemporary for me at that time, early eighties. So I’d been big into Stephen King and Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson and Ramsey Campbell. Ramsey Campbell, in particular, had been influenced by Lovecraft so I wonder if it was a matter of backtracking from Campbell’s books and finding Lovecraft waiting there.

However I got there, I identified immediately with that sense of high terror, the idea that the universe is immense and frightening and you are utterly powerless in the face of it. I might’ve been ten or eleven years old so that’s almost exactly how life feels at that age. Every authority figure might as well be an Old One, out to destroy your life. I didn’t make that comparison then, I was too young, but I felt it. Maybe that’s what makes Lovecraft great. He gave access to unfiltered emotions, ones that scared and fascinated me.

AA: As a person of color, how did you first respond to learning about Lovecraft’s history of racism? Is it possible to divorce a person’s values from their work? Should we?

VL: More than anything, I felt disappointed in the guy. It’s like when your favorite uncle turns out to be a mean drunk. You think, “Ah shit. I thought you were perfect.” Disappointment, then anger, then exhaustion- that’s about how it went. That’s how I feel when I hear from people who defend Lovecraft zealously, too, but that’s another issue.

As for whether one should divorce the values from the work, I think this is impossible. More importantly, it would diminish the work. Lovecraft’s work isn’t tainted by his rampant xenophobia, it’s defined by it. His fear of the world, and the implication of his insignificance, is exactly what fueled his best writing. If you got rid that stuff you’d have almost nothing left. Maybe it’s like a nuclear reactor. There’s going to be nuclear waste. And it’s toxic. But you can’t have one without the other.

Instead I’d say these kinds of discussions demand a willingness to hear the ugly stuff about the people we love. What could be so wrong with that, really? I imagine the people who want to dismiss accusations of racism about Lovecraft are the same people who think you should never talk badly about your parents. I don’t think that’s healthy. How do you become your own person if you can’t recognize the flaws in the people who made you? How do you decide what to change about yourself, what to improve? This is how I thought of the process of writing my novella. “Uncle Howard is great, but he says some really fucking awful things.”

AA: The parallels I see between your work and Lovecraft’s is the idea that things aren’t always what they seem, and that there’s more beneath the surface of a person – a darkness within, if you look hard enough. How does this relate to your idea of what “horror” is as a genre?

VL: I like to think horror is one of the more philosophically inclined genres. By that I mean that horror can contemplate grand ideas just as much as any genre, but it also embodies grand ideas in ways that many other genres simply can’t because they may be hamstrung by the rules of reality. So Lovecraft can create an entire pantheon of beings who are, explicitly, space aliens, but who are also his way of reckoning with the scientific discoveries of his age, with the relative unimportance of humanity on the cosmic scale, with his absolute terror of non-white people and women, his despair at his own sense of powerlessness in the world, Cthulhu and all the rest are all of these, and none of them, depending on the kind of reader holding the book. That’s rather magical, and it’s one of horror’s true strengths.

AA: The Ballad of Black Tom, in addition to being an homage to Lovecraft, is undoubtedly a story where New York City is as much a character as the people are. How does growing up and making a life in New York City influence your work?

VL: I meant this book to be a love letter to Lovecraft (sort of) and to New York City. I loved growing up in New York, probably much like almost everyone loves their hometowns. But the best thing about growing up in New York was learning the need to hustle from a young age. A lot of people come to New York and talk about how brusque New Yorkers are, how we never take time to relax and enjoy ourselves. We don’t slow down. But of course, that’s what we use alcohol and drugs for. For New Yorkers even cocaine is a sedative.

AA: Tommy Tester is a black man living in a time where racism was accepted as just how things were. He dresses to be invisible or more accepted by white society. Why did you decide to reinterpret Lovecraft in this way? And what’s the lesson we can apply to racism today? And do you think things have changed for the better in the last one hundred years or so?

VL: I never understand why different genres don’t make more use of the limitations and strictures that reality affords them. Those limitations can become a kind of gift if you do it right. What I mean is that a character like James Bond should be facing the budget constraints of modern British society. The later Daniel Craig movies would’ve been better if there weren’t endless supplies of money to get him around the world and to create all manner of weapons. I know those stories are meant to be an escape from the real world, but when you fly too far, the fantasy turns, it goes sour, at least for me.

So one of the reasons I made the racism of the 1920s such a prominent part of the novella is because it would’ve been ludicrous, and also insulting, to write a black character living in the United States whose every choice, every move wasn’t informed by the cosmic monster known as white supremacy. More to the point it made the novella better because Tommy’s foes weren’t just unseen creatures from alternate universes, they were also the white passengers on a subway train who didn’t like seeing him enter their neighborhood. And the best part is that I didn’t have to make this stuff up. Not then and not now.

As far as what lessons to apply today, I tried my best to show not only the ugly, overt racism but to pay attention to the systematic stuff because that, really, is the stuff that harms whole populations. Louis C.K. has a joke I love: “‘Til 1920 women didn’t get the right to vote. That means American democracy is 94 years old. There are three people in my building older than American democracy.” Then you’ve got the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which is when Black people were guaranteed the right to vote. So that means American democracy is really only about 50 years old. Then, if you wanted to count undocumented immigrants-who do pay taxes and thus fulfill one of the primary responsibilities of American citizenship- but are not allowed to vote, then maybe American democracy hasn’t even reached its first birthday. Maybe someday. If it happens I’ll happily bake it a cake. Until then, as the saying used to go, A lutua continua.

AA: What direction do you think horror is going as a genre?

VL: I’d say the most interesting writing going on, for me, in the horror genre (and in fantasy and sci-fi) is the stuff that embraces old ideas, old stories but spins them in some way that acknowledges time has moved on from the 1920s or the 1950s or even the 1980s. The idea of approaching those old stories but from a perspective that hasn’t already been bled dry seems like the most worthwhile path. Of course I’m biased because that’s exactly what I’ve done with The Ballad of Black Tom.

Just in the Lovecraftian vein there’s also Matt Ruff’s recent, and excellent, Lovecraft Country and another novel coming out soon called Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys. Nick Mamatas has a novel coming this summer called I Am Providence and another writer, Paul LaFarge, will release a novel about Lovecraft too. In each case, either because I’ve read the books already or heard a little about them, each author isn’t simply mimicking H.P. Lovecraft for the sake of simple homage. Instead each seems like a work of reimagining, bringing new understanding to ideas and storylines that might once have been considered settled.

Maybe that’s where I hope horror is going. Unsettling the old order; destroying in order to rebuild. And with the expectation that if we’re lucky some later generations of writers will do the same to us. That’s how you keep the land healthy, keep the soil rich.

AA: And just for fun: If you were teaching an introduction to horror fiction to college students, what books and or short stories would you assign as required reading?

VL: It would be nearly impossible to cover everything, so I’d want to teach a course on the literature of dread. That might draw in a few curious kids. Some of these books might not be categorized strictly as “horror” but I blame that on the limitations of the categories rather than the books themselves. This is some of what I’d teach:

  • The Willows – Algernon Blackwood
  • The Events at Porroth Farm – T.E.D. Klein
  • The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe
  • Corregidora – Gayl Jones
  • The Autobiography of My Mother – Jamaica Kincaid

Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and works in the publishing industry in New York City. She tweets about publishing at @ardyceelaine and Instagrams pictures of her ridiculously photogenic cat at the same handle.

1 Comment on [GUEST INTERVIEW] Ardi Alspach Chats with Victor LaValle About Lovecraft, Racism and THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM

  1. Alan Bailey // April 13, 2016 at 1:44 pm //

    Hello Ardi, I enjoyed your interview. If you ever speak with Mr. Lavelle again you should tell him to read Len Deighton’s spy series. I think they are sometimes referred to as the “Secret File” series. Anyway, they were mostly published in the 60s as the antithesis to Bond. The one I’ve read is, in my opinion, fairly enjoyable, though a bit racist. The series starts with IPCress.

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