Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester is a Harlem native who understands the uselessness of a black man working hard for a good wage in New York City. Unlike his bricklayer father, who’s body is broken and wallet empty from long hours of backbreaking work for meager pay. Tommy prefers to hustle for his money, the mystique of a carefully chosen suit and an old guitar doing a good portion of the legwork for him. If he sometimes gets involved with the arcane and the occult, at least he’s making a loving sufficient to support himself and his aging father. But after an encounter with a sorceress in Queens, events begin to spiral out of control. Tommy has attracted he attention of dangerous beings, and he, New York, and reality itself are in grave danger.

I’m a huge fan of HP Lovecraft’s stories, though the man’s personal beliefs are frankly odious. I love the concept of unknowable cosmic horrors, of elder gods so ancient and vast that human beings (always so full of ourselves) are essentially bacteria in comparison. However, Lovecraft’s blatant racism shouldn’t be ignored, and the best modern Lovecraft derivatives take this into account rather than trying to smooth over it.

This is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s famous short stories, but the narrative takes us along the flip side of the original. This is a story about race and arcane magic, of injustice and revenge, of the dark, foreign, and “lesser” discovering beings who make their oppressors less than nothing.

Thus may be a book about elder gods and magic, but it is also a brutal and and all-to-relevant story of those pushed out to the margins, and what happens when they are pushed too far.

Book Review: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

In 1977, the four teenaged members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club–Leader Pete, brainy Kerry, tough Andy (call her Andrea and die), and Nate–and their dog, solved their last case. The sightings of lake monsters and rumors of hauntings around an old house set in the middle of a deep lake turned out to be nothing more than a man in a mask.  But 13 years later, the four amateur detectives are shadows of what they once were, underachieving, mentally unstable, hair trigger violent, and (in one case) dead. Long suspecting that something about their last case was not what it seemed, the surviving members of the group (and new dog, Tim) head back to the scene of the hauntings to discover the source of their nightmares. Set against an enemy who is no man in a mask, the damaged Blyton Summer Detective Club faces down ancient monsters and an imminent apocalypse. 

 Meddling Kids starts off facing the camera with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and remains in that pose for the entirety of this story. This is a geeky book, full of references both subtle and overt to many disparate aspects of cult horror (“fuck Salem”, indeed). 

The book is touted as a mashup of Scooby Doo and H.P. Lovecraft, and largely lives up to the blurb. The four main characters are recognizable as rearranged bits and pieces from the Scooby Doo set, and the elder God and unnamable horror aspects take liberally from H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With a plot like that, you have a good idea where things are going before you start the book. However, Cantero manages not to make Meddling Kids feel tired, including enough surprises and humor to make the read enjoyable. 

This is a book created for fans of cult horror.  If you’re looking for something that lovingly messes with your favorite genre, add this book to your to read list!

Book Review: Chapelwood by Cherie Priest

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Chapelwood by Cherie Priest

Fair Warning: This book is the second in the Borden Dispatches series, and so this review will unavoidably contain spoilers for the first book.

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Thirty years have passed since the events of Maplecroft. Emma Borden is dead, as is the good doctor Seabury. The town of Fall River is quiet and peaceful, and Lizzie Borden (now going by Lizbeth Andrew) has settled into quiet infamy with a great many cats.

But a new celestial threat is rising in Birmingham, Alabama of all places. A shadowy group calling themselves The True Americans, supported by a strange new church known as Chapelwood, is looking to cleanse Birmingham of its undesirables, namely blacks, Jews, Catholics, and those who don’t want to see the world end screaming in the tentacles of an Elder God.

Called in by her old aquaintance Inspector Simon Wolf to help solve the murder of a local priest, which may or may not be tied into the nighttime activity of an ax-murderer known as Harry the Hacker, Lizzie Borden must shoulder her ax once more to defeat a cosmic evil growing strong in the dark southern soil.

I began this series because I could not say no to a Lizzie Borden-Cthulhu mashup (who could?). The first book in the series was enjoyable (though with some tweaks to the mythos and to geography that irked me a bit). The second in the series is weaker, less cosmic horror, more plain old crappy human beings. I will say, however, that I enjoyed the Ku Klux Klan as despotic bringers of the elder god apocalypse angle. That part of the story was done quite well, and should resonate with anyone who’s been following American politics recently. Though I will say that it made this book a bit of a dud when it comes to escapist fiction (but not entirely in a bad way).

In all, if you enjoyed the first book, this one is a different creature altogether, but still worth your time. New comers to the series should definitely start with the first book, both because that one is a bit more in the Lovecraftian style, and because you will be thoroughly lost if you try to start this series in the middle.