Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

Lovecraft is a man known for the legacy of horror and hatred he left in his wake. While his views softened before his early and untimely death, he was still unequivocally xenophobic in a way that can be seen pervading his works. However, this doesn’t mean that many authors who followed his legacy, including authors of color and queer authors, couldn’t find something worthwhile within his bibliography.

One of these notable authors is Victor Lavalle, one of horror’s greatest working Black authors along with the likes of Dr. Tananarive Due and Helen Oyeyemi. Lavalle more than just dabbled passively in writing a Mythos story with “The Ballad of Black Tom”; he confronted and dismantled one of Lovecraft’s most notably prejudiced stories, and did so in a short but punchy novella.

“The Horror at Red Hook” became infamous in Lovecraft’s stories for being particularly xenophobic. Red Hook was a notably diverse town, and while HPL’s story reflects that, the majority of the antagonists (if not all) are not white, while the Irish-American protagonist is the bastion of moral goodness–or heroic behavior at least.

In 2016, Lavalle’s novella tackled the infamous story with one notable difference–the protagonist of Ballad is a Black man. Tommy is a street musician in 1924, and his busking brings him in contact with the same mysterious Middle Eastern millionaire of the original tale. While his misadventures still bring him into contact with a cult of the Great Old Ones, his particular set of skills and knowledge from his unique experience make him a much more capable protagonist than the typical Lovecraftian hero. This doesn’t take away from the fear of the book, but it does make it a lot more interesting.

A quick, compelling read, this is a novella I would recommend to anyone who wants to get free of some of the traditional Mythos’ more confining choices! Lavalle’s other work is also intense and unique, and I will be covering some more of it later.

For now, send in your thoughts in the comments! What do YOU think about modern Mythos authors deconstructing the views of Lovecraft in their work? What’s YOUR favorite extended universe story? Let me know!

Top 13 Best Sci-fi Horror Books

Since Mary Shelley illuminated the literary world with a spark of life returned to dead flesh, horror and science fiction have been frequent bedfellows. Strange ones, by their nature, but also not–the foundations of science fiction are in horror and rarely fully escape any trace of it. However, there are certain books that have more than just traces–these books have large swathes of horror or are outright equally horror as sci-fi. The scariest books after all are the ones that burrow into the brain and stay there long after reading; what could be scarier than those that base themselves in the semi-known, yet oft mysterious world of the scientific? 

While some of these are genre fiction, and others are more literary horror, I have compiled a list of books which fit that bill. They either have multiple scenes that cross into horror throughout, or they share horror as just as much a genre as they do science or speculative fiction! 

The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep is a strange novel, more philosophical and deeply reflective than filled with alien jumpscares or the silent maw of space. It is also very intersectional with the lead being a queer transgender Indigenous woman. 

Set in a future where aliens have taken over earth to create a benevolent (if authoritarian) utopia, wives Trina and Deeba live happily until Deeba decides to use alien technology to relive her life and leave Trina behind in the process. Trina is devastated and through the technology begins exploring the nature of both consciousness and the aliens which they have allowed to control their lives. She decides to destroy the symbiotic Seep which controls them, even as it may mean destroying utopia in her grief.

This novel is a terrifying look into the what ifs not only of an alien future, but at how horror can be found in very human emotions: grief, anger, capitulation, obedience. All of these, as well as social issues such as race, class, and gender, are somewhat explored in the short but incredibly poignant and haunting standalone.

The Between by Ryan Leslie

Nerdy Paul and class clown Jay have been friends since childhood, never fully diverging as adults despite their many differences. When Paul discovers a trapdoor has appeared in his backyard, he is cajoled to enter by Jay. Suddenly, the pair find themselves thrust into the horrifying sci-fi world of their favorite dungeon explorer computer game from the early ’80s. Now stuck in the land of The Between game, the pair find themselves facing off not only against the big bad boss NPCs, but also each other and the demons that haunt their old friendship.

While not the best book on this list by far, it’s a very fun and entertaining read, crafted with far more care than the more successful (though gods know why) Ready Player One franchise of nostalgia bait. The Between injects real horror, genuine interpersonal drama, and creative use of tropes in with its manipulation of audience nostalgia. It does it well, even, and I very much recommend it more than RP1 and RP2, especially for those who like more edge to their sci-fi.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X is a beautiful place reclaimed by nature…or something like nature at least. All but the first expedition has died somehow either during their time in the containment area or soon after. The first book follows the twelfth, all-female expedition crew. As both the nature of Area X and of each crew member is revealed to the team, the journey into the unknown unravels and deals devastating consequences, which are addressed in book two. By book three, a final winter expedition makes its way into the now larger Area X, discovering terrifying truths at the heart of the tainted paradise.

In Lovecraft the terror comes from either the deep or the beyond, but VanderMeer masterfully crafted horror into the natural in a way that’s downright cosmic. It’s a shame the two other books won’t be adapted for film the way the first was.

The Collected Cthulhu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft

Speak of the devil. While Lovecraft didn’t define the sci-fi/horror combination, he used it to create the genre of cosmic horror. While not all of Lovecraft’s stories are interconnected, the many stories of the Mythos are. They tie together Lovecraft’s stories of unfathomable cosmic deities, their demonic children, and their devilish occult followers and the havoc they wreak through indifferent madness or targeted chaos. While Cthulhu is the most famous of the Mythos gods and beings, there are many to torment and haunt the reader. And if those don’t, surely Lovecraft’s dated and horribly uncomfortable racist views will!

There is also a large expanded universe by many skilled and diverse authors that are very much worthy of investigating. I recommend Victor Lavalle, Cassandra Khaw, Matt Huff, John Hornor Jacobs, and of course, the inimitable Neil Gaiman (links to a free sample of his work).

Read these stories legally and online for free.

The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey

Want a long sci-fi series with lots of amazing horror elements and page lengths that make each novel usable as a weapon? Then Corey’s Expanse series is perfectly suited to your needs. There are far too many books in the series to explain everything, but here’s the rundown: when some ice miners from Saturn and a detective hunting for a missing girl run into each other on an abandoned ship hiding a secret, they must find a narrow path to safety by avoiding the eyes of the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations that hold sway over all aspects of life. 

While the series certainly is sci-fi to the extreme, the elements and tropes of horror are threaded throughout, particularly with body horror–after all the reactions of a human body exposed to the dangers of space can result in torturous consequences. Beyond this, certain characters have personalities that lend themselves to inducing terror without more than a few words. Highly recommend the series for the characters if nothing else.

There is also an excellent, though canceled before concluding, television adaptation.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past Series by Liu Cixin

MILD SPOILERS

We base an awful lot of our existence on certain concepts–scientifically, religiously, philosophically. But what if all of them were wrong? What if they were not only wrong, but purposefully coordinated by outside forces to completely stunt our development?

This is the terrifying premise of the Three Body Problem and its two sequels. This book is hard sci-fi at its finest, incorporating many elements of cosmic terror throughout the books both from the very real Trisolaran species, and the incredible philosophical terror behind the main thesis of the books: what do you do when everything you know is built on orchestrated lies?

The books have some issues regarding sexism. There’s absolutely no way to sugarcoat that, just as there is no way to sugarcoat Lovecraft’s racism. There is one plot point that genuinely made me angry. But I do think these books are great and have a lot of value for fans of these genres who want deep speculation in their sci-fi and horror.

This series is currently in production at Netflix.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Another sci-fi horror which relies heavily on the speculative and philosophical, Solaris uses exploration of an alien planet to explore the intersections of memory and identity. How much of you is memory? The crew of the ship sent to explore Solaris must begin to wrestle with this question as their memories of days past are resurfacing in literal forms. Does anything sinister lurk behind the planet or its intent?

Adapted for film twice, once well by Steven Soderbergh who was reimagining the Russian masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, the story lends itself to slow burn yet intensely heated drama and interpersonal and internal conflict. This is an alien story, yes, but not the explosive alien of Ridley Scott’s franchise–rather this one gets inside both character and reader in profoundly different ways. 

Who Goes There? Or The Thing by John W. Campbell

Originally a short story, The Thing got two film adaptations before the full novel version of the story (called Frozen Hell) was released by the Campbell estate. The novel follows an American crew whose research trip to McMurdo Antarctic Station becomes a shocking, bloodsoaked nightmare when they realize there is a shape-shifting alien hiding in the dog they rescued. As the novel goes on we’re left with questions about autonomy and identity, as well as who we can really trust.

The John Carpenter film is the most well known iteration of the story, which is very valid as it is an utterly incredible classic of both genres it represents. However, it’s very interesting to go back to the original source material to explore parallels and differences from the source material!

Read a free and legal copy from NYU here.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

This one is less on the list due to its own strength and more its overwhelming influence on the genres. As the most famous and one of the first of alien invasion fiction, the story of an English countryside being overtaken by apocalyptic aliens in giant walking machines had been adapted many times over the more than a century old novel.

The most infamous of this is the highly apocryphal tale of Orson Welles’ radio show hoax wherein allegedly thousands of people were convinced the broadcast was due to a real alien invasion. Little proof supports this as more than a gimmick put forth by Welles after the fact, but the story did scare listeners–just in a typical way for a horror show. It was also adapted into a Tom Cruise vehicle picture which wasn’t terrible, and it inspired thousands of books, films, shows, comics, and games about invasion by aliens.

Read it online legally and for free here.

World War Z by Max Brooks

This epistolary novel told in an almost documentary style is, in my opinion, probably the best example of the writing style ever chosen for use in genre fiction. World War Z uses dry, report-like language, interspersed with gripping personal, interview-like chapters in such an effective way that it literally gave me nightmares, dwelling in my brain long long after I first read it. I normally do not like zombie media in the slightest, yet this is so much more than zombie media; it truly is a commentary on the nature of humanity. When I found out this writer of the most terrifying book I’d ever read was the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks I was both stunned and not: both men deeply understand human nature, they just display it in differing ways.

There was a middling action movie that wasn’t outright bad in any way, it just didn’t portray the book. At all. It was highly frustrating as a fan to see the departure even if the movie was a solid effort. Hopefully one day we will get a series that gives us a worthy showing of what this novel has to offer.

Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

Carrion Comfort is a hell of a book, but its influence on horror cannot be denied. When Saul Laski, a Jewish prisoner of war in the labor camps, escapes the Nazi monsters holding him captive, he begins a decades long journey towards discovering what sets these global atrocities in motion. He discovers a secret cabal of psionic vampires feeding on the suffering of humanity–the book follows him as he tries to upend the order. While it sounds goofy, it is very much an influential horror book. 

Much of The Strain by the phenomenal Guillermo del Toro and Paul Hogan can be traced to Carrion Comfort, as can the concept of fully psionic energy vampires. Since 1989, this book has been terrorizing new readers, giving us all ideas on how the intersections of genre and traditional tropes for storytelling can be stretched.

Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The basis for the films The Village of the Damned (1960, 1994, 2022), Midwich Cuckoos takes place in a small town in which everyone passes out one day simultaneously. When they awake, all of the women of child-bearing age are pregnant and notably further along than they should be. After the scandal and accusations die down, it becomes understood that something supernatural has happened; this is reinforced when the children are born…odd. White hair, piercing eyes, and soon enough, psionic powers define the identities of the Midwich Cuckoo children.

The story is incredibly influential to horror, as the children became iconic progenitors of the “dangerous/scary children” subgenre of horror. It’s also a terrifying commentary on bodily autonomy for women, though few adaptations have fully explored this the way it should be.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

You all knew the progenitor of the genre and one of my favorite books of all time wouldn’t be missing from this list! Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley INVENTED the genre of science fiction and so seamlessly blended it with horror that it is inextricably linked to both genres. The language of the book is strong, with quotes that make my skin feel like an electric shock is running through it or like cold water is rushing down my spine. 

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

The resonance of this and so many other moments from the creation are something I will expound upon in later articles, but for now, suffice to say my thoughts and feelings on this book and the various adaptations after it are plentiful. It is the mother of the genre, the intersection of two genres, and so many literary trope concepts that it would beggar belief to list them all. 

Read the full text legally online here.

And with that, my dears, we close another article! I hope you’re enjoying these, and that they give you some ideas. What would some of y’all like to see? Comment below with something you’d like for me to write!

Author Dive: John Hornor Jacobs

I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Southern Gods a year back at McKay, Nashville’s largest used media store. The cover design was neat, but it was the blurb that caught my eye.

Lovecraft in the style of Southern gothic? I had to give it a shot.

I don’t regret it one bit either. While it’s not Jacobs’ strongest work in my opinion, the atmosphere, character work, and general vibes of the novel are excellent; the tale of a P.I. tracking down a deadly DJ in the Jim Crow-era South is definitely one that I recommend to those looking to expand out further into the mythos. 

It got me very curious about the other works of the author, who dabbles both in adult and YA fiction–mostly within the genres of horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction. I personally have no issues with adults who enjoy YA, even ones who are older than me, but as a reader, my preference is for adult fiction. Therefore, I’ll be discussing what I’ve read as far as his works for my age group.

Southern Gods is a great starting point for that. What started as a rough draft for the National Novel Writing Month challenge blossomed into a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel nominee in 2011. That fact gives me tons of hope for my own writing, but it also just goes to show that sometimes the writing is just the first step–you have to put in the legwork to get edited and published too! 

The book follows irascible veteran turned private investigator Bull Ingraham as he’s charged with investigating a strange radio personality whose voice and music seem to induce madness. Ramblin’ John Hastur is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for such power, but of course, it’s far worse than just that….

Y’all this book was FUN! The vibes switch depending on the POV character with Alice bringing forth Jacobs’ gothic horror sensibilities, while Bull’s POV is all hard-boiled detective fiction. While the inspiration is so clearly paying loving homage and dedication to the Mythos, Jacobs’ is also bringing more of his own unique twist to the Mythos. As a fan of both Lovecraftian god figures, Ramblin’ John feels not just like Hastur but also Nyarlathotep, a choice which I think was excellent for this novel. The ending is a bit too tropey at points, but it’s also not as nihilistic an ending as most Mythos fiction–which I oddly enjoy a lot about it.

The short story collection Murder Ballads and Other Horrific Tales contains the sequel to Southern Gods, and while it’s very much enjoyable, I’ll admit it’s a touch overshadowed by some of the other stories in the collection. To be clear, I say this as a compliment to how delightfully dark and fun some of the other tales are. As with all collections, some fall a bit shorter than others (sorry, John, very few authors can make me like a ‘dangers of artificial intelligence’ tale), but it’s very much worth checking out–just maybe skip the titular story if you want to read Southern Gods first. “The Children of Yig”, though, is an excellent Mythos short story that combines Jacobs’ love for the mythos with his love of history wonderfully.

The last of Jacobs’ horror works that I’ve experienced is A Lush and Seething Hell, and I do mean I experienced it. A collected duology of two tales just-too-short to be novellas, this work is probably Jacob’s most praised and for damn good reason. It blends the horror of the cosmic with folk horror seamlessly, all the while interweaving Jacobs’ unabashed love and knowledge of history into the pages. Reviews have even compared the writing in it to Nabakov and Faulkner–I definitely see the influence of the latter, as well as O’Connor and Jackson (though with a Southern twist in her case). 

Overall, I cannot recommend enough giving his works of horror fiction a try. They are well-written, atmospheric, and genre-blending in a way that few are. While there is an occasional reliance on more cliche tropes, I can’t say that they take away from the experience of reading his works in any significant way. 

A short article by my standards, but a bit more graphics work went into it. If you’d like to see more dives into authors or even individual books, just let me know in the comments below, or contact me via my Carrd!