What Lovecraft Taught Me About Harlem

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by Victor LaValle

Victor LaValleH.P. Lovecraft spent almost his whole damn life in Providence, Rhode Island. Born and raised into an insular family, young Howard could be described, generously, as sheltered. Then along came Sonia Greene, writer, hat-designer, single-mother, and Jew, she and Lovecraft fell for each other and married in 1924. Lovecraft was thirty-three, Greene forty. Greene moved Lovecraft down to Brooklyn to live with her and supported him financially, but eventually she lost her job, budgets got tighter, and they moved to cheaper parts of the borough.

Lovecraft is famous for his stories of cosmic horror but in more recent years he’s become nearly as famous for his prejudices. He hated immigrants and blacks, hated Jews and there’s a hardly a woman of interest in his fiction. (In “The Thing on the Doorstep” there seems to be a woman who’s central to the story but it turns out a male consciousness has taken over her body so…) The guy had a lot of ugly feelings about different kinds ofpeople. Mostly those feelings were repulsion and fear.

While living in Brooklyn he wrote two stories located there, “The Horror at Red Hook” and “He.” Nobody ranks them as his best stuff but they’re interesting, in part, because they’re anomalies in his output. Much of his stuff takes place in New England and it’s better for it. Say what you will about Lovecraft but he had a good grip on the landscapes of New England. I grew up in New York City but when I started reading him—around ten years old—he drew vivid pictures for me. It’s part of why I fell in love with him. I came for the monsters, but stayed for all that local atmosphere.

But because I grew up in New York I felt a personal fascination with those two Brooklyn based stories. I regularly returned to “The Horror at Red Hook” more than “He” because the former had more of a plot. There’s an NYPD detective named Malone who stumbles across a vast, ugly, occult conspiracy in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Horrible things are being done by the dusky immigrants of the neighborhood, all of them being orchestrated by Robert Suydam, a wealthy, white man with an interest in the occult. As Malone follows clues he gets closer to Suydam and, by the end, things go haywire in an enormous explosion of dreamscape wildness that doesn’t make much sense at all. I loved it all and at ten years old didn’t pick up on all his casual anti-immigrant bias. As I grew older though, and returned to the work, I couldn’t help but see it. Some parts read like the kind of sentiments you’d hear chanted at your average anti-mosque rally in the United States today. Some of it was worse. I began to write as a teenager and one of my first influences was Mr. Lovecraft. I borrowed heavily from the cosmic and left the caustic behind.

But last summer I felt the urge to have a conversation with Lovecraft about the bad stuff, too. How could I love and loathe this guy’s work in such equal measure? I decided to think my way through the issue by writing a story about it. I’d read and reread  all his work but  “The Horror at Red Hook” immediately stood out as the piece I wanted to rewrite, resist, remix. Lovecraft, chopped and screwed.

That said, I didn’t want to confront that story merely on the grounds of its prejudices, I also knew he’d simply done a bad job of writing about New York. I found his New England landscapes unassailable because I just didn’t know the place. A native might’ve picked out all the things he got wrong, but I couldn’t see it. His New York errors were glaring to me though. I’m not talking about whether he described some geography correctly, or if he knew the correct piece of slang for that time and place. I mean the spirit of it all. I mean the complication.

If you ever read a piece of fiction that suggests this place or that place—these people or those people—are simple to understand, clear in their actions and motivations, then you are reading a work of bullshit. And “The Horror at Red Hook” is full of bullshit. For instance, the grand conspiracy that the detective, Malone, tracks down, all these faceless and nameless immigrants doing the bidding of their master. Their master who happens to be a wealthy, old white man whose main qualification seems to be that he’s wealthy, white, and male. These dusky people don’t even get to be independently evil! They’re just following orders. Well let me tell you what I know from growing up in a community of color. We can be evil all by ourselves. We can be damn good too. I decided to reimagine “The Horror at Red Hook” because H.P. Lovecraft hadn’t been up to the task. He’d approached it from the wrong direction. The story wasn’t about how Robert Suydam stirred up a bunch of brown people in Red Hook. The story was about why these brown people might be so willing to tear things apart in 1920s America. Now that was interesting.

The Ballad of Black Tom

I decided I’d choose one of those nameless hordes and make him my new protagonist. Malone would still be there, Robert Suydam too, the whole conspiracy at the heart of that story remained in place, but I approached from a new angle. Like entering a city through a new neighborhood makes you see the place in a whole different way. I created a character named Charles Thomas Tester—Tommy Tester for short. And I wanted to write about more of New York City in that era so I made Tommy a native of Harlem, a kind of supernatural con man who gets wrapped up with Robert Suydam all the horrors he hopes to unleash. This is how my novella, The Ballad of Black Tom began to take shape.

One problem I quickly discovered is that I didn’t know that much about Harlem in the 1920s. I really only knew one thing: the Harlem Renaissance took place during this time. One of the great artistic highpoints in American history the Harlem Renaissance gave us the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Alain Locke; Arna Bontemps and Claude McKay and too many more great black American artists to count. The only fair comparison is the artistic maelstrom of Paris in the same era. I knew about those artistic highlights, but didn’t want to drop Tommy into that milieu. I wanted him to be a member of a different Harlem, the one that doesn’t make it into glamorous histories. This meant I had to do research. I should say this meant I got to do research. One of the great pleasures of writing is research because the world will always surprise you if you let it.

As I tripped my way down various paths I came across a post on the Digital Harlem Blog. The piece was called “Morgan Thompson—a West Indian Laborer’s Life in Harlem.” It gave me some basic details that helped to illustrate the life of a working person in Harlem in that era. Then, in passing, I read this sentence: “Thompson also sought out fellow immigrants in his leisure time, joining the Victoria Society, a West Indian social club with rooms on West 137th Street.”

The Victoria Society.

Now that sounded interesting and surprising and, most importantly, complicated. I loved this detail because it upended the assumptions I hadn’t realized I was making about Harlem when I first sat down to write. I’d thought of the place as one thing—black America’s Mecca—but here was a whole black community within that community, a West Indian social club on 137th street. Hot damn that was exciting. The Victoria Society became an integral part of the novella, a central location for the book. The Victoria Society became important to the novel in another way too. It helped me to understand the story I was trying to tell and the conversation I’d been trying to have with H.P. Lovecraft.

My beef with Lovecraft had been that he’d dismissed, diminished the complexity of the brown people in his story but then I’d gone and dismissed, or at least been unaware, of the complexity of the brown people in my story. The simple solution to this issue would’ve been to ignore the problem. I could’ve just erased the Victoria Society from my book and really nothing about the plot of the story would’ve been changed. The meaning of the story would’ve been vastly different though.

I realized, only after I’d written the whole thing, that The Ballad of Black Tom was about the deadly effects of willful ignorance. Don’t get me wrong, the story is also about a cosmic war for power and bucketloads of murder, but a good story is never just about its plot. I hated H.P. Lovecraft for being unwilling, or even unable, to imagine the multifaceted humanity of the immigrants of Red Hook but in the process of writing the story I discovered a similar tendency in myself. Rather than just shrugging my shoulders and saying, Hey it’s human nature, I decided to interrogate that nature within the work. We’re all limited and faulty, of course, but that’s why our curiosity is such a blessing.  Curiosity is actually the gift Prometheus gave humanity. When an intelligent, inquisitive person—like H.P. Lovecraft—proves so willfully uninterested in whole segments of humanity it’s particularly heartbreaking. But what do you do when someone you admire disappoints you? Try talking with him. Literature is the conversation humanity is having with itself. It ends only when there’s silence. It continues, it improves,  when more voices join in.


Victor LaValle is the author of a collection of stories, slapboxing with jesus, and three novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver. He has been the recipient of a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship among other. His latest book is a novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, which can be found at many retailers, linked to here:
http://publishing.tor.com/theballadofblacktom-victorlavalle/9780765386618.

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3 Comments

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  3. Thank you for your candor. It was very helpful to me.

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