I've been reading a lot of novellas lately, most quite excellent - something I already addressed here - and I read in succession Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw and The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (review to be published on July 1st and I'll rave about it).
What struck me most about those two novellas was how much Lovecraft's universe was an influence for both. "But", are you thinking, "Lovecraft was a stinking white male racist. Isn't there a paradox here?"
I won't examine "why" Khaw and LaValle both wrote stories that can very much be considered part of the Lovecraft legacy, but what interested me was to examine the parallels and how, as writers of colour both, they also distance themselves from this legacy.
Please be aware there'll be spoilers for both these novellas in what follows.
Scifi and fantasy writers of colours do not shy from and are tackling what we could call the "Lovecraft issue". It's difficult not to recognise the genre quality of his works. But it's equally difficult not to recognise that the man's racism is a sore point in his writing because it is pervasive in many of his stories. Nnedi Okorafor addressed this issue in one of her blog posts, before the Lovecraft statuette was dropped by the World Fantasy Award, and, as a genre writer of colour, stated that they had to deal with "The fact that many of The Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us."
So, how did Hammers on Bone and The Ballad of Black Tom dealt with the Lovecraft legacy as both can be very much considered part of this legacy?
If I follow the Wikipedia definition of Lovecraftian horror (by April 2017), it involves "a set of supernatural, pre-human and extra-terrestrial elements" with a "preoccupation with viscerate texture", "helplessness and hopelessness" and "sanity's fragility".
Hammers on Bone perfectly falls into these categories. The many eyed tentacled monsters with their smell reminding of rot or salt water show how much Khaw worked on that "viscerate texture". Her main character, Persons, doesn't win his combat against the monster: he's badly beaten. Finally, his sanity is put to the test because the voice of the human whose body he inhabits sends him pleas that are contradictory with his self preservation or his instincts.
In The Ballad of Black Tom, the hopelessness is often a hopelessness born out of race and class. In the first part of the novella, when he's facing white people, Tommy doesn't fight nor rebel: he plays the game and has the subservient attitude expected of him which is necessary to his survival. At the end of the novella, the hopelessness is Malone's. The "sanity's fragility" appear for Tommy when he first glimpses the Sleeping King, but also when the murder of his father is announced to him. In the second part of the novella, it is, again, Malone's who is, decidedly, the most traditional Lovecraftian character (white, racist, fascinated by the occult, hopeless and unstable at the end). There isn't much "preoccupation with viscerate texture" as the real monsters are the white men and then Black Tom, though we can find traces of it in the scene in the tenement basement. There are also many references to Lovecraft, including the abominable detective Howard and the "man originally from Rhode Island" whose "constitution was better suited to Providence." Furthermore, LaValle dedicates his novella to Lovecraft, "with all [his] conflicted feelings".
Both The Ballad of Black Tom and Hammers on Bone provide "a set of supernatural, pre-human and extra-terrestrial elements" aplenty. That they are both Lovecraftian horror novellas can't be doubted.
But both Hammers on Bone and The Ballad of Black Tom have as their main characters a black man. In Hammers on Bone, Persons' skin colour is mentioned only twice (please note I may have missed some other references to it). Paradoxically, one of the secondary characters the waitress, is more strongly identified as woman of colour from the description of her skin colour and of her hair. So even if Khaw is definitely subverting Lovecraft's racists views with her choice of a main character, a distracted reader may miss that important aspect.
In The Ballad of Black Tom, it will be much harder to miss as LaValle mentions not only the skin colour, many cultural references, the word "Negro" to qualify his main character and, above all, the racism he has to face. If Tommy becomes Black Tom it's because of racism: fuelled by his anger, he releases the Lovecraftian monsters upon the monsters, the whites, and becoming himself, in turn, a monstrous killer. LaValle's story takes Lovecraft's racism and indifference, sometimes swept under the rug by some commentators, to make it the drive and cause of his story. Basically: in your face, Howard.
Furthermore, both Hammers on Bone and The Ballad of Black Tom use locations that are far removed from Lovecraft's all white and gentle neighbouroods. Khaw's story takes place in Croydon: she mentions how Croydon has now gentrified and is cut in half with the "middle class digging its tentacles into the veins of the borough". Those two sides of the same coin are like a through the looking glass mirror moment: Khaw's crossed the Lovecraftian border by putting both her hero and her main characters within the borough. And while Lovecraft dreaded those locations, dens of what he considered lesser races, iniquity, and abnormality, Khaw makes them come to life, with good and bad people, with, basically, human beings in all their moral and skin colour diversity.
In the first part of his novella, LaValle also uses topology as a separating line, but with different goals: Tommy belongs to Harlem, Flushing Meadows or Flatbush are dangerous places to him as a man of colour. The places are reversed from Lovecraft's: it is in the white neighbourhood that the hero, as a black man, will encounter danger and horror, though mostly caused by humans, that because of his skin colour he has to accept he will be treated as inferior. LaValle maintains the race divide and underlines it but by turning it on its head.
Another departing element, though it might be considered more minor, is that in both Hammers on Bone and in The Ballad of Black Tom the monsters are actually the humans. Khaw's acknowledgement makes it clear the novella is a metaphor against paedophilia ; LaValle's inhuman monsters remain in the offing while human beings commit racist crimes, kill without any qualm or quietly plan to eradicate humanity.
The metaphysical anguish born from the insignificance of humans within the cosmos really cedes its place to anger towards the actions of men and women in this world.
So both Hammers on Bone and The Ballad of Black Tom depart from at least one important aspect of the Lovecraftian legacy while still remaining Lovecraftian tales. Nonetheless, by another aspect, they both remain true to it: they are very much male universes.
In Hammers on Bone, there are two female secondary characters: one is the mother. She is defined as both a victim and, by her inaction, an accomplice of the monstruous actions of her partner. The other is Sasha, the waitress. But the ending reveals her as a representative of superior powers. Even if the Old One she represents is female, Sasha remains an accessory more than a character in her own right. I even found it striking that a female writer chose a man as her main character for such a tale even though she chose to emphasize diversity.
In The Ballad of Black Tom, where are the women? Tommy lives with his father, he encounters thugs and policemen who are men. There is a sorceress and a woman who acts as a witness. But one is hidden inside her home and doomed to disappear, the other is defined by being hidden into her home too: she's just the eyes that were needed to tell us what happened.
Both Hammers on Bone and The Ballad of Black Tom seem to reinforce this idea that, even if characters of colour can exist in and be the focus of a Lovecraftian universe, female characters remain on the sideline. The mother and Sasha, the waitress, in Khaw's novella depart from the pure Lovecraftian female character by being either a victim or the servant of a powerful entity, but they are still secondary and neither is into action. Of course, those two novellas can't be considered as representative of all contemporary Lovecraftian universes: for instance in his Laundry series, Stross, from the second volume, gives a significant role to female characters. But it is striking that these two novellas in particular departed radically from the original Lovecraftian universe by giving the main focus to a character of colour, and nonetheless remained very much shy when it came to breaking the mold of the Lovecraftian female character.
To conclude, Hammers on Bone and The Ballad of Black Tom seem to me as two very significant novellas. Apart from their obvious qualities in their own right, they both repossess a major writer by acknowledging his creativity and his influence but by also tackling one of his most repulsive aspects and turning it on its head.
It's both killing the father and erecting a statue to his memory.
It certainly shows how conflicted specfic writers of colour can feel, but it's also a wonderful and creative way to repossess their place in a world they were originally ejected from.
I will review (and heap praises about) The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle on 1st July. You can subscribe to the newsletter here to know of the publication of the review.
"While we were reading" is an irregular feature in which C. shares thoughts with friends Leigh, Ian, Azzie , Amy and other guests about reading science-fiction and fantasy. Nothing fancy, come as you are.