The Ballad of Black Tom
by Victor LaValle
published in February 2016
ISBN: 9780765387868

I somehow missed this book when it came out in 2016 and recently saw it come up as a suggestion on Goodreads. It's a short read, coming in at just 149 pages, and packs a lot of story into a slim paperback.

Tommy is a hustler in Jazz Age Harlem, doing what needs to be done to help provide for himself and his ill father in a world that is at times hostile to their very existence as Black men. That includes doing some odd jobs like finding a forbidden tome for a mysterious old crone, or playing music for an eccentric old white man who seems to have one foot in our world and one in another. Tommy isn't a wizard or anything like that, but he has a wary appreciation for the existence of the unexplainable. 

When a routine job goes bad, Tommy finds himself pursued by abusive cops and dark magic and must decide just how far he will go down the rabbit hole of forbidden knowledge.

LaValle does a masterful job of creating atmospheric tension and creepiness that is almost Spartan in its brevity, cuts like a sharp knife, and will make you look around the room uneasily if you're alone.

This is a riff on Lovecraftian themes and is loosely based on The Horror at Red Hook. (You can read it here if you're interested, but it's not that great and it's not necessary for appreciating LaValle's story. In fact, you really need no prior Lovecraft exposure to appreciate The Ballad of Black Tom.) 

I'm keeping this recommendation in my back pocket for patrons who are looking for a quick horror read.