Why Victor LaValle’s Monsters Gnaw at You

It’s been a minute, Dear Reader. Been a while since our last post and longer since our promise to bring you more about horror creators of color.

Part of that delay is because the pandemic has caused time to fade into nothingness, and makes your brain/soul feel like it’s moving through molasses. Everything is further slowed by the humidity you experience here in Virginia during this time of year.  

It’s seriously like that swirling Twilight Zone clock all the damn time.

But the good news is, I have been devouring and processing content from Victor LaValle, an author this blog highly recommends you add to your COVID reading list. He has novels, novellas, short story collections, and graphic novels. Plenty to keep you busy, terrified, and thoughtful.

Even better, Victor LaValle’s works are an excellent follow up piece to our previous Lovecraft Country article. LaValle has also used fiction to take on H.P. Lovecraft’s bigoted bullshit while also paying homage to his creations. And like Matt Ruff, LaValle has written outside of his race—he writes for a white protagonist in The Devil in Silver.

When you read Victor LaValle, know that you are going to laugh. You’re going to feel unease and terror, you’re going to feel disgust (either at gore or racism or both), but you are also going to laugh.

LaValle’s stories strive to strike a balance—between faith and despair, between survival and destruction, between deadly seriousness and dark jokes.

LaValle also tends to try to balance paying homage to the greats and tearing down the greats into something new. He recognizes that it is okay to praise things that bettered your life or imagination, even if they are imperfect. He equally indulges in remolding those things into an alternative creative perspective.

LaValle began ‘wrestling with the greats’ in his novella The Ballad of Black Tom (2016). The Ballad of Black Tom won or was a finalist for 8 major awards between 2016-2017. These included the prestigious Bram Stoker Award, Nebula Award, and Hugo Award. The book got significant attention and praise for its concept and execution.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a re-write or renewed perspective of The Horror at Red Hook by H.P. Lovecraft.

The Horror at Red Hook is considered tangentially connected to the Cthulu-verse. Cthulu and the other Elder Gods are never explicitly named, but a naughty black magic cult is certainly afoot.

The Horror at Red Hook is really only remembered for how bad it is—in particular, how hekkin’ racist it is. And when a Lovecraft work stands out as being especially racist, you know it’s bad.

The short story is a result of the short time during which Lovecraft lived in the Red Hook neighborhood of New York City. There, Lovecraft was constantly going into raging hysterics because “oh noes, dirty not-whites are walking around like they’re just allowed to exist or something! The nerve!”

The Wikipedia page refers to this as the ‘inspiration’ behind the short story, which is an awfully pretty word for ‘the paranoid origin of 8,333 bigoted words cloaked in occult horror’.

Again: This Fucking Guy.

LaValle takes this lesser known (and deservedly maligned) work of Lovecraft and twists it into something reflective, innovative, and even more horrific than the original. It was in some ways a cathartic work of LaValle’s, working through his appreciation and disdain for the racist author. It opens with the note “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.”

LaValle takes this story’s framework and reworks it around his own black protagonist, Tommy Tester. Tommy lives in Harlem and makes his living hustling white people, convincing them that he plays the blues like a master (we are told this is hilariously incorrect). By a fluke of circumstance or two, Tommy gets yanked into the nefarious goings-on in Red Hook—not only by cultists, but by the police.

Look, I’ll admit, Lovecraftian horror specifically is not a favorite of mine. I never got into cosmic horror or being driven into madness by how ‘incomprehensible’ something is. It was just too abstract and ‘all or nothing’ for me. I just never found it interesting.

But LaValle made that flavor of horror work for me. LaValle ties that horror to human behavior and relationships, things that are tangible, understandable, and therefore easier to conjure fear.

LaValle understands that otherworldly, cosmic terrors cannot sustain horror and dread for that long on their own. What extends the reach of their horror is what humans do when confronted with such terrors. And in LaValle’s narrative, they do not behave well.

Tommy Tester eventually unleashes his fury in ways that are murderous and apocalyptic. LaValle does not make excuses for the choices Tommy makes. But he also demonstrates how easily terrible, mad choices are made when surrounded by the evils put upon being a black man in America.

Similar issues arise in The Devil in Silver (2012), where our protagonist Pepper gets put into a mental hospital and discovers that a literal monster is dwelling inside its walls. When surrounded by intense and incomprehensible stressors, people in The Devil in Silver rarely make the right choice.

LaValle’s narrative voice really had room to shine in this novel. He tells things from Pepper’s perspective, gives a birds-eye view of the corrupt/Kafkaesque US healthcare system, and even takes a brief detour to talk about a rat living alone in a hospital wing because he’s “an asshole.”

The novel is also heavily influenced by LaValle’s upbringing in Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the nation. The mental hospital staff and patients are a cross section of a very diverse community.

The patients you meet are unusual and most definitely need mental care, but they are treated with dignity as well as affectionate humor. The mental hospital staff are not one-dimensional villains like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (also the book takes a brief minute to deride that book, which gives it extra bonus points from me). They are workers that intend to do a good job, but are in a system that grinds them into cynical employees and abominable caretakers. And yes, LaValle even manages to balance terror and sympathy with the titular Devil.

This was LaValle’s first foray into writing for a white protagonist. LaValle is biracial—his mother was Ugandan and his father was white (although that father was absent for nearly his entire life). Writing for the character Pepper, a large (6ft, 275 lbs) white blue collar guy in his 40s was a new experience for LaValle. But this wasn’t a totally alien identity to LaValle either—he used to be 155lbs heavier and working-class white guys were not in short supply growing up in NYC.

“… I grew up with a lot of them. I felt like, to my great surprise, working-class white dudes, if they’re written up in things, are often caricatures—they’re the abusive drunken husband, the abusive drunken dad, the abusive drunken driver … but the kids I grew up with I knew were good folks, at least some of them. So I thought, If no one’s going to write these people as complex characters, then I’ll do it. I love them as much as I love any of the other people I grew up with. So Pepper came out of that.”

As someone who got to know a lot of large working-class white guys wrapped up in seeing themselves as monster slayers and in serious need of therapy, LaValle’s portrayal rang true to me (thanks LARPing in the Midwest!).

AKA the guys who didn’t get the memo that Harry Dresden is NOT a role model.

LaValle’s 2018 full length graphic novel is Destroyer—a renewed take on to Frankenstein. In it, Frankenstein actually created his monster. And in the ensuing 200 years, a secret government organization had been diligently updating Frankenstein’s technology, fearing the monster’s return.

The monster reemerges and wreaks violent mayhem everywhere he goes. All this just in time for a brilliant black scientist, Dr. Josephine Baker, to reveal her own creation. Josephine has used nanotechnology to bring her young son back to life. Previously, the 12 year old boy was killed by a Chicago police officer in a scene chillingly similar to the murder of Tamir Rice.

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley heavily implied that Victor failed because he was trying to usurp a role that mothers best provide (according to ideals of the time that Shelley subscribed to). So in Destroyer, LaValle takes that notion and runs with it.

Our protagonist is a mother who suffers the abomination of her body’s creation being murdered, and gives life to that creation a second time through her own genius. A doctor who is fully invested in cherishing and protecting the corpse brought back to life, rather than disgusted and horrified.

Much like The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle takes a classic tale and puts it in a broader context. It carries a theme of warning that justified rage can easily twist into madness and self-destruction.

A spoiler, but an important one: in all three of these works, a black person is killed by police. You are ever-reminded that the boogeymen stalking LaValle’s pages are not the only threats to our heroes.  

White horror protagonists are always waiting for the arrival of the cavalry. They are doing everything in their power to get in contact with the police. To be rescued. LaValle’s fiction doesn’t extend into such fantasies.

I wouldn’t define LaValle’s works with clichés like ‘topical’ or ‘modeled after current events’. Because the reality is that the fight for Black Lives Matter is more historic and enduring than the classical novels LaValle recrafts.

While many of us are trying to better educate ourselves about race by reading nonfiction, don’t forget about fiction. And definitely don’t forget about horror. Fiction, I think, is when writers share their true hearts and fears. Horror is an even deeper examination. In fact, reading fiction has been shown to improve your empathy.

For horror genre fans, LaValle’s reworking of classics is a breath of fresh air. Tinkering with classics for a ‘hot take’ is nothing new, but LaValle’s renewal of these works carries real weight.

Particularly, LaValle’s rework of Lovecraft is a fitting counter to the highly flawed Lovecraft’s perspective. As LaValle has pointed out, Lovecraft wasn’t merely afraid of immigrants and people of color. Lovecraft was afraid of the world around him because it was modernizing. Because his archaic ideas about how the world ‘should’ work were rapidly changing forever. The modern, diverse, progressive world was inevitable and incomprehensible—just like the Elder Gods.

We think about monsters a lot these days. Too much. It can feel overwhelming. But I advocate for reading as a relief from such thoughts—even horror, and even horror that accurately conjures terrors of the mundane, real world. Victor LaValle’s writing offers such an escape, where you can feel like you’re taking a break while still staying conscious of the darkness outside.

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