Archive for June, 2020

Taco Tuesday

Okay, folks, wanna hear about the weirdest comic I’ve read in a long, long time? Let’s take a look at Apocalypse Taco by Nathan Hale.

Things start out, well, kinda predictably for a middle-grade graphic novel. It’s production night for the high school’s production of “Brigadoon,” and that means an all-night set-building session. Responsible Ivan and deeply irresponsible Axl are the lone junior-high kids on hand, solely because their mother is the drama teacher. The wrestling team raids the drama club’s pizza stash, and eventually, the food runs out, and everyone gets hungry.

Ivan and Axl are assigned to go get food from the nearest McDonald’s, thanks to a handful of MickeyD’s gift certificates. And Sid, a high school girl with her own truck, volunteers to ferry them to the restaurant and back. But Axl manages to lose all the gift certificates, so the three of them decide to stop at the nearest Taco Bear instead, ’cause Mexican food sounds more appealing.

And that’s when things start getting weird.

The Taco Bear is full of customers — but there aren’t any cars in the parking lot. And the doors are locked, so no one can come in. So the kids go through the drive-thru and pick up their order. And the food transforms into shapeshifting flesh monsters.

After throwing the food out the window, the kids race back to the school, only to find that all the drama students are also shapeshifting flesh monsters. And the school itself is a shapeshifting flesh monster.

Basically, everything is a shapeshifting flesh monster at this point.

The kids drive off, pursued by other cars, which are, of course, shapeshifting flesh monsters. They find an ally who’s a ball of arms — and when the arms get cut off, there’s a grad student underneath.

And then everyone gets sucked underground into an immense slime hive of replicating skin bees.

Is there any way for Ivan, Axl, and Sid to escape? Has the world gone completely mad?

Verdict: Thumbs up. But boy, I’ll tell ya, I never imagined I’d find a middle-grade YA graphic novel so absolutely drenched in body horror.

If you’re into body horror, this is pretty great stuff. Besides the flesh monsters disguised as fast-food bags, lockers, cars, and people, you’ve got the grad student/arm monster, you’ve got a monster made of teeth, you’ve got giant mutated bees, you’ve got a vast underground temple of gooey, writhing meat and tentacles.

If you’re getting this for a junior-high or upper elementary school student? Well, read it before you give it to them, and then decide if you think they can handle it. I’m not sure there’s anything as scary as the monster from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” but the sheer overwhelming volume of squishy tentacle horrors makes for some pretty intense moments.

Leave a Comment

The New Scum

What a week. What a week, filled with disillusionment and disappointment and absolutely justified rage.

There are a lot of skeletons getting pulled out of closets and a lot of assholes and creeps taken to task.

Charles Brownstein is out at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund — but he was allowed to resign, instead of being fired. And he got to stick around for 14 years after he’d been accused of abuse. And the CBLDF’s statement is pitifully weak.

Dark Horse Comics has finally given Scott Allie the heave-ho, over 20 years after multiple reports of his abusive behavior. But Dark Horse was only pushed to action after Mike Mignola — no angel himself — threw his support behind Allie’s victims. And there are way too many similar accusations directed at Dark Horse president Mike Richardson.

Warren Ellis, Cameron Stewart, and Jason Latour have been accused by multiple people of various creeper behaviors. Same goes for genre writers Sam Sykes and Myke Cole.

Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity is out, and the entire company stands accused of widespread sexism and racism.

And to add additional insult to the pile of injuries, it was revealed that Mairghread Scott, who wrote the “Batgirl” series just a few years ago, was purposely excluded from planning meetings for the Bat books, with her plans for the book derailed from on high by the men who ran the meetings.

Our nerdy, fun hobbies have been infested with abusers for years — and it’s not a recent phenomenon, judging from all we know about Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Forrest J. Ackerman. We’ve known all this for years, and so many people have been yelling about the ongoing problems with racism and sexism in comics for decades. And the same damn shit keeps happening over and over and over.

I don’t think I have any solutions to offer. I mean, I’ve got my ideas for what should be done — the CBLDF, Dark Horse, and Cards Against Humanity should cease to exist, for one thing. All three organizations are tainted to their core and have swept abuse under the rug for far too many years. I don’t think they’re worth preserving. But we also know that won’t happen, and there’s unlikely to be any significant improvement at any of them. They’ve been built on abuse, and they’ll continue to abuse.

If Ellis, Stewart, Latour, Sykes, and Cole want to work toward redemption, that’s on them, and good luck to ’em. But I don’t plan to support them for a good long while, until they’ve been able to show they’ve improved their behavior in concrete, unquestionable ways.

And right now, I kinda feel like sci-fi and comics conventions were a mistake almost from the beginning, and I kinda wish they wouldn’t come back in the post-COVID world. Yes, I know lots of creators make a decent sum of money from making appearances at conventions, and I wouldn’t want anyone to give that up. But it sure seems like conventions have turned into creeper-fests. And the cons themselves rarely do enough work to keep the creeps under control.

Solutions more solid than that? I wish I knew. Keep supporting creators who aren’t abusers would be the obvious thing — if only we knew which ones they were. And support people who’ve been victimized by abusers. Many of them were forced out of jobs by abusers, and they deserve better than they’ve got.

Comments off

Bye-Bye to Bully

If you needed more evidence that we’re all living in the Darkest Timeline: Bully the Little Stuffed Bull has decided to stop blogging.

He’s earned the rest — he’s been blogging for 15 years, and I can’t blame anyone for being ready to stop after all that time. He’s one of the last remaining bloggers from the Golden Age of Comics Blogging, and he’s kept his blog fun and positive for longer than I can imagine.

And I’m still a little pissed about it, ’cause Bully’s blog is so good, and I hate that we won’t have it around.

You can still find Bully on Twitter and Instagram.

May the cookies and cakes and burgers never end, Bully.

Comments off

Hit the Bricks

I’ve got plenty of excellent stuff to review right now, but I just can’t get interested in writing up any reviews. So I ain’t gonna.

I will note a minor change here on the blog — I’ve deleted my link in my blogroll to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. I did it for the following two reasons.

First: The past week has been a rough one for comics fans as we deal with the fact that a lot of comics creators, both prominent and obscure, have spent years abusing women, particularly creators trying to break into the industry. And one of those abusers is Charles Brownstein, the CBLDF’s longtime executive director.

And they’re not new or obscure accusations either. They date back to at least 2005, and were updated by the Comics Journal article in 2018. CBLDF has largely shrugged this all off. It’s not a good look for any organization that’s supposed to be focused on protecting comics creators, either back then or today.

Second: This is something that has irritated and mystified me for the last three years. The CBLDF defended neo-Nazi Milo Yianopoulos.

Wait, you say, was this related to a comic book he made? Nope, it was just a book he was getting a generous advance for writing. It had nothing at all to do with comics.

But wait, you say, was he being censored? Was his book seized by police or banned by the government? Nopers, friends, what was happening was that common ol’ private citizens and advocacy groups, unhappy that any publisher felt comfortable giving an abusive neo-Nazi — best known for trolling, doxxing innocent people, and giving winking approval to pedophilia — a generous advance for writing a shitty book, began organizing boycotts of publisher Simon & Schuster. And the CBLDF decided that was an unfair infringement on the sacred rights of a multi-national publishing corporation.

And no, it didn’t make a lick of sense to anyone else either. And the organization has never bothered to explain themselves to all the folks asking why. Frankly, it felt like they were offended that anyone was talking back to them, or maybe just hoping it’d blow over quickly before any comics creators decided to stop letting them sell autographed comics…

It took me longer than it should have to remove the link in my blogroll, partly because I only started blogging again just a few months back, and partly because I was privileged enough that I’d managed to forget both these incidents.

So give money to your favorite creators’ Patreons, drop money in your favorite bloggers’ tip jars, and contribute to the Hero Initiative. But let’s allow the CBLDF to fade away, hopefully to be replaced by an organization that doesn’t approve of Nazis and doesn’t assault women.

Comments off

The Elephant Remembers

Feels like it’s past time for me to do a book review, so let’s look at a short one — namely, The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, a novella about radiation, elephants, storytelling, and rage in the face of injustice and cruelty.

This story has roots in two incidents from real-world history. The first is the Radium Girls, female factory workers who painted radium on watches in the 1910s and ’20s. Glow-in-the-dark watches were a minor craze, and the workers’ employers suggested they use their lips to twist their paintbrushes to a fine point while painting. The workers also painted their fingernails and teeth with radium, for that fashionable glow-in-the-dark look. But it turns out that radium is actually dangerously radioactive, and many of the workers got sick and died from jaw and mouth cancer. Courts and corporations were slow to react, and by the time justice was done and worker safety regulations were in place, the workers who had been sick had mostly already died.

The second incident from history that was used for the story was the death of Topsy the Elephant in 1903. She was an Indian elephant at a circus who got a reputation as a dangerous animal, mainly because she’d been very cruelly abused by her drunken handler, and in fact, by mostly everyone else around her, and she got sick of it, and she occasionally lashed out. She did kill people, but no one really knows how many. But her new owners at the Luna Park amusement park decided they were going to put on a special show and execute her. They wanted to hang her from a giant gallows, but the ASPCA said it was too much. So they poisoned her, electrocuted her, and strangled her with a steam-powered winch. It was long believed she was killed as a demonstration by Thomas Edison of the power of electricity, but in fact, this was 20 years after the so-called Electricity Wars, and the lone Edison connection was the Edison cameras that filmed her death.

So Brooke Bolander took these two incidents, and she made a story that brought them together and gave them a little justice.

This is set in an alternate history, and the biggest difference between our world and the world of the book is that elephants are at least as intelligent as humans, and everyone knows it — and it doesn’t really make a big difference in how they’re treated. Instead of being abused because they’re big dumb animals, they’re abused because they’re big smart animals. The tale flip-flops back and forth in time, from prehistory, to the late 1910s, to the present day. But the way of the elephant is always hard.

The bulk of the story, the most important part, takes place in the ’10s. Much of our focus is on Regan, a former factory worker, one of the Radium Girls, now eaten up with cancer. But to earn some extra money for her family after she’s gone, she’s agreed to use her sign language skills to teach elephants how to do the job she used to do, painting radium on watch faces. Yeah, the radium will kill the elephants, too — but they’re bigger, they can take more of the radiation, they’ll live longer. That’s all US Radium cares about.

So Regan spends her days with Topsy, the infamous killer elephant, signing back and forth to each other. Topsy can tell Regan is dying, and she tolerates her about as well as she tolerates any humans. And when a thuggish manager decides to release his frustrations on the sick kid who can’t fight back, Topsy effortlessly and joyfully tears him to pieces. And US Radium decides they need to give her a big, public execution. Something with some flash, with some flair, something with… electricity! And Regan figures out a way to get revenge on everything, for both of them. And all it’ll take is a little hidden vial of volatile, radioactive goo hidden in an elephant’s cheek, waiting for a short sharp shock.

And the world changes. And it doesn’t change.

Verdict: Thumbs up. There are a number of reasons you’re going to want to read this, and very high on the list is going to be the extremely high quality of the writing, which is excellent when focused on Kat, our P.O.V. character in the present day, and even better than that when we’re inside Regan’s head in the 1910s — her frustration, pain, sickness, sorrow, yearning, and desire for justice or at least vengeance are painted radioactively on the page — you can’t help but get infected.

But the book really hits its highest points when we have a focus on Topsy or on the ancient myths of the elephants. They are by far the most poetic sequences, and they allow us to see the strange, alien ways that elephants think, as well as the ways they still share what we’d think of as human emotions. Elephants have long, powerful memories, and they tell their history through stories that are repeated from mother to daughter throughout the generations. They are also a matriarchal society, with mothers and grandmothers prized most highly, but aunts, nieces, cousins, and daughters also of great importance. Male elephants are pitied, disliked, and avoided — and since they tend to wander by themselves away from the herds, no one seems to mind. Elephants communicate with each other in ways humans can’t perceive, and they see us as loud, aggressive, fearful, foolish, frail creatures.

There are also interesting ways in which Regan and Topsy share a sisterhood. While Regan isn’t responsible for Topsy’s captivity or the decision to expose her to radium, she is tasked with teaching her how to paint watch faces. They’re both poisoned by radioactive material, and they both have some violent tendencies — Topsy has killed humans multiple times, while Regan tweaks Topsy’s ears when she’s frustrated with her. And Topsy may get the full credit from the public for her own destructive end, but it would not have been possible without Regan’s planning and her secret radioactive vial.

A major theme of the book is the quest for justice for the oppressed — particularly the rights of workers, animal rights, and women’s rights. The situation wasn’t good on any front in the 1910s, and in a lot of ways, we’ve had a rough period of backsliding in recent years. The lesson Bolander offers for the oppressed is essentially “Seek out allies, even in unexpected places, and offer your support.” (And a secondary theme: “Sharing our stories brings us strength.”) The message for oppressors is also crystal clear: “If you stand in the way of justice, don’t be surprised when the people take revenge.”

If the book has a weakness, it’s that all the flips backwards and forwards in time can get confusing — but I also think the tale is told best through the multiple time periods. It’s also not a long book — I expected a fairly significant novel when I bought it, but the entire story is less than 100 pages long. But it’s still worth buying, reading, and loving. Go pick it up.

Comments off

Letters to the League

Okay, as long as I’ve got some new-ish comics to review, let’s keep the reviews going. Time to take a look at Dear Justice League, written by Michael Northrop and illustrated by Gustavo Duarte.

The premise here is pretty simple — it’s a bunch of kids sending fan mail to the Justice League of America, and how the heroes respond. Does Superman ever make mistakes? Oh mercy, does he ever. Does Green Lantern ever consider getting a more fashionable costume? Does Batman have advice for surviving the first day at a new school? Is Cyborg willing to challenge his fans in video game tournaments?

And while all this is going on, the League slowly becomes aware of a new danger looming over the world. Once the emails have been read and answered, will the JLA be able to defeat this new invasion?

Verdict: I really hate to say it, but I’m thumbing this one down. I had high hopes, ’cause the art really does look fantastic and charming, but it was just frustratingly short of actual storytelling.

This was marked as a middle-grade graphic novel, and I feel like that’s a term that needs a better definition. I’ve seen fairly mature works listed as middle-grade, and I’ve seen less mature works, too. I’d been under the impression that middle-grade meant upper elementary to lower high school — but this felt like it was aimed right at much younger kids — and considering how bad some of the jokes are in this book, most of those younger kids still probably thought it was childish.

There’s a lot of stuff in here that’s fine. I love the entire chapter focusing on Wonder Woman — it makes her cool, responsible, and intelligent — and it still spotlights her fun-loving side with the flashback to her childhood. I love Aquaman’s battle with Black Manta. I love the fact that they used Simon Baz as Green Lantern. I liked the chapter with the Flash — it’s light-hearted with low stakes, but it’s an amusing way to deal with childhood bullies/trolls.

And man, is the art ever fun. I’m sure it appeals to kids, but it certainly appealed to me, too. It’s fun and funny and kinetic, and it does a great job depicting the world’s greatest superheroes.

Nevertheless. It felt like a book that wasted a lot of opportunities, like a book that assumed kids couldn’t handle a smarter story. But it’s the first in a longer series of graphic novels, and I hope the next volumes will be better.

Comments off

Bundling Up the RPG Histories

I normally prefer to recommend books to y’all after I’ve actually read them, but I’m making an exception for this.

Okay, I hope y’all are aware of the wonderful Bundle of Holding — they offer periodic bundles of pen-and-paper RPGs for a remarkably low price, with some of the costs going to benefit a charity. It’s a great way to get your hands on some games you might never have heard of.

One of their latest bundles is the Designers, Dragons, and More Bundle, which will be active for about one more week, so look alive. For once, the available books aren’t games, but they are about games.

The anchor for this bundle is a four-volume series by Shannon Appelcline called “Designers & Dragons.” It focuses on the history of roleplaying games, one volume per decade, from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

And these are not thin histories either. The first volume, covering the ’70s, is well over 350 pages long, and it covers companies from TSR, father of all roleplaying, Flying Buffalo, Games Workshop, GDW, Judges Guild, Chaosium, and more. And every volume after the first is even bigger.

The histories cover the founders, the movers and shakers, the games, the spinoff companies, the rise in fortunes, and far too often, the tragic falls.

I’m only part of the way through the first volume, and reading this is like getting a giant syringe full of pure nerd nostalgia injected straight into your heart.

Now this bundle includes more than just the Designers & Dragons books. It also includes a couple 400-page books called “Family Games: The 100 Best” and “Hobby Games: The 100 Best.” Both of these books are full of essays about RPGs, wargames, board games, and card games, through the entire history of gaming. And the authors include vast numbers of game designers, including Gary Gygax, Richard Garfield, Tracy Hickman, Monte Cook, Jeff Grubb, Sandy Petersen, Warren Spector, Greg Constikyan, James Ernest, Tom Wham, and many more.

And finally, there’s “40 Years of Gen Con” by game designer and author Robin D. Laws, which includes interviews, photographs, and more from the very beginning of gaming’s largest and most influential gaming convention.

And you get all of this for about $20. Yes, you should be fairly gobsmacked about that. That’s a bucketload of books about gaming for not very much money.

And again, you’ve got about a week before that bundle goes away, so jump to it!

And hey, you should probably go ahead and bookmark the Bundle of Holding, ’cause they have surprisingly great bundles pretty often.

Comments off

Pact Away

Here’s another one I found at the library recently. I didn’t have a lot of expectations for it one way or the other — I’d never even heard of it before, and the flavor text on the back cover was pretty vague. So here’s what I thought of This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews.

It starts pretty simply. It’s the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, and the whole town always sets paper lanterns loose to float down the river. No one’s ever tried to see where all those lanterns end up — floating into the sea, broken up on rocks, soaring into the sky to become stars?

But this year, a group of friends are going to take off on their bikes and follow the lanterns all the way to their final destination. And they make a solemn pact: No one turns for home, and no one looks back.

But pacts by a bunch of junior high kids aren’t the most reliable things. And it’s not long before there are only two kids left: Ben and Nathaniel — ugh, Nathaniel, the nerd no one wants to be around. Does Ben really want to go through with this? Nathaniel’s nerd unpopularity might rub off on him. But a pact is a pact, and so on they ride.

So far, so predictable for a coming-of-age story? But it’s not really a coming-of-age story. Because there are things in the woods. There’s a huge friendly bear in a warm coat and scarf who’s going to catch fish for his family. There’s an immense cliff in the middle of nowhere. There’s an old woman (with a giant dog and giant crows) who sells potions. There’s a giant cellar filled with curiosities and a cave filled with stars. And there’s more than anyone could possibly believe…

Verdict: Thumbs up. I worry I’ve already spoiled too much of this story, but I wanna make a point: this is not a normal, humdrum story about kids riding their bikes at night. This is wonderfully imaginative and magical.

I kept seeing parallels to other stories, too, while I was reading. If you’ve played computer games like “Night in the Woods” and “Kentucky Route Zero,” this has a lot of the same feel, like exploring the liminal spaces in the middle of a forest at night. Almost mundane tales, until something inexplicable shows up — and even then, it’s treated as no big deal. Tempered awe, wonder out of the corner of your eye. There are times the story almost approaches some of the wilder of the Studio Ghibli films.

Even then, the weirdness wouldn’t work without Ryan Andrews’ gorgeous, simple, evocative artwork, and the skill that goes into making Ben and Nathaniel just great characters.

Do you need some wonder and magic in your life? Pick this one up for a nighttime ride in the woods you’ll never forget.

Comments (2)

The Trafficking in Black Lives

I had some other stuff thought up to review today. And in fact, I’d planned on reviewing this particular book a bit closer to Halloween. But when the time’s right, the time’s right. So we’re going to look at The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.

This is a novella written just four years ago, and it’s basically a rewrite of H.P. Lovecraft’s notoriously racist short story “The Horror at Red Hook.” And that means, before we get to LaValle’s book, we’re going to need to talk about Lovecraft, his books, and his legacy first.

It’s the 21st century, and after decades of critical neglect, Lovecraft has become accepted in the last few years as one of the most influential horror and fantasy writers in history. The mainstream critics are a long way behind horror fans, who have been fanatically loyal to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos almost from the moment HPL died.

Lovecraft’s extensive correspondence with other writers, including Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and dozens of others, influenced the development of horror fiction in the first half of the 20th century, and the popularity of the Lovecraft Circle has influenced fans and creators ever since. You will be hard pressed to locate a horror writer who hasn’t been inspired by Lovecraft’s stories — and who hasn’t written his or her own pastiche of his works.

But Lovecraft had some very significant problems of his own that hinder attempts to spread his fandom more broadly — namely, that he was a racist. And not in that “Oh, everyone was racist back then” sort of way that you can kinda ignore. He was a full-on racist, at a level that even his friends thought was much too extreme.

And this wasn’t racism that he kept private — he was very public about his racism, and it showed up prominently in several of his stories. He’d probably always been a bit racist — you might expect it from a sheltered, slightly snobbish man from New England who idolized an archaic British society he hadn’t even been born into.

But that changed in 1924, when Lovecraft got married and moved from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City. He was not very successful at finding work, at least partly because he had a bad attitude about job-hunting and seems to have believed that he was entitled to good jobs, just because he was an educated, quasi-aristocratic white man. But his wife had a successful hat shop and was able to pay all the bills.

But when the shop failed, and she moved out of the city for a job, Lovecraft continued to be unsuccessful at job-hunting. He had very few marketable job skills, and he really felt that as an intellectual and “aged antiquarian” (he was just 34 years old at the time), most jobs were beneath him.

Pictured: Racist Motherfucker

So he had no money and no job, and he lived in the racially mixed Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn among black people, Puerto Ricans, Italians, Irish, Polish people — none of them the noble English aristocracy he aspired to be, and all of them managing life better than he was.

So his low-level racism, fueled by his fear of poverty and his resentment of not living his preferred lifestyle, blossomed into high-level racism and bigotry — not merely against African-Americans but against white people he didn’t feel were pure enough.

The direct result of this period of Lovecraft’s life was “The Horror at Red Hook,” which was published in Weird Tales in 1927. This may be the most disliked Lovecraft story — it’s a poorly written story, and even Lovecraft was dismissive of its quality — and the level of xenophobia is absolutely noxious.

Lovecraft’s racism showed itself in other ways, too — the protagonist’s cat in “The Rats in the Walls” is named after a racial epithet, and one chapter of the multi-part “Herbert West, Re-Animator” is devoted to a monstrously racist depiction of a black boxer.

Most significantly, Lovecraft’s racial attitudes became a major theme of his fiction — the fear of horrific sub-humans interbreeding with pure human stock can be seen in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and others.

Ultimately, that may be what makes Lovecraft’s horror tales so powerful. He managed to take his own fears — unfounded though they may have been — and used them to create fiction that has influenced generations of creators and fans.

Nevertheless, even though many fans enjoy Lovecraft’s work — including a not-insignificant percentage of people of color — the depths of Lovecraft’s racism have become more difficult for people to stomach, particularly in a time of increasing diversity. More writers and fans are talking about how to address the fact that the most influential horror writer since Poe has stories you’d be ashamed to show your non-white friends.

And now — finally — we return to LaValle’s novella.

LaValle is an African-American writer who loves Lovecraft’s stories, even knowing that HPL was a racist. In fact, he dedicated the book “To H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.” As he says in an interview with Dirge Magazine:

He feared non-white people. He feared poor white people. He feared women. He damn sure feared New York City. And yet, to his credit, he actually transferred that sense of horror to the page. He couldn’t filter it out and that’s one of the things that made him great. If I lost that I’d lose the thing that makes him a singular artist.

So rather than completely reject Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, LaValle decided to subvert it.

And so in LaValle’s book, we meet Charles Thomas Tester, 20-year-old black man living with his slowly-dying father Otis in an apartment on 144th Street in New York City. Otis is a fantastic musician, but Tommy is really pretty bad. He knows only a few songs on the guitar, and his singing voice is not at all good.

Still, Tommy roams the city wearing a nice but carefully threadbare suit and carrying a guitar case, because black musicians on their way to gigs get less harassment in white parts of town. The guitar case is empty so he can carry illicit merchandise inside — Tommy is a smuggler of unusual artifacts, and he’s been hired to obtain and deliver a small book called The Supreme Alphabet to a rich white woman in Queens called Ma Att. She pays him well for the book, but doesn’t realize that he’s secretly removed the last page of the book to keep her from causing too much magical mischief.

Soon enough, Tommy is on the radar of a wealthy, occult-loving man named Robert Suydam, who invites him to play music at a party he’s giving at his home. Immediately afterwards, he gets acquainted with a corrupt private detective called Mr. Howard and a weak-willed, occult-loving police detective named Thomas Malone, who are tailing Suydam. Otis fears for his son’s life — it’s not smart for a young black man to be seen in certain neighborhoods after dark — but the lure of easy money is too much for Tommy to resist.

He meets Suydam once in his home prior to the gathering and learns some of his host’s occult powers — Suydam shows him visions of the Sleeping King under the sea, which is more than enough to convince Tommy to skip the party the next night.

But when he gets home, he learns that Mr. Howard killed his father while trying to find the last page of the Supreme Alphabet for Ma Att. Alone in a racist society that considers him barely above an animal, Tommy sees no better solution than to return to Suydam and his gospel of overthrowing the world to benefit the downtrodden. But when he learns that Suydam’s guests are the criminal dregs of the world, he realizes that the problem is not a hateful, racist political regime — the problem is mankind itself. And Charles Thomas Tester makes a dangerous, fateful choice.

Days later, Robert Suydam has an army of followers, a new headquarters in Red Hook, and a new lieutenant — Black Tom, a grim black man wearing a natty suit and carrying a bloodstained guitar. But is Black Tom merely the assistant? Or is he calling the shots for something much more terrible than anyone expects?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This book packs a lot of horror in its 150 pages — not just cosmic horror, but the terrors facing black men from Harlem in the 1920s. It changes the Robert Suydam from “The Horror at Red Hook” from a garden variety sorcerer villain to a more three-dimensional — and more pitiful — character. And Det. Thomas Malone, the weirdly poetic and sensitive NYC cop from “Red Hook” stays fairly sensitive but gets to be more active and more interesting.

But the best flip of all — Lovecraft’s most racist story gets a new star, a black man who serves as both hero and villain. We see New York through his eyes, see the violent cops, see the dangers of the subways and the new neighborhoods and the white kids who follow him looking for fights. We see his own prejudices, his friends, the difficulties in finding honest work when everyone is allowed to cheat you. We watch him make the terrible decisions that happen in horror stories — and in the end, you realize that for Tommy, those decisions were actually the right ones.

He ends up as a murderous supernatural destroyer — because why shouldn’t he? When the whole world is against you, is working to grind you down, to destroy your family and friends, whether or not they obey the laws, to disregard you as a worthless, ignorant beast — well, why not just pull the curtain down on the human race? Yes, of course, to the reader, we can think of more socially acceptable solutions. But consider if Lovecraft had written this story — Tommy Tester would’ve been the villain solely because he was a monstrous, deformed, black-skinned cartoon. LaValle gives us a smart, ruthless, terribly powerful African-American man with extreme but logical motives.

Let’s say it one more time for the kids in the back row: When you live in a world that utterly devalues a large segment of the population, that demands absolute subservience from those people, that demands the right to debase them, humiliate them, steal from them, and kill them, punishes them when they defend themselves, and bars them from protesting that abuse, even if done peacefully — and if you then decry them when they take stronger ways to say “NO MORE” — you should strongly consider that you are not the hero of the story, and are very likely to be the inhuman beast at the heart of the tale.

Lovecraft might have deplored LaValle and his story, with its more enlightened view of black people, of New York, of a society geared to crush people just because they have the wrong skin color. I suppose we’ll just have to live with phantom Lovecraft’s disappointment. Because it’s a great story, and you’d love reading it. Go pick it up.

Comments off