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Author Victor LaValle explains why New York “can really bring the fear”

With his latest H.P. Lovecraft-inspired novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle explores his scariest setting yet: NYC

Photograph: Teddy Wolff
Victor LaValle

The dark side beckons native New Yorker Victor LaValle. After producing a notable collection of slice-of-life short stories and a satiric autobiographical novel, LaValle dove into the macabre with genre-blending books including 2012’s The Devil in Silver. His latest novella, the H.P. Lovecraft–inspired (but by no means reverential) The Ballad of Black Tom, seamlessly brings together 1920s Harlem, the blues of Son House, Caribbean social clubs, police brutality and Lovecraft’s demonic deity Cthulhu into a tidy parcel of 160 pages. Prepare to get spooked.

Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” which inspired Black Tom, has some ugly sentiments about immigrants, which makes sense given that Lovecraft was pretty racist. Why did you want to create a response?
My feeling is, he enjoyed a 100-year reign with this story. Nobody gave him shit in print. I really treated it like, Okay, I’m sitting him down for an MC freestyle session. He already gave his verse, I’m gonna give my verse, and then the crowd will just decide who blew who up. I wanted to poke his nose a little bit and at the same time tell him, “I liked your stuff.”

When did you know you wanted to move from more-realistic prose into the fantastical?
I’d written these two realistic books, very autobiographical, and I was just very unhappy. I was regularly just plumbing all the terrible things I’d experienced or have seen people experience. I remember, when I was 13 or 14, sitting down and writing horror stories. The idea of getting through a school day and eating dinner with my family—all that was the tedium [I had to get through] so that I could sit down and just write a few pages of a story. I wanted that feeling in my life again.

Do you remember the first horror story you wrote?
I do! One of my favorite [authors] was Stephen King, and he was essentially writing about blue-collar white people who stumble into the unknown and are confronted with something monstrous. So the first story I wrote was about a long-haul trucker who has a wife and kid at home—things I knew nothing about. He gets rerouted because there’s construction on the highway, and he drives down a weird road and notices these things crawling along the side of the valley. He stops the truck, and these monsters come down the mountainside and tear his skin off. King can often find a way for something of a happy ending, but I was like, Fuck that, I’m tougher than King. They’re going to peel him like an orange.

What makes New York a good environment for scary stories?
So much of American horror has been written about rural areas or small towns, and I think that’s largely due to where those authors are from. Horror, at times, seems to demand isolation; it’s difficult to believe in something horrific happening if you’re around too many people. But growing up in New York, I knew that you could be living in a 50-story apartment building and true horror could still find you and mess you up.

So you find interiors scarier than the forest and larger unknowns?
Don’t get me wrong: As a city kid, I have a complete terror of the outdoors. But I also think that a good subway tunnel will do. Even a dark doorway in New York late at night can really bring the fear. There’s a presence of evil here, and it will get you.

You grew up in Flushing. Have any Queens ghost stories?
Around the corner from me was a building that had a passageway that went down the middle and underneath the buildings. We used to say there was a red Doberman pinscher ghost that lived in that pathway. Someone in the neighborhood must have had one of those Dobermans that have a slightly maroon tint to its fur—we basically just put it there. We were 8 or 9 maybe, walking to and from school in groups, and without fail, we’d dare each other, “You go through.” “No, you go through. The Doberman’s going to get you.” To speak to what a coward I am, I never took a chance. I just tried to get other kids to go.

Did everyone get home safe?
If they did or didn’t, it had nothing to do with me. I survived.

Buy The Ballad of Black Tom on Amazon

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