I think Victor Lavalle sums up perfectly the intent of this novella in its dedication - “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.”
This story is set in New York in the 1920s. Charles Thomas Tester is a man from Harlem who earns money to support himself and his prematurely aging father by grifting. He has the reputation of being a go-to guy to fetch esoteric objects, and it is when he is hired to fetch a book for a white woman in Queens that the story begins.
It’s a tale of magic and power and the appropriation by whites of power paid for in black flesh. The streets of New York are toxic with hate, and a final tragedy, relating to the book, leads to Tester having nothing left to lose. A freedom that allows him to dare where others falter in fear.
It’s a beautiful narrative, taking the best and the worst from Lovecraft and showing it from the perspective of a person of colour. It’s full of gorgeous prose and leaves the reader feeling richer for the experience. Tester/Black Tom is constantly overlooked and underappreciated, but it is he who will triumph, albeit in a pyrrhic victory.
The opening of the book sets the stage perfectly -
“People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place… They come looking for magic; whether good or evil, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here.”
Other quotes I love -
“Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.”
“The more I read, the more I listened, the more sure I became that a great and secret show had been playing throughout my life, throughout all our lives, but the mass of us were too ignorant, or too frightened, to raise our eyes and watch. Because to watch would be to understand the play isn’t being staged for us.”