Writing at the intersection of literary and genre fiction, horror author Victor LaValle has carved out his own unique brand. One look at his oeuvre and you notice something rare: No two publications are alike. LaValle treats each book as an opportunity to explore new horror narratives and techniques.
It’s no surprise, then, to see LaValle’s unique path through the darkest and most imaginative speculative fiction has resulted in frequent nods from literary institutions. LaValle’s novels and short stories have won the Shirley Jackson Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the World Fantasy Award, and more.
LaValle’s precision and expert ability to create nuance within horror comes not only from years upon years of developing his craft, but also from growing up reading pretty much every kind of horror fiction he could get his hands on—especially the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote compelling stories about cosmic evil and unseen forces at play. LaValle found Lovecraft’s stories both frightening and inspiring.
It wasn’t until much later in life that LaValle came to recognize the racism and xenophobia in Lovecraft’s work. As an African American man and the son of a Ugandan immigrant, LaValle grappled with this discovery and gained an entirely new perspective on all the material from which he had once drawn inspiration.
As a response, LaValle penned The Ballad of Black Tom, a retelling of the Lovecraft story “The Horror at Red Hook”—this time, from the perspective of a Black man living in Harlem. “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings,” LaValle wrote in the dedication page of the 2016 novella. A perfect summation of a writer coming to terms with the past and the present.
The Ballad of Black Tom just might be LaValle’s best work to date, but we’ll let you be the judge of that. Ahead, find our indispensable guide to help you navigate the works of horror author Victor LaValle.
The Ballad of Black Tom
In this slim yet striking novella, LaValle deconstructs and reimagines one of Lovecraft’s most racist and controversial stories, “The Horror at Red Hook.” Think of it as a remix of the past with modern social issues found in New York City. At the center of the tale is Charles Thomas Tester, a jazz musician who also does odd jobs for dark magic practitioners across the city.
After accepting a mysterious gig, the illusion of “normalcy” begins to peel away from Tester’s world. The criminal underworld bleeds to the surface as Tester is harassed by prejudiced detectives hellbent on pinning their latest case on him. Overall, The Ballad of Black Tom has a dizzying plot highlighting all the darkness and power of Lovecraft, as well as a reckoning with his reprehensible views. It’s an undeniably quick and engrossing read, and an excellent entry point should you be interested in checking out LaValle’s work.
The Devil in Silver
Prior to picking up this book, I had always seen it described as a horror retelling of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. LaValle takes readers deep into the hallways and hierarchical woes of the modern mental hospital, complete with all of its eccentric characters and even a monster that roams the halls at night.
A man named Pepper is arrested after attacking a group of police officers. He’s admitted to a mental hospital, simply because the nearby prisons are already overflowing with inmates. Dismayed at this turn of events, Pepper comes up with a plot to escape the hospital. All at the same time, the aforementioned monster creates an increasing sense of dread and terror. The Devil in Silver was the first book of LaValle’s that I read, and I instantly became hooked on his fiction. I’m still fascinated with how LaValle can take a simple horror premise and turn it into an impeccably layered speculative tale dripping with foreboding.
LaValle’s first (and hopefully not last) foray into the world of comics and graphic novels, Destroyer is a masterful retelling of a horror classic. Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking Frankenstein is modernized in six volumes. No longer conveying the hope and yearning found in the original tale, the monster has become the titular “Destroyer” hellbent on annihilating humanity.
The last descendent of the Frankenstein family becomes a willing participant in the Destroyer’s mission, in part to seek revenge for the loss of her son at the hands of the police. It’s a remarkably timely rendition, and one that takes the visual medium to heart. I was pleasantly surprised at how well LaValle incorporated the strengths of the graphic novel, oftentimes letting the art speak for itself. This is an angry and incredibly propulsive read.
This is the novel that earned LaValle a Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. Big Machine revolves around a character named Ricky Rice, a former junkie and survivor of a malicious suicide cult who now scrubs toilets at a bus station in Utica, New York. His life is torn apart once again when he receives a mysterious letter summoning him to rural Vermont.
What Ricky finds in Vermont is an odd kind of academy full of thieves and other low lives, dubbed the Unlikely Scholars. Ricky has been recruited to the latest class. In some ways, LaValle’s academy feels like a dark and twisted rendition of the “secret academy” trope often used in sci-fi. LaValle makes the idea his own by introducing a cast of complex and traumatized characters that seem larger than life and are determined to rise above the sum of their broken parts. It’s an admirable work of literature, and LaValle makes it look easy to achieve.
A People's Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers
Editing an anthology requires an incredible amount of hard work and talent. You have to juggle dozens of authors and moving parts, all while ensuring that the final work still ties in to the original theme.
The fact that LaValle not only had one amazing concept—collecting stories that imagine near-future versions of the American experience—but also brought together an incredible list of contributors is a testament to his ability to don the editor role with the same ease as he writes fiction. Included in this volume are stories by Tananarive Due, N. K. Jemisin, Sam J. Miller, Daniel José Older, Malka Older, Kai Cheng Thom, and more.
LaValle’s latest novel, The Changeling, won numerous awards, including a Locus Award, an American Book Award, and a World Fantasy Award. The novel begins by introducing Apollo and Emma, a married couple who live in an eerie New York City. Apollo didn’t have a father growing up, so when their first child comes along, he overcompensates by showering the infant with attention. That’s when things start getting weird.
Emma believes the child isn’t really theirs, but some sort of sinister spawn. Just when you think you have this story figured out, LaValle adds another smokescreen: A mysterious source sends pictures of the baby to Emma’s cellphone. Before they can do anything about it, the pictures disappear as though they were never received. This is LaValle at his best, toying with suspense and delivering a deeply personal and intimate speculative experience.