I’m certainly not a prolific reviewer – you can take a look at the history of the blog and see that without too much difficulty. At the same time, since joining The Quill to Live I’ve reviewed a decent amount of horror stories. I’ve come to some conclusions on what attributes great (or just my favorite) horror tales share. These are certainly not commandments written in stone from on high, but when I truly enjoy a spooky story it tends to share the following traits.
Great horror stories are short. I’m not saying something needs to be five pages long to be scary, but the longer you spend on a subject the more it tends to move out of “horror” and into being just “scary”. I find the sweet spot is right in the novella length, somewhere between 70 to 150 pages, long enough to unfurl the entirety of itself but short enough to leave you uncertain what it was that you just experienced. I find in the longer stories you tend to be left with a few scary moments, rather than a truly horrifying experience.
There are no “Good Guys” in great horror stories. The very existence of a Good Guy in a horror story means that it’s a scary story, not a horror story. Any kind of tale can be scary, all it requires is a distinct kind of tension and discomfort. To be truly horrifying a story needs to be bleak, hopeless even. In a great horror story, the characters who survive to the end haven’t won, they’ve merely prolonged their role in the tale.
You can’t “win” a great horror story. Regardless of the outcome, whether the big bad ostensibly won or lost, everything is worse at the end of a horror story. Sometimes there is no right answer, and the best in horror makes sure there isn’t a happy resolution.
An awful lot of whinging for what was ostensibly a review of The Ballad of Black Tom, the novella by Victor LaValle, right? With a lead-in like that there are only two potential opinions I can have on the book. One: I loved it, and this is all an elaborate way to review the book without actually saying anything about it. Two: I hated it, and this is all an elaborate way to lead into me tearing this book to shreds with visceral glee.
It will put LaValle’s mind at rest, in the vanishingly small chances that he’s a member of our loyal readership, that Black Tom firmly falls into the first category. I absolutely loved the story and wish I could talk about a number of things that I’m unable to without ruining some of my favorite aspects of the narrative. I shouldn’t need to, but will regardless, say that Black Tom is perfectly pithy and short, the characters are complex and flawed, and the story ended in a compelling and chilling fashion. I won’t say anything else here, as I don’t want to influence you going into the book. It really is a frightening story in the style of the old weird authors, and manages to twist the telling of the story in a way that I think makes it all the more interesting and adds a sense of realism to the otherworldly horror that makes up the majority of the narrative.
If you don’t enjoy frightening short stories and the mention of Cthulhu is enough to make you put a book down, this book won’t change your mind and I don’t think you should pick it up. If you enjoy stories that leave you paralyzed by doubt, discomfort, and distress on their conclusion, I think you’ll find this one to be right up your alley.
Rating: The Ballad of Black Tom – 9.0/10