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By Lindsay Lennon

A husband and father on a supernatural journey to find his missing family. A sane man locked in a mental institution where a buffalo-headed monster terrorizes patients. A down-and-out janitor who learns he’s destined to join a group of paranormal researchers.

They’re just a few of the protagonists Victor LaValle ’94, BA ’95, has created in his more than two decades as a writer.

Having gained a following among readers and critics for his ethereal horror novels, he has delved into other media—with a TV show set for 2023.

Author Victor LaValle

LaValle has even joined the legendary Marvel Universe, with his five-issue comic series Sabretooth: The Adversary. The gory character study of the classic X-Men villain was released in 2022 (along with the first two issues of its sequel, Sabretooth & the Exiles).

In the series, LaValle brings depth and clarity to Sabretooth—an incarcerated mutant killer-for-hire historically written off as one-dimensional—by viewing his wickedness through the lens of his lifelong imprisonment.

“He’s often portrayed as brutal and animalistic—and that often means stupid,” says LaValle. “Which, to me, is a sign of somebody who doesn’t know animals very well, because animals are not stupid. They’re often cunning. They can be clever.”

While penning a comic about a feral mutant may seem a departure for LaValle, Sabretooth shares some notable traits with the author’s other protagonists: they’re intelligent antiheroes forced to make morally suspect choices in order to survive.

The main character of his 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom, for example, is an unapologetic con man—though he hustles to support his ailing father.

Raised in Queens by his Ugandan mother and grandmother, LaValle traces his affinity for the fantastic and macabre to the book racks of his neighborhood corner stores, where he gravitated toward the splashy panels of Spider-Man and the eerie works of horror legends Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, and H.P. Lovecraft.

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“Somebody once said that all books are built out of the books the author read,” observes LaValle, who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia and is now on its faculty, “because that’s your foundation for everything.”

Lovecraft’s work was literally the foundation of The Ballad of Black Tom.

The once-revered horror pioneer has come under fire in recent decades for the racism in his writing as well as in his personal beliefs; Black Tom is LaValle’s reimagining of Lovecraft’s Brooklyn-based crime tale The Horror at Red Hook, told from the perspective of a young Black man in Harlem.

As Publishers Weekly said in a review: “The story adeptly addresses social and racial issues that were central to urban life at the dawn of the 20th century, with obvious resonances and parallels in the present. Those familiar with Lovecraft’s (weaker) story might get a little more from this novella, but it stands well on its own.”

The cover of The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

While LaValle has had notable success in the horror genre, his career actually started in the world of literary fiction.

His 1999 debut, Slapboxing With Jesus, is a gritty, harrowing collection of short stories about growing up in New York City.

His next novel, The Ecstatic (a dark comedy about an obese, possibly schizophrenic college dropout), drew wide praise—including from rapper Mos Def, who named an album after it.

The cover of The Changeling by Victor LaValle

LaValle’s first foray into horror-suspense came with his acclaimed 2009 novel Big Machine, which opens with a recovering heroin addict receiving a mysterious letter from a secret society of scholars founded by a runaway slave.

Next came The Devil in Silver—named one of the New York Times’ notable books of 2012—in which a man finds himself erroneously committed to a Queens mental hospital where a terrifying creature roams the halls at night.

LaValle’s most recent horror-fantasy—2017’s The Changeling, which Kirkus lauded as a “smart and knotty merger of horror, fantasy, and realism”—was recently adapted for an Apple TV series, likely launching in fall 2023.

He’s also working with AMC Networks on a series of The Devil in Silver, with hopes for a summer 2023 shoot.

LaValle spent summer 2022 in Toronto on the set of The Changeling, which he describes as a “spooky New York fairy tale” about a man who embarks on a dark, mystical pursuit of his missing wife and child—and is horrified to learn that he is ultimately responsible for their disappearance.

“The first six episodes are almost exactly the book,” LaValle notes. “I’ve been very lucky, because when your work is adapted, sometimes it changes so much you can’t recognize the original. But I couldn’t possibly have asked for a better first experience coming into the TV world.”

LaValle portrait by Teddy Wolff. All other images provided.

Published December 22, 2022

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