Book review: "Harvest Night" and the brutal banality of evil

harvest_night_cover.jpg"Harvest Night" by D. A. Madigan is an unremittingly dark, wrenchingly violent horror novel told with considerable skill and in-your-face brio and all the more chilling because, at its core, it is a story about the slow decay of the American century.

A required warning: This is not a book for anyone who finds violence, especially sexual violence, problematic. Madigan recounts with everyday simplicity the horror that follows from the premise of amoral humans who worship the Lords of the Abyss. This is not a gratuitous element, rather, it's integral to the story, but nonetheless, if you find graphic descriptions unacceptable, this is a book best skipped.

Imagine you move to a small town called Redhaven somewhere in the far Northeast, say, perhaps Maine. You expect a few odd local traditions. Like "Harvest Night," the eve of Thanksgiving, where everyone who has moved to town in the past year is invited to play "Hounds and Hares," a harmless game where evading pursuers to means you get a break on your property taxes. It's about becoming part of the community. The Mayor, the Town Council, and the Chief of Police are on board, so it's all good fun.

Anyone who has actually lived in a New England town will recognize this sort of thing instantly (Cabbage Night, anyone?). It's an example of the deeply ingrained traditions that the region passes down, generation to generation. And it's from this point that Madigan begins: what if this tradition was actually a malevolent performative reenactment of an ancient struggle between settlers who had given themselves over to the service of absolute evil and their innocent victims.

What if *everything* in the town was like this. What if beneath the wooden shingles on their saltbox houses, Redhaven is completely run by human monsters? That they are ruthlessly brutalizing and killing their fellow citizens, brainwashing their own children with torture and drugs, and offering human sacrifices to a pantheon of dark Entities. People outwardly normal, yet *purposefully* evil. As the founder of the town puts it one of the chapter epigraphs, "No matter where you are, no matter what time it is, no matter what is going on around you... if you listen closely enough, you can always hear someone, somewhere , screaming in pain. This is the world we live in -- it is a world of pain and s**t and horror and we are only alive in it for a very short time and when we die, we are gone forever. So while you live, do not be one of those whom can be heard screaming everywhere one goes. Be one of those who makes them scream."

Anyone who has moved to a New England town has probably harbored suspicions along these lines too.

Now suppose that there may be something like an immortal vampire in the mix. Not a sparkly one, no, this vampire is utterly inhuman, and its aims may not always be aligned with the other Entities. And yes, there are some "good" folks too. Some accidental (perhaps a youngster or two who have managed to avoid or survive their cultural indoctrination) and a few from outside the town who have infiltrated under deep cover as part of a so-secret-it-doesn't-exist task force on occult criminal conspiracies. To say more would be to give away much of the plot.

Madigan moves the action along a a brisk pace and judiciously deploys the supernatural, keeping the Lords of the Abyss appropriately offstage where they are always scarier. He brings the story to life by taking us inside the heads of a diverse group of POV characters (some who, frankly, you may find utterly repellent) and intercutting tales from the history of Redhaven to frame the action. The stakes Madigan sets up here are high: from the time these demon worshippers took up residence during Colonial days, they have progressively infiltrated government and society, using innumerable small acts of covert terror to bring America to a state of chaotic susceptibility.

And therein lies the harmatia of those who run Redhaven: Even the totally corrupt can be tempted, and the town elders have begun to see their own brutally brainwashed children as a profit center, without regard even for maintaining their own (admittedly twisted and evil) culture. "Redhaven has sold its generational legacy of conscious viciousness in exchange for vast sums of worldly wealth and power, and the adults who currently run this city are the last generation of the volitionally damned that these families will bring into the world."

As Stephen King famously noted, horror is really a displacement of the anxieties and terrors of everyday life. As we read the novel and spend time as inhabitants of Redhaven, we can't help but see in it a mirror of the centers that have failed to hold in American life: the tradeoffs we have willingly made to preserve our "security," the shallow meaninglessness of treasured institutions, the loss of a sense of possibility for the next generation, the hopeless fragility of human relationships, and the ultimate, existential horror:

“There is no battle of Good vs. Evil. That is mythology... no, it is not even that. It is a fairy tale, a childish bed time story that mundane minds chatter to each other. The truth is much simpler –- there is brief existence and endless darkness, and the darkness is always hungry, and in the end, the darkness eats us all.”

For those who can tolerate this level of unblinking bleakness, there is much to appreciate in "Harvest Night."

Required FTC disclosure: I went to Syracuse University with D.A. Madigan and we occasionally hung out at watched movies at the awesome UU Cinema program, but we hadn't talked in 30 years until we ran into each other on Facebook. I received nothing of value in exchange for this review.

02871, Localblogging, Review, sf

Arisia this weekend (and my schedule)

arisia2014.pngThis weekend, Boston hosts Arisia 2014, the region's "largest and most diverse science fiction and fantasy convention." If you've ever been to Arisia, you know what an awesome, something-for-everyone con they run. If not, and you're looking for something fun this weekend, hey, check it out.

If you're there, please drop by the panels I'm on and say hi.

What Does 'Games Are Literature' Mean?
Saturday, 1pm Alcott (3W)
Alan Wexelblat (moderator), James Meickle, John McDaid, Mark "Justin du Coeur" Waks, Emily Lewis
Gamers have spent years defending their genre as a "legitimate" form of "literature" without having a clear sense of what that means, or more than one or two examples. This panel will explore literature in a medium where one or more live people co-create a story - action, characters, challenges, plots, resolutions, adventures - with a game's authoring team. We will focus on titles that go beyond Joseph Campbell's monomythic "hero's journey" by offering more than one person's saga.

Wearable Electronics: Beyond Google Glass
Sunday, 4pm Alcott (3W)
John McDaid (moderator), Percival, David Larochelle, Andrew Van Zandt
Google Glass has premiered with mixed results. What other sorts of wearable computing will be seen in the next few years, and what are some potential ramifications of this technology? Forbes asks the question: what happens when FitBits are implantable? Where is the line between wearable tech and cybernetics?

Looking Forward to Last Thursday
Monday, 10am Faneuil (3W)
John Chu (moderator), Ellen Larson, John McDaid, Justine Graykin, Heather Albano
There have been myriad methods of portraying the time travel story. What specific challenges arise for the writer in portraying conflict and character development in chronologically displaced setting? Are some methods of time travel methods easier to portray and keep consistent than others? What of non-linear story narratives? Is the ending the best place to start? Can a time traveler be anything but an unreliable narrator?

Gonna be a fun time — hope to see ya there!

02871, Localblogging, sf

RIP Fred Pohl

Science fiction writer, editor, and agent Frederik Pohl passed today, at 93. (See Locus, io9, Wikipedia). He was one of the great voices whose career spanned the Golden Age to the present day, and the impact of his work as an editor, agent, and shaper of the science fiction field cannot be overstated.

I still remember the first time I read The Space Merchants, the devastating critique of advertising he and C. M. Kornbluth wrote in the early 50s. I read it twenty years later and it was frighteningly prescient then — in any world that valued speculative fiction appropriately, it would be taught alongside 1984 and Brave New World. His amazing literary output spanned the 40s to the present, with the final entry on his blog posted the morning he passed away.

Not only a writer, Pohl was an editor, agent, and anthologist who helped shape and publish some of the defining works of the field as his entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction attests.

Fred Pohl's unimaginably generous autograph on his 1996 Sturgeon remarks.

He was also a gracious, warm, generous person. When I won the Sturgeon in 1996, Pohl presented the award (there's a picture on the Midamericon site, if you scroll down a bit, and here's a PDF of his remarks). Having the opportunity to spend that weekend just hanging out with one of the greats of science fiction and talking about writing is a treasured memory.

All of the science fiction field stands on his shoulders. His family, friends, and fans are in my thoughts today.

02871, Localblogging, sf

Clarion Write-a-thon wrapup: many words, much money for a good cause

12jun24_clarion_badgeIt's the last night of the Clarion Write-a-thon, the third annual event that raises money to support the the legendary Clarion Writers' workshop for new science fiction authors, and the good news is that the effort has raised nearly $16,000, thanks to the efforts of more than 200 writers (and more than 230 sponsors!)

I'm happy to report that my total word count was 6,761, which is less than I hoped, but I spent the time focusing on a key chapter of the book, and wrote two entirely new scenes that weren't even in the outline. So personally, I'm happy.

And I have to thank the folks who sponsored me: Bill Bly, Karen J Fowler, Fran Wilde, Kari Maaren, and Cory Doctorow. Their donations mean so much for the Clarion workshop, and to me personally.

Thank you Bill, Karen, Fran, Kari, and Cory.

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Clarion Write-a-thon 2012 (Goal: finish the monster *sans* box)

12jun24_clarion_badgeToday, the 2012 Clarion Write-a-thon kicks off to support the Clarion Writers' workshop, science fiction's premiere training experience for new authors. Now in its third year, the write-a-thon helps raise money to support this vital workshop (last year, the dozens of writers and their awesome sponsors raised $17,000 to keep this program going.) So, starting today, and for the next six weeks, I'll be cranking text along with the participants in this year's workshop. (Waves)

I'm aiming for 30K words, and to finish my alternate-history novel in progress, Fist of the Ape, and I could use your support. You can pop on over to my Write-a-thon page and make a donation (secure online credit card and PayPal options available.) I'll be matching (at least) the first $100 in pledges to support this very worthy cause.

Gotta go. Words to write.

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RIP Ray Bradbury (update)

Sf site io9 is reporting the death of the brilliant writer Ray Bradbury, author of classics like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury was 91.

I devoured Bradbury as a kid, and particularly loved his short story collections. For me, his fluid, dreamy, gem-like short fictions, like The Veldt or There will come soft rains or A Sound of Thunder were doorways to a universe of wonder.

Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and a world of fans.

Update: NY Times moves their obit.

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Madeline Ashby's debut novel "vN" scores awesome io9 review

The awesome vN cover. Click to embiggen.

Major science fiction site io9 ran a glowing review yesterday of Madeline Asby's debut novel, vN, due out in July from Angry Robot books. Calling it "the most messed up book about robot consciousness ever," reviewer Charlie Jane Anders says:

"It's a strange, dazzling look at the world through the eyes of a rogue artificial woman, who sees things in an off-kilter fashion, and becomes the most dangerous robot in the world as a result. You get drawn into the lush, disturbing world, seeing it through the eyes of a robot, and soon enough you're losing your whole sense of reality. The familiar human world will never look the same again."

Anders offers comparisons to Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica and tips the essence of the book, which, like all great artificial consciousness stories, is really about us humans: "It's actually a pretty great coming-of-age novel wrapped inside a robot adventure."

As you have probably inferred by now, I've read this book, and think it's awesome. Ashby brings the kind of life to her vN (von Neumann) robots that only comes from keen observation, empathetic insight, social consciousness, and immense craft.

Available July 31 from Angry Robot books or you can pre-order from Amazon now; folks here on the Island can order through Island Books and support our great local book store.

Full disclosure: I had the privilege of workshopping with Ashby and had the chance to read this in manuscript. It was one of the few times I was so totally blown away that I just couldn't find anything to critique. Artificial consciousness stories are one of my soft spots, and this just nails it. I cannot wait for book two...

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Hugo final ballot announced

Finalists for this year's Hugo Awards® were posted this afternoon on the web site for Chicon, the world science fiction convention. Winners are selected by attendees and announced at a ceremony at the con, Labor Day weekend.

And what an awesome array of finalists. Congratulations and best of luck to all.

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2011 Nebula nominations announced

This morning, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) posted the final ballot for the Nebula Awards, and it's an awesome assembly of the year's best stories, novels, and media: Check it out.

The Nebulas are chosen on by the membership of SFWA. I haven't read many of these, but I'm sure going to have fun catching up before the voting closes on March 30. Congratulations, and best of luck, everyone!

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In memoriam: John Christopher

One of my heroes passed this week, the brilliant British science fiction author John Christopher, 89, best known for his Tripod trilogy which has been amazing young readers for more than 40 years. (Read the first chapter here.)

The three books — The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire offered my generation of young-adult sf fans a powerful mix of alien invasion, thought control, organized rebellion, and post-apocalyptic shocks-of-recognition. (OMG! Chemin de fer! Holy crap! Panama! )

Like much of the sf writing of the day, some aspects haven't aged quite as well — it's a boys novel that doesn't have the diverse cast we expect in today's fiction — but what's there is rock solid sf, which gazes with unblinking steadiness at the horror of human subjugation and death. Looking back as an adult, it's easy to nod and thoughtfully classify this as a highly-encrypted alternate post-WWII England, but when I read it for the first time, at about 10 years old, it just took the top of my head off and poured in a steady stream of cognitive estrangement. It is not too much to say that my interest in media theory dates back to this book, and Neil Postman would have found Christopher's explanation for the ease of the Tripod's takeover quite sensible.

Sf has lost another golden age writer who shaped our field. Thanks, Mr. Christopher. We shall do our best to pay it forward.

Read appreciation at io9 and obit at the New York Times.

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