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

Contemporary Theater offers magical, musical "Tempest"

Shawn Fennell as Prospero in the CTC "Tempest." Photo: Seth Jacobson Photography.

Shakespeare's Tempest is his magnum opus, a densely packed confection of character, language, and stagecraft, and the fresh, energetic production by the Contemporary Theater Company (CTC) in Wakefield brings it to life with outstanding performances, immersive theatrics, and seven tons of sand.

It's a simple story: Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan (Shawn Fennell) and his daughter Miranda (Brynne Sawyer) have been trapped on an island whose only inhabitants are his servant spirit, Ariel (Amelia Giles) and the evil monster Caliban (Amy Lee Connell). Through magic, Prospero raises a storm which wrecks a passing ship carrying the sister who usurped him, Antonio (Tammy Brown) and her ally Alonso, the Queen of Naples (Stephanie Traversa), with her treacherous sister Sebastian (Christine Cauchon). Also washing up on shore are Alonso's son, Ferdinand (Patrick Keefe), Prospero's ally Gonzalo (Terry Simpson), and the Queen's servants Trinculo (Sami Avigdor) and Stephano (Meghan Rose Donnelly). Prospero, with Ariel's help, arranges that Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love, while thwarting the plots of Antonio and Sebastian to kill Alonso and of Caliban and the servants to take over the island.

On the surface, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's most conventional plays (boy meets girl, two groups scheme to seize power, all executed while preserving the three unities) but what makes it transcendent is the magical mastermind, Prospero, who — like Shakespeare himself — is arranging all the action with the aid of his all-important book. Fennell plays Prospero with a thoughtful modernity; not a classical larger-than-life magus, but rather an occasionally diffident, damaged genius. Think Steve Jobs. Or think of Shakespeare, writing a part for his younger self, thematizing the experience of writing. It's a role with range and heft, and Fennell lives up to the task, by turns a manic scribbler of enchantments, a doting parent, an introspective philosopher-king in exile.

Prospero's daughter, Miranda, is a similarly challenging part, but for a different reason: We've seen her a million times since Shakespeare scratched her to life on parchment. Sawyer succeeds in capturing the raw essence of Miranda's open-eyed wonder, a tricky task in our postmodern world, archetype rather than cliche.

In many ways, the pivot of the play is Caliban, the sole native of the island and an embodiment of humanity's base nature (the Id to Ariel's Superego, if you will). With this role — as with Antonio, Alonso, and Stephano — director Christopher Simpson has chosen to flip the gender, and it produces interesting collisions of text and action. Connell offers a Caliban more misguided than monstrous, with a fine tragic edge to her adoration of the sozzled courtiers, the delightfully loopy duo of Donnelly and Avigdor. (The beat where Donnelly ruefully pours swamp water from her boot is laugh-out-loud funny, and watch for the genuinely frightful demons that foil the drunken attackers).

Stephanie Traversa's Alonso is nicely fraught, with authentic cracks in her regal bearing that reveal anguish at the loss of her son (played with appropriate dash and brio by Keefe.) Cauchon and Brown are a cunning, charmingly evil pair of schemers, to whom Terry Simpson's obstinate Gonzalo offers a solid foil. Watch for the beat where Cauchon kicks over Miranda's rocks. Nicely done.

Threading through all of this (and often invisibly tweaking the action) is Prospero's spritely agent, Ariel, played with charm and wit by Giles. She steals a scene hovering over Ferdinand as he stacks logs, invisibly spiriting them back across stage in a Sisyphean loop. It's an inspired bit of staging, one of those perfect moments of theater. Giles brings a tremendous vocal talent as well. The Tempest is full of snippets of song, which often get shortchanged in performance, but not here, where Simpson's vision and Giles's voice combine to make this an evening where the melodies break through.

None of that would work without the outstanding soundtrack provided by Matthew Requintina, who tracks the action so well he should rightfully be mentioned as another cast member. From the whirl of the opening storm through the end of the bows, he perches on an off-stage riser with an electric guitar providing a near-continuous stream of incidental music, naturalizing the moments where Giles breaks into song. The rest of his score is an eclectic, highly effective mix of sonic effects and ambient motifs in the best Eno/Fripp/Belew tradition.

The set is equally magical, a three-quarter-round that packs literally every inch of the CTC space like a fractal. In a brilliant stroke of design, Donnelly (who also plays Stephano) has replaced the entire stage area with a pit, filled with seven tons of sand. Framed with a simple backdrop of canvas sheets and surrounded by a walkway of weathered boards, it offers a perfect, flexible milieu. Prospero's simple hut occupies the center bank of seats, putting the actors, at times, behind the audience.

Director Simpson has as many tricks up his sleeve as Prospero, and he puts a stake in the ground — literally — with a dazzling, kinetic opening storm that will have your head spinning. He has made inventive casting decisions, and coached excellent performances all around. In a refreshing departure from overwrought "stage British," Simpson keeps the action moving with dialog occasionally delivered at the frenetic pace of Paddy Chayefsky done by Ken Russell. And the dynamic, expansive staging — especially the gutsy decision to kill a whole section of seats to thrust Prospero's shack out into the audience — makes the show feel much larger than the physical space.

This is a wonderful production. Highly recommended.

At the Contemporary Theater, 327 Main St. in Wakefield, RI. Fridays and Saturdays, Oct. 19 and 20, Oct. 26 and 27, and Nov. 2 and 3 at 7 pm, all (unreserved) seats $20. Thursday Oct 25, pay what you can at the door or $15 advance. Tickets available and more info at the CTC web site or (401) 218-0282.

Full disclosure: As you may have guessed, The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play (okay, it's actually my favorite play ever) and I'm admittedly a bit of a geek about it. Your mileage may vary.

Localblogging, 02871, Review, Theater reviews

"Composition" offers mind-bending fun at the Contemporary Theater Company

Photo courtesy Contemporary Theater Company

What if Bertolt Brecht wrote The Matrix? (Or, alternatively, what if Philip K. Dick wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author?) It might look something like playwright Andy Hoover's Composition, which received its world premiere this month at the Contemporary Theater Company (CTC) in South Kingstown. Is it a clever play within a play, or an recursive allegory about a world where the creations have begun to speculate about their creator? However you interpret it, Composition is an absolutely wonderful evening of twisty, thought-provoking theater.

Beginning with a totally bare white stage, Composition weaves together two parallel storylines; in one, a Painter, a Composer, and two movers dress the set for the production of a show. Within the reality of the show that follows, a Professor and his musician niece interact with two black-jumpsuited guards as he struggles with a theory of everything. The points at which these two realities touch turn what is already a satisfying story into a delightfully enigmatic moebius strip.

The cast is uniformly strong. Curt Larson, as the Painter, creates a Colorado mountain backdrop for the evening before our eyes and responds to the other stagehands with just the right note of wry detachment. Amelia Giles brings authentic notes of vulnerability as the Composer. And Stepen Gueb and Christine Cauchon as the Old and Young movers provide both everyday reality and comic relief that helps keep the action grounded. And that grounding is definitely needed as the lights finally come up (lights, by the way, which the uncredited director of the show, Christopher Simpson, spends much of the first act hanging and focusing) to reveal the actors in what you might consider to be the play-within-the-play.

Theater that makes you consciously aware of itself runs a constant risk. Brown literary theorist Robert Scholes remarked in his book Fabulation and Metafiction, "When extended, metafiction must either lapse into a more fundamental mode of fiction or risk losing all fictional interest in oder to maintain its intellectual perspectives." Crawling the edge of this straight razor takes brains and guts, and both Hoover's script and Simpson's direction are up to the task.

As the professor who figures it all out, Shawn Fennell displays a perfect mix of detachment and quirky candor. There is a monologue near the end of Act Two where he ruminates on the future that is spellbinding. Laura Kennedy, as his niece, ably handles a complex role which requires her to evolve from a mute harpist into...well...something more. Jacqueline Barros and Sami Avigdor are the summer and winter guards, sent by the Office of Dystopian Deferral to watch the professor in his remote cabin. Barros has a delightfully arch delivery, and Avigdor makes us believe in his transformation from uniformed goon to human being.

What happens then, well that's the play.

Along the way, there are memorable lines ("Killing time? Time's better off dead."), wonderful details (the identical tattoos on the Movers' necks), a meditation on free throws and "smaller games within larger ones," a highly significant poster that sits, face-down, in the middle of the stage for the entire evening, several Chekhovian guns-on-mantles, obscure facts about curling, and a most delightful deployment of the phrase "Turtles all the way down."

It's a wonderful evening of theatre, and I highly recommend it. And if you do see Composition, ask yourself this question: Is it necessary that the chair squeaks? I mean, in all possible universes at all possible times. That's not a spoiler, but you'll know what it means when you see the show.

Playing at the Contemporary Theater Company Studio Theater in South County Commons, South Kingstown. Evening shows April 15 and 16 at 7 pm, Sunday matinée April 17 at 2 pm. Tickets: $15. Occasional cuss words and some stage violence. More info and tickets on the web site.

Editorial disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of metafiction and Brechtian theater, so this one was right in my kitchen. But our 11-year-old's one word review was "AWESOME!" so at least you have an n of two.

Localblogging, 02871, Review, Theater reviews

Na*Not*NoWrimo, Night Music, Daily Show

Saks Xmas windows
The Saks Fifth Ave Bioshock/steampunk Xmas windows (see set on Flickr).

Sometimes, the bear eats you. It's December 1, and I barely scratched out 6K words on my NaNoWriMo novel. But this was not the ideal month, with the first week lost to the election, and the final weekend to a business trip to NY where I had the opportunity to see The Daily Show and "A Little Night Music" on Broadway.

I knew by last week that I wasn't going to make the deadline, so when we headed off to Pennsylvania to see the in-laws for Thanksgiving, I took along the short story I'm currently writing, and made a lot of progress in the final edit and polish, and I'll have that in the mail this month, so I consider that a moral victory.

On Sunday, on the way back to RI, they pushed me out of the car in Manhattan since I needed to be in town at 9am Monday for two days of business meetings.

So I wandered over to TKTS, and "A Little Night Music" was up. One of the advantages of only needing a single: the seat was first row orchestra. Bernadette Peters is absolutely amazing, and her "Send in the Clowns" is a heartbreaking theatrical experience, one of those moments — which occur most often in Sondheim shows — where the music becomes transparent, and you are not listening to a "show tune," but rather to a revealed moment of lived experience transmitted through song. Peters's delivery was devastatingly brilliant. And Elaine Stritch, as the borderline-senile grandmother, was at once commanding and frightfully vulnerable. Altogether, an amazing cast, and they're running through January, so if you have the opportunity, it's one Broadway ticket worth the price.

Monday was a full day meeting at mumble-mumble corporate headquarters, followed by the best team building event imaginable: VIP tickets to The Daily Show. One of our managers has a relative who works on the show, so we went in a side door, were tagged with little green VIP wristbands that said, "Not a threat to national security or The Daily Show," and got a tour.

It's like walking into a newsroom. The production has at least two floors of a building on the West side, and the feel is not like a TV production company, but more a media operation. Imagine walking into NBC news headquarters. There is a floor-length bullpen of cubicles full of writers and segment producers. An area where half-a-dozen interns were logging video. A couple of dogs wandering around. One room features a twenty-foot long, 8-foot high rack of DVRs, where just about everything on TV is being recorded and cataloged; around that room are desks where researchers sift through footage to find those devastating clips the show uses so expertly. An enormous master control room with a wall of monitors and banks of switchers. Makeup rooms. A couple of high-end edit suites.

We arrived during the rehearsal: the show is written in the morning, rehearsed at 4, then there are rewrites and tweaks, and the taping is at 6pm. The studio is larger than I would have expected, about 200 seats, with the majority facing the set, and a smaller VIP section off stage right. We were sitting with a bunch of Jon Stewart's high school friends, and when he came out to do his warmup, it became clear why special guests are out of direct line of sight: Stewart threw a glance at the guys behind us and called one of them by what was obviously their high school name, and broke out laughing. Just like he does in interviews. He's not acting when the guests say something that cracks him up. It's totally authentic.

As always with TV, the physical set is much smaller than you'd think. When Samantha Bee — sorry, Kim Sam Bee — came out to do her segment on North Korea, she was literally five feet from Stewart's desk. There are just two floor cameras and one on a boom, and just about enough space for them to move around.

But what was most notable was how tight the show was. For something written in a day, it was shot in about 45 minutes — during the commercial breaks, the floor manager and a script guy would go up and caucus with Stewart, but only for a couple of minutes. No retakes, no touch ups. When I watched the show Monday night, what I saw was what they'd shot in the afternoon. Clearly, a well-oiled machine by this point, but when you consider the enormous amount of research and pre-production that has to happen every day, it's still pretty amazing.

Full disclosure: Yes, it should be pretty obvious why I haven't posted anything in a week. Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving break.

Localblogging, 02871, media ecology, Review, nanowrimo

Rosenberg's "Say Everything" illuminates blogging

say_everythingTech-savvy journalist Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of, has a new book on the history of blogging, Say Everything, coming out this week, and judging by the two sample chapters posted on his Web site, it's a must-have.

I loved Rosenberg's previous book, Dreaming in Code, which was a Geertzian thick description of a software development project. This time, he's turned his journalistic skills and geek's eye for detail on the rise of blogging, a brash undertaking when the medium is still evolving, but Rosenberg provides a critically important look at where we are and how we got here.

In the first chapter, Rosenberg describes proto-blogger Justin Hall and how blogging began to fork off from the static shovelware pages common in the early days of the Web. Not just the tech, Rosenberg gets inside Hall's head and tells a great story with insight and sensitivity, and in so doing, provides an important lens into the medium.

Rosenberg's other online sample is chapter nine, "Journalists vs. Bloggers" and it is an absolutely brilliant crystallization of the various debates that have been swirling around pro and citizen journalism for years. If you want to get up to speed, read this chapter. Here's a typical chunk:

The rise of blogging exposed just how porous the line between “journalist” and “non-journalist” really was. Some observers began to use the term “citizen journalism” to describe the resulting profusion of new forms of amateur reporting and experiments in community-based information-gathering. The label was embraced by journalists and educators like Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University, who defined it thus: “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.” Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s popular personal technology columnist, liked to make fun of citizen journalism by likening it to “citizen surgery,” and the joke always won him a laugh. But it was a poor analogy. It suggested that journalism was a field like medicine, one that required an elaborate training regime and rigorously policed professional standards. That has never been the case. And if it were, if our lives really did depend on the quality of journalists’ work, then in recent years much of the profession lay open to charges of malpractice.
Chapter Nine

Heh heh. Citizen surgery. You're soaking in it.

If you want the wiki page on the phenomenon of blogging, I highly recommend this book. And for those with a particular interest in the journalism part of the story, I'd also suggest checking out Rosenberg's blog and following him on Twitter. Who knows — maybe you'll end up in his next book.

Say Everything Web site
Scott Rosenberg's Wordyard (blog)
scottros on Twitter

Annoyed footnote: Thanks to the RI Legislature which pissed off Amazon with their dumbass referral tax idea, I no longer have the ability to link directly to the book: Amazon cancelled my affiliate account. The link above IS NOT A REFERRAL. It is a CONTENT LINK to Scott Rosenberg's site. He doesn't live in Rhode Island, so you can click thru to Amazon from his site if you want to buy his book. Thank you ever so much, legislators. What a totally stupid idea.

Media theory, Localblogging, 02871, Review

Golden Dragon offers good local Chinese food

The Golden Dragon is the new Chinese kitchen at the Beach House on Park Ave in Island Park, and after getting grand opening fliers in the Sakonnet Times, we tried it out tonight, and were not disappointed. While it's not really a sit-down kind of place — it is, after all, a rocking local bar — the take-out option and online menu make it easy to swing by and pick up an order.

The standout, by far, was a General Tso's chicken that was the best I've had locally. Not the typical fried mystery bits breaded beyond recognition, the dish offered sizable chunks of white meat in a tangy sauce. Seriously, if you're partial to General Tso's, there isn't a takeout place within driving distance that's better.

We had a shrimp lo mein which offered a nice balance of vegetables and full-bodied soba noodles, and a chicken with cashew where the fresh carrot and celery added a great crunch, though perhaps a bit heavy on the hoisin sauce. YMMV, as I've said before, I'm no food critic.

Of course the rest of the Beach House menu is also available for takeout, so we got a plate of peel-and-eat shrimp to go for our 9-year-old, although he tried and liked the Chinese options as well.

Prices are reasonable, with appetizers from $3-7 and entrees $6-10.

A word in your ear: Don't be put off by the exterior. Yeah, it looks like a bar. Yeah, there's usually a couple of bikes out front. Trust me on this one. Portsmouth hasn't had a local Chinese option this good since Tak Pao City closed. (Sigh. They had the best wontons in hot sesame...)

Golden Dragon at the Beach House, 506 Park Ave, Portsmouth. (401) 293-5700
Sun-Thurs 11:30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11:30-11. Visa, MC, Discover
Take out menu
Beach House web site (MySpace)
Google map

Localblogging, 02871, Review

Scampi: delicious and family friendly

09apr25_scampi.jpgPark Avenue in Portsmouth has a wonderful range of eateries, and Scampi, which just opened last Sunday, is a terrific addition. Our son was off at a birthday party this afternoon, so we decided to check it out. I'm no restaurant reviewer, but I found the food excellent and the prices reasonable.

Those who remember the Sportsmens Club will find the building familiar, but there is a fresh redesign inside, with soft contemporary colors on the walls. The waitstaff is friendly and attentive, and they seem to have thought through making families comfortable. While we were there, several groups with kids were seated in the smaller room on the west side of the building where there are kid-friendly booths.

The menu hits a sweet spot between Italian and seafood, and we tried two crossover dishes that were both delicious, a scallop scampi over pasta, and a spinach and garlic ravioli topped with jumbo shrimp in sauce with a hint of lemon. The scallops were done just right and the shrimp was grilled perfectly. Entrees were in the mid-to-high teens, and come with a choice of sides ranging from salad to broccoli raab.

In another kid-friendly touch, the children's menu is priced at a very reasonable $3.95, so grownups can have a nice dinner and not feel like they're overpaying for a plate of chicken nuggets.

Of course I had to try the chowder, and it's distinctive — New England style, but not with a thick base. It's more butter and milk than cream, reminiscent of an oyster stew. Really good.

Didn't really have room for desert but, okay, had it anyway. The Crème brûlée was an outstanding implementation, with a satisfyingly thick, crackly layer of caramelized sugar over smooth, eggy custard.

Dinner for two with dessert (no drinks) about $50. We'll definitely be back, and next time we'll bring our son too.

Scampi 657 Park Ave (401) 293-5844
Google map
Sakonnet Times story

Localblogging, 02871, Review