In this eerie novel, Darnielle takes readers to rural Iowa in 2000, where things aren’t quite as bucolic as they seem. The characters uncover a mystery concerning creepy scenes being spliced into rental tapes shelved at the local Video Hut. Universal Harvester is a haunting novel that will stay with you and prompt ruminations on the shape that grief can take. Recommended By Kate L., Powells.com
John Darnielle's second novel reads a bit frantically, like a braided horror-mystery-literary thriller; a sense of urgency underlies the narrative. The setting of rural Iowa, the late-1990s time period, and the plot that revolves around a video rental shop all combine to create a certain kind of nostalgia. Not the sentimental, sweet type, but one that is both uncomfortable and creepy.
When unsettling bits of film are discovered spliced into existing video tapes, Jeremy tries to unravel the origin of this mystery, but soon finds that it's more complex and convoluted than he imagines.
Contemplating themes of coming-of-age, motherlessness, loss, grieving, religious fanaticism, and the unbearable absence of answers when someone disappears, Universal Harvester is a gripping and disturbing story that will suck you right in. Delicious! Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Surprisingly as comforting as it is haunting, the mystery of the story builds in layers, defying your expectations without quite toying with them. Definitely my main gift book of the year. Recommended By Max K., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut.
Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa a small town in the center of the state, the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and while the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It's good enough for Jeremy: It's a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.
But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store she has an odd complaint: There's something on it, she says, but doesn't elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns She's All That, a new release, and complains that there's something wrong with it: There's another movie on this tape.
Jeremy doesn't want to be curious. But he takes a look and, indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blinks dark for a moment and She's All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She's All That is back. But there is something profoundly unsettling about that scene; Jeremy's compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks much like a barn just outside of town.
There will be no ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same...
"Darnielle is operating mainly on a metaphorical plane, and by setting his novel in the be-kind-rewind era, he makes an affecting point that so much of what we know, feel, and remember about our families disappears too easily, as if stored on media we lack the devices to play." Kirkus Reviews
"Darnielle's masterfully disturbing follow-up to the National Book Award-nominated Wolf in White Van (2014) reads like several Twilight Zone scripts cut together by a poet." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Darnielle adeptly juggles multiple stories that collide with chaotic consequences somewhere in the middle of nowhere. With a nod to urban legends and friend-of-a-friend tales, the author prepares readers for the surreal truth, the improbable events that have form, and shape, and weight, and meaning." Publishers Weekly
About the Author
John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a New York Times bestseller, National Book Award nominee, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction, and widely hailed as one of the best novels of the year. He is the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and sons.