When UNIVERSAL HARVESTER was announced, saying I was eager to get my hands on it may be an understatement. John Darnielle has long been one of my favorite storytellers. As the singer/songwriter/etc. of the Mountain Goats, Darnielle has written some of the most evocative and affecting lyrics I’ve had the fortune to encounter. His previous novel, WOLF IN WHITE VAN, was one of the best books of 2014. So I couldn’t wait to see what he would do with an earnest entry into the horror genre. I am pleased to say that UNIVERSAL HARVESTER is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in years.
The story follows, in parts, Jeremy Heldt. Jeremy is a clerk at a video store in Nevada, Iowa in the late 90s. After losing his mother to a car accident six years prior, Jeremy and his father Steve live the quiet, somewhat melancholy lives of those dealing with grief in a town too small to offer many distractions. Jeremy is in his early twenties, in a dead-end job, seemingly without much ambition. His father wants him to want more for himself. Every character in the novel, by the end, is deeply believable and relatable. The small, honest interactions between Jeremy and his father are poignant even when very little is being said. This depth in the characters is a large part of what makes Darnielle’s writing so effective.
While the novel is primarily built of downbeat human moments, there is undeniably a horror backbone, particularly early on. The inciting incident comes when a customer, Stephanie, returns a rented VHS copy of the Boris Karloff film TARGETS to Jeremy, complaining that there was “something on the tape.” The customer seems unsettled, almost uncertain. She has the air of someone who’s afraid she’ll sound crazy if she says much more. Jeremy is attracted to her and nervous. The exchange is awkward, uncomfortable, and doesn’t immediately lead to anything. It’s a while before Jeremy remembers to check the video. UNIVERSAL HARVESTER deals in realism, in a subtle and lingering dread.
When Jeremy does finally check the tape, he finds mysterious, disturbing footage that’s been recorded over a brief section of the film. In other films, he finds more clips, increasingly unsettling. The clips are vague, with any violence mostly implied. It’s difficult to discern if the participants in the footage are willing. But there is something inarguably frightening about the clips. The discovery seems to come at the exact right (maybe wrong) time for Jeremy and Stephanie to allow for a sort of detached obsession. At another point in their lives, they may have called the police, or simply washed their hands clean of this discovery. Instead, they keep it like a secret and pursue it. And it is important to emphasize how sincere these choices feel. None of the narrative feels forced, but rather the logical decisions of anchorless youths in a small farm town.
Early on, there’s a moment in UNIVERSAL HARVESTER that was so effective for me, as horror, that I had to take a break from reading. It is a single line, a small conceit made in an early chapter, but made the book suddenly feel somehow dangerous. I set the book down and paced around the room, just a few laps, before returning to confirm what I’d read. Later, a friend would read that same line and text me “How far are you in UNIVERSAL HARVESTER? I just got tunnel vision.”
The horror, in the first half of the book, comes from obvious sources and feels easy to spot and define. The videos are ambiguous in their means and motive, as the best horror is, but you know what you’re meant to be fearing; the tapes themselves. As the story progresses, it becomes less pronounced. The novel, in a much more confident effort than WOLF IN WHITE VAN, eventually follows a half-dozen or so characters in various timelines. By the middle third of the book, you’re not afraid of the tapes. You’re curious, and maybe uneasy with your own curiosity. The horror dissipates for a while, and it’s not until the end that you realize the book (not unlike the mysterious tapes) was obfuscating its intentions all along.
It’s not a story about monsters, ghosts, murders, etc. It’s a story about loss, and about the loneliness that follows. It’s about the ways our feelings are manipulated and what we become as a result. It’s about growing up feeling alone or growing up actually being alone, and the toll it can take on someone. It’s about small towns, and times changing and living through that change. It’s about moms. UNIVERSAL HARVESTER is a horror novel. It is at times haunting, shocking, and suspenseful. But it’s not the horror I was expecting. And it is so much more beautiful for it.
UNIVERSAL HARVESTER is available for purchase now: https://www.amazon.com/Universal-Harvester-Novel-John-Darnielle/dp/0374282102/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488719141&sr=8-1