BOOK REVIEW | Universal Harvester by John Darnielle


3/5 stars

Release Date: February 7, 2017

*I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
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 counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town—the first “a” in the name is pronounced ay—smack in the center of the state. This is the late 1990s, pre-DVD, and the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut. But there are regular customers, a predictable rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: It’s a job; it’s quiet and regular; he gets to watch movies; he likes the owner, Sarah Jane; it gets him out of the house, where he and his dad try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.

But when Stephanie Parsons, a local schoolteacher, comes in to return her copy of Targets, starring Boris Karloff—an old movie, 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, Lindsey Redinius brings back She’s All That, a new release, and complains that there’s something wrong with it: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

So Jeremy takes a look. And indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blink 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 disturbing 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 a lot like a barn just outside of town.

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious. In truth, it freaks him out, deeply. This has gone far enough, maybe too far already. But Stephanie is pushing, and once Sarah Jane takes a look and becomes obsessed, there’s no more 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 . . .

My thoughts:
This is an incredibly difficult book to review – I went into Universal Harvester expecting something along the lines of mystery/thriller/horror based on the synopsis, but what I got was a beautifully written work about family life and loss in Nevada, Iowa. There is a mysterious element to this story, but I would not call this a mystery.

Jeremy works at the local Video Hut, and is content with his life right now. He has no major responsibilities and a comfortable job that he knows well. One day a customer returns a video, stating that there is something else on the tape. He plans to watch the video soon, but after a second customer brings another video in with the same complaint he decides he better check them out right away. The scenes, spliced into the regular movie, are poorly filmed in black and white and look like something created by a film student. Jeremy shows these videos to Sarah, the store’s owner, and she recognizes the farmhouse where the scenes were filmed.

Sarah heads out to confirm that she has the right location, and quickly becomes infatuated with Lisa, the woman who lives there now. Before long, Sarah has moved in with Lisa, leaving Jeremy to wonder what’s going on.

This book is narrated from multiple perspectives: Jeremy and his father, Lisa’s childhood family, and a family who also discovers the videos towards the end of the book. The atmosphere is unsettling – something strange is going on, and I kept waiting for the pieces to fall into place. The pieces, rather, slowly roll towards the general direction of a resolution. I don’t need a story to be perfectly wrapped up, or to have a cut and dry arch, but I do need to feel satisfied with the journey. Darnielle’s writing is great and I felt compelled to finish the book, but I was left with a dissatisfaction that could have been easily fulfilled.



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