I picked up Universal Harvester, the new novel from John Darnielle, in September of last year. I commandeered a copy as soon as it arrived, cleverly boxed in a VHS tape container. I’d been listening non-stop to The Black Tapes Podcast, about a young podcast journalist who seeks the paranormal alongside a notorious skeptic of the unknown, and the combination of possible horror and the VHS connection (as well as my deep love of Darnielle’s previous work, Wolf in White Van) was more than enough to make me put aside the rest of my to-be-read pile for an evening in Nevada, Iowa.
I spent a lot of time with The Mountain Goats albums as a teen, to the surprise of probably no-one. I over-identified with the teenage loneliness of The Sunset Tree (2005) and later listened to Heretic Pride (2008) in lieu of attending church. While working for my first boss in 2012 I put Darnielle’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert on repeat, a soundtrack for endless copyediting. There’s something about the lonely, the lovelorn, the lingering subjects of Darnielle’s work that I just love.
This is also true of Jeremy, Universal Harvester‘s well-intentioned protagonist. He works at a Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa (pronounced neh-VAY-dah); he lives with his widower father; he does little else. When people start returning movies to the Video Hut with strange scenes edited into them, he attempts to investigate the clips’ mysterious origin.
I wouldn’t say Jeremy succeeds or fails, because like the videos, Universal Harvester becomes something it wasn’t as it goes on. A novel that begins like a midwestern Gothic, all grainy barns and endless cornfields, transforms before your eyes into a treatise on grief, on the ways it wraps its’ cold fingers around our hearts and squeezes.
Like any good songwriter, Darnielle’s prose is evocative and lyrical, bringing the small town of Nevada, Iowa to life most vividly. Universal Harvester weaves deftly between eras and characters until the reader is firmly enmeshed in the private lives of each small-town resident. The haunting uncertainty of what, exactly, is on these video tapes permeates the prose and draws the reader into a suspenseful, heartbreaking piece of fiction. It is not precisely horror, or science fiction, or contemporary. It is something else entirely.
Darnielle will be here speaking and signing Universal Harvester at BookPeople on Saturday, February 25th at 6PM. The speaking portion of the event is free and open to the public. The signing portion is ticketed; tickets are available with the purchase of Universal Harvester from BookPeople.