Zakk reviews Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

“Ex Libris The Eyes of Madness, simple reviews from a simple reader…”

Zakk reviews Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, 224 pages published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 7, 2017).

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Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town in the center of the state―the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if 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 a different tape, a new release, and says it’s not defective, exactly, but altered: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious, but he brings the movies home to take a look. And, indeed, in the middle of each movie, the screen blinks dark for a moment and the movie is replaced by a few minutes of jagged, poorly lit home video. The scenes are odd and sometimes violent, dark, and deeply disquieting. There are no identifiable faces, no dialogue or explanation―the first video has just the faint sound of someone breathing― but there are some recognizable landmarks. These have been shot just outside of town.

So begins John Darnielle’s haunting and masterfully unsettling Universal Harvester: the once placid Iowa fields and farmhouses now sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. The novel will take Jeremy and those around him deeper into this landscape than they have ever expected to go. They will become part of a story that unfolds years into the past and years into the future, part of an impossible search for something someone once lost that they would do anything to regain.

First impressions (judging the book by it’s cover)

I’m new to John Darnielle’s brand of fiction as this is my first read from him. The cover is quite striking, with the swirling colors and imagery. It’s almost hypnotic. Very effective, as without reading the synopsis I know exactly what it is trying to convey, that being an overdubbed V/H/S tape. I’m old. I grew up in the age of video cassettes and overdubbing video mix-tapes. As for the synopsis itself, VERY intriguing! I’m stoked to check this book out. Here we go.

Final thoughts (judging the book by it’s content)

I’ve seen Universal Harvester listed as a “notable horror release for 2017” on a few genre related blogs (like at Stories for Ghosts), along with a interest piquing synopsis caused me to seek the book out. I think the horror label is doing a disservice to the book, hitting the outer fringe of “quiet horror” maybe, and that’s a very unstable maybe. I went in hoping for scary and left feeling confused. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the narrative and it is quite interesting at times, plus John Darnielle’s writing is quality, but I don’t feel it fits the horror niche. Nor do I feel that the book takes the reader anywhere but in circles. Universal Harvester has a “grounded in the real world” drama and I guess I was looking for “based in the real world but extending into the fantastical”.
An exciting set piece is constructed, and the dramatis personae decide to ignore it. The same set piece is presented again and the cast meander about how to proceed… The are some solid characters here, and some equally solid character interactions, but the cast isn’t given much to do but sit and talk. Pair that with some engaging circumstances left to flop around on the floor and I could physically feel my interest level dropping.  The backstory of the Sample family (which is essentially the backstory of the novel) was very intriguing, as is the set-up of hidden overdubs on videos. It’s a fantastic springboard and it feels like it’s going to take you somewhere spectacular, it just happens to be a springboard into an empty pool. To have these threads go nowhere, without a payoff in the end, was really dissatisfying.
For every solid narrative step forward there were two head scratching steps backward. The characters make odd choices for no conceivable reason (unless I missed a major portion of this book). And at about the halfway point I completely dislocated from the book. I pushed on through, though. Expecting, no, at this point I was hoping for a major bombshell. Something amazing to reward my perseverance but I received only a fade to black… and curtain.


Definitely check out the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon or a the first few pages in your local bookstore before jumping headlong into this book. Universal Harvester seems aimed at the artsy literature crowd, die-hard horror fanatics may want to pass altogether.

**Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and I am reviewing it voluntarily. These are my honest, unbiased feelings. I did not receive any sort of compensation.

Amazon Link

Universal Harvester

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