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Universal Harvester

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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 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 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 . . .

214 pages, Hardcover

First published February 7, 2017

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About the author

John Darnielle

7 books2,337 followers
John Darnielle (/dɑrˈniːl/, born March 16, 1967) is an American musician, best known as the primary (and often solitary) member of the American band the Mountain Goats, for which he is the writer, composer, guitarist, pianist and vocalist.

Source: Wikipedia.

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5 stars
1,712 (10%)
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3 stars
5,929 (37%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,775 reviews
Profile Image for Lena.
116 reviews2 followers
March 2, 2017
There is a version of this story where it actually gets told.

But this isn't that version.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,481 reviews29.4k followers
January 6, 2017
I'm between 2.5 and 3 stars here, but I'm going to round up because of the quality of John Darnielle's writing.

This should be an interesting exercise: writing a review of a book that you do not understand but you couldn't stop reading, both because you were hoping things would finally become clear, and because the writing was quite good, even as it meandered.

It's the late 1990s, just before DVDs become the preferred method of entertainment, leaving video stores struggling. Jeremy works at Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa, a small town in the center of the state. He should be thinking about college, or at least getting a "real" job, but he likes not having much to worry or think about—he can perform all of the "store opening" functions in a matter of minutes.

One day, one of the store's regular customers, brings in a copy of an old movie with Boris Karloff that she rented. She says that there's something else on the tape. Jeremy means to watch it in his spare time but he gets distracted and forgets. A few days later, another customer returns another movie, saying, "There's another movie on this tape." When Jeremy watches the video, he can't explain what he sees, but it disturbs him. The scenes appear to be poorly shot home videos, sometimes an empty room with just the sound of breathing evident, sometimes there are masked people moving around, but Jeremy can't determine if the people are involved of their own volition or if they're somehow being controlled or threatened.

When Jeremy shows the videos to Sarah Jane, the store's owner/manager, she recognizes the farmhouse where the scenes were shot as being in a nearby town. She feels compelled to visit this house and see if the people who live there know anything about these films. She is inexplicably drawn to Lisa Sample, the woman who lives in the house, and before anyone notices, she has practically moved in with Lisa, who seems to have some type of control over Sarah Jane, and has some secrets of her own.

Jeremy can't understand what has prompted Sarah Jane to practically abandon her store to spend time with Lisa, and he can't get the videos out of his mind. Should he just let Sarah Jane live her life as she chooses, and should he move on with his own life? Or should he try and figure out just what these videos mean, especially when he finds other videos in the store with increasingly disturbing scenes?

This book is creepy and confusing, with a mood that falls somewhere between Twin Peaks and The Ring , although it really resembles neither in terms of plot. The story shifts perspective several times, with a few sections narrated from Jamie's point of view, a few narrated from Lisa's point of view (and her family history), and a section narrated from another family's point of view.

As I mentioned earlier, John Darnielle knows how to write, to create vivid pictures and atmosphere, and ratchet up the tension so you can't stop reading even as you wrack your brain trying to figure out what this book is about. Is it a horror story? Is it a meditation on loss, and our need to try and find answers to what causes those losses? Or is it just one great big collection of red herrings?

I honestly don't know the answer to the above question, and it's pretty frustrating. While I like to use my imagination when reading, I do like there to be somewhat of a definitive plot, with some resolution. Universal Harvester is well-written (although the book shifts perspective every time the narration is building up steam, thereby cutting the plot off at the knees) but for me, ultimately unsatisfying, yet I couldn't stop reading it!

NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

See all of my reviews at http://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blo....
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,112 reviews1,384 followers
March 12, 2017
I guess I'm going to have to be the outlier on this one, at least for now. When I got this ARC in my latest Indiespensable shipment, I was immediately pulled in by the description on the back cover. It sounded like such a creepy, amazing thriller that I started reading it almost immediately, which is pretty rare for me--usually books have to sit around the house for a while before I feel drawn to finally dig in.

I knew enough to know that this wasn't going to be a conventional thriller, that it was going to be more literary and/or experimental, and I was totally on board with that. But I wasn't really on board with what I actually got. The story was told in spurts, skipping around from time period to time period and character to character. On the rare occasions where some momentum was built, the author immediately cut it off at the knees by jumping to another viewpoint, place, and time. I don't expect every book to have the momentum of a freight train, but Universal Harvester was pretty plot-heavy, and all the skipping around did it a complete disservice. Meanwhile, the action of the story was somehow simultaneously implausible and mundane, and it mostly just made me impatient.

I wavered between 2 and 3 stars, but ultimately went with 3 because there were things I admired about the book. It was definitely atmospheric, and there was some interesting wisdom about people and places dispensed here and there. I'm not sorry I read it, and I know there'll be those readers who love it. I'm just sorry that, in the end, I wasn't one of them.

EDIT 3/12/17: You know, in my final paragraph I tried say some nice things regarding this book and the people who like it. Unfortunately, the people who liked this book aren't returning the favor. Their reviews are full of remarks implying that those of us who didn't like it were just too clueless to "get it." So I want to add one more thing: This book is actually not hard to "get." It's just hard to like. If you can't praise a book without insulting the people who didn't like it, maybe the book actually isn't as great as you think.
Profile Image for Justin.
273 reviews2,248 followers
September 15, 2018
John Darnielle is a fantastic writer. This is his second novel, and it is just as good as his first. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, the story is divided into four parts that feel a little disjointed at first but ultimately connect to each other. His writing is top notch here. Paragraphs just describing silos in Iowa or movies from the 90s are just a pleasure to read.

Now, I can see where JD draws some negativity from some critics, but maybe I can help clear things up a bit here. You see, things may be a little misleading as I, like others I'm assuming, went into this thinking it was some weird horror mystery book about weird images recorded onto VHS tapes. I expected, like others I am again assuming, some weird book with a satisfying ending with a big plot twist or big reveal. Maybe the book is marketed wrong, but you can't read it that way.

It is about disturbing stuff recorded on video tapes, and as a guy who grew up in the 90s, I loved Jeremy and his job at the Blockbuster knockoff store. I kinda missed those days as I read some of the scenes from the store. So yes, weird video stuff, but don't hang there. It's also about mothers and fathers and growing up and religion and searching for meaning and growing up in a small town and farming and loneliness and a bunch of other stuff. It feels a little disjointed at times. Action picks up or something big happens and then the scene completely changes. I get all that. It's a fair reason to not like the book.

All I'm saying is hang with it. Enjoy the writing and the different characters examined and introduced as the story moves along. Don't try to solve anything. Just read it and enjoy the writing and the setting and the story. That may help you get along a little easier.

Finally, do yourself a favor and listen to Darnielle’s band, The Mountain Goats. Their best album is The Sunset Tree. If you listen to "This Year" and aren't filled with pure jubilation, jumping up and down with glee and sheer happiness then there is something wrong with you. Give it a spin. If you want a deeper cut from their discography, check out the lo-fi emotionally-charged acoustic jam "Going to Georgia". That one is always good for an angsty sing-a-long. Have fun.
Profile Image for Imogen.
Author 6 books1,230 followers
February 19, 2017
In looking over other people's responses to this book, I'm finding I had a pretty different experience with it. I guess some readers found it disjointed or hard to follow? But that wasn't my experience at all. Admittedly, I love it when a book's structure is only clear once you've finished it, so maybe I'm a good reader for this one. But I found the story to be pretty straightforward, just told in a non-linear way. I didn't feel like it ended up being super mysterious or even leaving much unresolved.

I guess people were also looking for this to be more of a thriller or even a horror novel. I would've been stoked for it to be a horror novel, but I think it became pretty clear pretty quick that even if it was a horror novel, it was the kind that was a lot more focused on these characters and what brought them to the horror stuff than it is on having lots of horrific stuff happen. You know? It's really a novel about melancholy, loss and what we do with the circumstances we're given - resigning ourselves to the only lives we'll ever have - with some unnerving-verging-on-horrific images near its center. There's definitely a sense of dread, and it's not a red herring exactly. That dread is the story. But by the end that sense of dread is resolved and ... okay, let's spoiler the rest of this review.

I loved this. I loved Wolf In White Van, too, but I think this one aims higher and I think it succeeds. It's not structured like a Shakespeare play or a Nightmare On Elm Street movie, but I think that if you let go of those structural expectations and trust that the author knows what he's doing, you'll find that this is a book that will fuck you up in the best possible way.
Profile Image for Andreas.
225 reviews102 followers
February 14, 2017
I think the only word I can find to describe this book is disjointed. Disjointed narration, disjointed characters, disjointed plot, disjointed pace. This is neither a horror story, as the words of the blurb made it out to be, nor this is a weird, trippy story, as the cover tried to convene. The weird things showing up on the VHS tapes amount to a total of half a heartbeat of uneasiness, they don’t add up and they are not explained. Actually, unexplained things I can live with; but things that feel uncalled-for, gratuitous, I cannot. The footages were just that, unnecessary. The story behind them? Hardly told.

John Darnielle chose to work his way around three narratives, none of which really landed with me. I felt no connections and I think that at least one of those could’ve made the chop; but that’s the thing, really, this whole book feels like an unfinished draft, something that could have turned out great but fell short because of the author’s stylistic choices. By the end of the novel, Darnielle tries to tie things up to form a connection in what seems a very David Mitchell-esque manner, but fails to give them meaning – both to the people or the connections they are supposed to share.

Universal Harvester is kind of a void, really. It could’ve been disquieting, but it wasn’t; it could’ve been built around a perfectly tense and unease plot and pace, but again it wasn’t; it could’ve told the story of sadness and the grief that people carry after the dismantlement of their family, but it was shallow. The blurb and the cover are way more interesting than the actual book, in the end.
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
400 reviews2,179 followers
January 28, 2019
Posted at Heradas

This was leaps and bounds better than Wolf in White Van, which I thought showed a lot of promise, but ultimately didn't deliver on it. The plot strayed just a little bit from what I was expecting, but I feel like the detours eventually built the foundation for the path to the climax/ending. Fantastically clever storytelling, with just enough of a resolution to satisfy while still leaving a few threads unexplained. I feel like this novel would heavily reward a second reading. Something I definitely intend on giving it myself.

Darnielle's prose reminds me a little of Paul Auster, or maybe Don DeLillo and J.G. Ballard would be a more apt comparison. The whole affair has that just slightly postmodern/magical realism/horror genre tinge to it, but ultimately remains in the realm of mainstream literary fiction.

The prose is clear, the characters vibrant, and the story just creepy enough to really be engaging. I'll be reading everything that John Darnielle writes from here on. I feel like he's only going to improve in the future, which is a very exciting thought.
Profile Image for Matthias.
107 reviews331 followers
September 13, 2017
This book is a mystery surrounded by mysteries. It’s also a work of art. Theories and interpretations float around it, anger hovers over it, condescension is thrown at it. It’s the price any piece of art pays for grabbing one’s attention without paying the regular price of offering an explanation about its true nature. It’s the only way I can explain the low average rating this peculiar book has gotten on this website.

Maybe my reading of this book was greatly helped by the fact I knew nothing about it, except for what the cover told me. The cover art vaguely reminded me of an old horror movie, “Children of the Corn”, which isn’t saying much because I never actually saw the movie, but it does say it appealed to my side that wanted to be terrified by whatever goes on in and around that farm house and grain silo standing in an open yet strangely secluded field. The title “Universal Harvester” also tugged at me, the meaning of those words evident in their power over my book-buying decisions. What can I say: I was in the mood for being harvested, and which better means to do so than ominously universal ones? And then there is of course the back flap that comes with the usual self-promotion that only something as noble as a book could hope to get away with it. The short text introducing the story spoke to the already quite inflated (and hopefully benign) Nostalgia-tumor growing on my heart by mentioning VHS videotapes and some eerie mystery surrounding them.

This book is genre-defying, but calling it a mystery is better than calling it a horror, despite what the marketing people will tell you. A horror jumps at you at some point. This one stays hidden in the dark behind the shrubbery just out of view at the end of your backyard. It moves behind your blinds just after you closed them. You can feel it’s there. You were scared of it as a kid, but over time, you have come to accept that it would never show its true face and you have buried it under daily chores and sports bulletins and sunny days and happy thoughts.

As I said, it’s a work of art, and one that is beautifully crafted. The writer is also a musician and a poet. It shows. The prose flows like a poetic melody. I have taken many pictures of passages I greatly enjoyed, passages that made scenes leap from the page straight into a reader's emotional memories, but I don’t want to drop them here. They would mean nothing to you, though chosing small portions of a bigger whole and showing them to you would provide a somewhat fulfilling symmetry with what goes on in the book. At times, I as a reader felt like the combine harvester riding along over a beautiful patch of words ready for the reaping. I guzzled them up effortlessly and enjoyed their beauty. But I have to admit I left much of their meaning behind me.

The atmosphere is formidably eerie. It's my favorite atmosphere, as it is one of the most difficult ones to evoke, but the most deeply lived when it's pulled off well. Another reviewer mentioned an association his brain made between this book and "The Ring", that one horror flick I did watch which scared something out of me that was supposed to remain put. The scariest part of that was the VHS footage of an old house and some lady in a mirror. The girl in the well was a joke compared to that stuff. Maybe that film elevated the VHS tape to horror stardom, a stardom that greatly benefits this book, but that's not the whole story. While this book is not a horror in itself, it does form the part of those genre pieces that gets at me most profoundly, and is reminiscent of "The Ring"'s VHS. It's the preface to a horror. It describes the place that harbors the horror before the audience's eye fell on it and monsters started stirring in their dens. The author has many "tricks" up his sleeve to bring this about, though I hesitate to call them that because the word "trick" implies that once exposed they degrade the whole they helped form, which has not been the case here. My favorite example of this author's methods is the way in which he chose to use the first-person narrator on very rare and specific occasions to great and chilling effect. The monster in the closet is suddenly right between your ears.

As I’m writing this review, I found one reading experience that I could compare it to, even if only partially. Paul Auster’s book “The New York Trilogy” left me in a similar state of awe and puzzlement. There too I closed the book with a profound respect for the puzzle the author has crafted and an unsteady longing for its answer. The mystery Darnielle had to offer had me completely hooked from start til long after the finish.

The blurb concludes with the following:

Jeremy must come to terms with a truth that is as devastatingly sad as it is shocking.

This might be the source for some confusion or frustration. I’ll tell you right away: I don’t know what this truth is, even after reading the book. Many interpretations are possible. Some readers claim a second read is necessary. Possibilities are dancing around in my head. Possibilities about abandonment, loneliness, disappearance, death, empty nests and broken eggs. These ideas, and this book, are prone to inspire spirited discussions that are bound to enrich the soul. And while I don’t know the truth, I feel it, somewhere hidden behind my ribcage and arteries and cells and molecules. It's a thread of instinct pervading my memories of the past and fears for the future. It’s sad and shocking and scary indeed, but don't ask me why. It's just a feeling that this book brings about magnificently.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,723 reviews6,663 followers
March 2, 2017
In an online interview with NPR, author and musician: John Darnielle discusses his book: Universal Harvester.
"This is an examination of grief," he says, "and ... grief is horrific — that moment that you have in the early going ... where you realize that nothing you do can bring back the thing or the person that you have been brought to grieve. That's what horror is, you know, that's that moment of helplessness."
I wholeheartedly concur. Universal Harvester has the atmosphere of a horror novel: the title, the isolated location, the feeling of torturous dread as pieces of concerning home videos are slowly discovered...at first glance, this is a horror novel. Only it's not, and Mr. Darnielle himself tells you all you need to know.

Overall, I liked this book. I enjoyed Mr. Darnielle's writing, but I didn't really enjoy the flow of the book. It shifts timeframes and perspectives, and it felt a bit disjointed, maybe because it somewhat knocked me out of the reading momentum each time or maybe because it truly was odd, I'm not sure. However, the writing: it was strange, mysterious, beautiful, nostalgic, haunting, and sad. It was all of those things but it was good. Check it out.

My favorite quote:
“It's not that nobody ever gets away: that's not true. It's that you carry it with you. It doesn't matter that the days roll on like hills too low to give names to; they might be of use later, so you keep them. You replay them to keep their memory alive. It feels worthwhile because it is.”

Strange, disjointed, but good. Superb writing. I need to sit on this one before writing a review.
Profile Image for Hannah.
588 reviews1,045 followers
May 12, 2017
This book is like its cover, super weird, kind of not telling a story, and absolutely, stunningly beautiful. I think. Because this book is so weird - for me it sits right at the edge of unreadable and unputdownable. Do not read this book expecting a coherent story to be told, or if you need a clean resolution (or any resolution at all, come to think of it). I am fine with it being vague, and metaphorical, and more a collection of snapshots, but then again, I love this kind of weirdness and randomness in literature, as long as it is executed well. And the execution is beyond brilliant. John Darnielle is one of my favourite story-tellers - through his music that I adore most of all. He just gets sentences and emotions and his fiction is very much an extention of his song-writing. And now that I have written that: This is what this book is like. Like one of his more experimental concept albums, losely connected and ultimately an incomplete but beautiful depiction of an imagined reality.

I didn't find it quite as brilliant as his first book, maybe because it is less focused on one person and as such remains detached from its characters, maybe because while reading Wolf in White Van I could practically hear John Darnielle's voice and this time I couldn't. But ultimately I am glad to have read it, glad I liked it a whole lot and I am excited to see where he goes next.
Profile Image for Thomas Wagner.
134 reviews894 followers
January 11, 2017
Puzzlebox stories are a particular species of weird fiction that have become all the rage in American popular culture over the years. Whether we’re looking at the films of directors like Christopher Nolan or David Lynch, or television series like Lost or The X-Files or True Detective, there’s been a successful wave of stories that hook audiences by creating elaborate internal mythologies that rely on mysteries built upon mysteries, with only tiny tidbits of revelation offered ever-so sparingly to keep butts in seats. The appeal of these stories is that they allow audiences to feel like active participants in the drama rather than just passive viewers. Give fans something that they can fill up subreddits and create entire Tumblrs dedicated to constructing their personal theories, and presto, you have an instant pop culture phenomenon. Right up until the inevitable point where you let everyone down.

And now we come to the crippling flaw of puzzlebox stories: that they require legitimate storytelling genius to pull off, and there are far more creators out there who think, or who are thought of by their fans, as geniuses than actual geniuses. As a number of critics such as Fredrik de Boer have pointed out, because these stories require increasingly complex layers of added mystery, most of them turn out to be literary Ponzi schemes writing checks they just can’t cash. They simply can’t pay off all the mysteries they’ve introduced. And so because the mysteries themselves have become the whole point, they pile on more, putting the entire story into a no-win situation where the audience has now built up — has been encouraged to build up — impossibly high expectations of final revelation that can now never be satisfied.

Any college instructor teaching a course in contemporary American lit could very easily assign John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester as an exemplar of how puzzlebox stories go wrong. ( continued... )
Profile Image for Brian Joynt.
Author 2 books10 followers
February 14, 2017
After a creepy, promising intro, this novel quickly segues into a series of asinine meanderings. I had such high hopes for this. The author has a nice relationship with the words; he's a stylist, and knows his way around a sentence, which, usually, is all I need to enjoy a book. But what happened? Maybe I just didn't get it. It jumps around too much and left me lost. Was that the point? I don't know. But I'm not going to waste too much time thinking about it, because there's so many books, and so little time. Hopefully his next book will get it right. Initially, he was on to something. Too bad...
Profile Image for Lukas Anthony.
322 reviews358 followers
March 26, 2017
Well-written yet frustrating.

I can’t decide whether I’m being too harsh in giving this one star. I toyed with the idea of giving it two simply because the writing is admittedly very good and some of the plot lines engaged me ever so slightly, but whenever I try to think of a genuine reason I would recommend it to someone, I come up stumped.

First things first, if you’re picking this up because of anything involved with the marketing, I’d stop now and read some of the reviews first. The cover, the blurb, the quotes, they all want you to believe this is a horror tale all about some spooky VHS tapes and the mystery behind them, but this just isn’t true. I’d love to tell you what the author was going for instead, but honestly, I’m at a loss. There are elements of a good story here, but it’s like Darnielle handed it in the story at the draft stage and decided he was done.

The word I would most use to describe it is ‘frustrating’, because it really does have potential. My rating might make it seem like I despised it, but it’s not that sort of one star. Even when I realised I wasn’t getting a horror story, there is still *something* there. It’s just that the *something* is hidden in a disjointed plot that doesn’t really go anywhere. You can see the potential, but it seems to get stuck at the point where it’s only *almost* engaging you. The ingredients are there, but there’s just nothing to hold it all together.

Overall, when I finished the book and closed it, I tried to think of what I could take out of the novel, and nothing came to me. It was just an empty experience, and I really was disappointed that was the case.

1 Star
Profile Image for Matthew.
502 reviews35 followers
May 22, 2017
A very strange and moving genre-bending book. Unique in terms of tone and the oddly nested narrative structure. Unsettling from the start, it seems at first to be a straightforward psychological suspense novel, but ends up going in a surprisingly different direction. Darnielle's prose is concise and lyrical, and the themes of love and loss are realized to great effect. Loved this novel.
Profile Image for Lori.
1,431 reviews55.8k followers
December 27, 2016
Still chewing on this one.

I really like Darnielle's writing. I flew through it in two sittings, so it is definitely binge-worthy, but it wasn't as weird or creepy as I thought it was going to be.
Profile Image for Mike W.
161 reviews21 followers
February 20, 2017
In her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan wrote of a time when people could still get lost. She was speaking of the time before social media and search engines, when a friendship once tight could completely disintegrate over the years, a person once close to you becoming just a husk of a memory. In Universal Harvester, John Darnielle sets much of his story near the end of that time and takes the thought a step further, reminding us that there was a time when a person could willfully disappear. It may sound odd to a younger person, especially in an era where there is actually a game show that dares contestants to do just that and in which it seems to be a very difficult task to accomplish, Universal Harvester was a thought provoking reminder that the burden was once on the searchers.

I don't want to rehash plot. I do want to give credit to Darnielle for a quite unique and angst inducing start to this novel. Set in a local video store just prior to the time when every such store would be put out of business by superior technology and methods of delivery, Darnielle uses a small town and ordinary people to build a mystery that seems to hold possibilities for violence and terror on a small but local scale. This Anytown, USA setting translates to a "this could happen to you" feel that I found both frightening and thrilling.

After building suspense, the novel takes a turn toward the philosophical as the story moves backward and forward in time with themes of loss, memory, loneliness and belonging. I like it when a novel takes me places I had neither expected nor intended to go and here is where Universal Harvester succeeds. It's thought provoking, strange and outré. I thought I'd stood in line to enter a haunted house, but I was actually headed to Wonderland.

Note: Free ARC received from publisher via NetGalley
Profile Image for J. Kent Messum.
Author 5 books226 followers
September 28, 2022
John Darnielle is a good writer. He's got a fine imagination that sets up a hell of a premise for a book. And by the time you've finished that book, John Darnielle might have also disappointed you quite a bit.

The idea behind 'Universal Harvester' is fantastic. A young man working as a clerk at a small town video store in the 90s lives a quiet, and maybe stunted, life in middle America. A tragedy dominates his past, resulting in guarded and uneventful days gone by. Everything begins to change when customers start returning to the store complaining that there is something wrong with the VHS tapes they have rented. Someone has been splicing snippets of home movies into the feature films. When the clerk begins reviewing the tapes to see what's wrong, he is met with strange images that are haunting, confusing, and sometimes violent. When a small cast of local characters become involved in this mystery for their own personal reasons, the search is on to find who is making these discomforting films and why. And as a reader, you can't wait to get on this ride.

But whatever direction you think this ride might go, I'll wager it is nowhere near where you thought it was heading. This is both a blessing and a curse; it subverts expectations, but not necessarily in the way of any betterment. Darnielle takes a concept that would suit an excellent thriller (even a highbrow one) and sort of wastes it on an exercise in comparatively uneventful literary writing. Yes, it asks some important questions about people's lives intersecting through the passage of broken hearts; past, present, and future. But it fails to pan out in any fashion resembling the initial excitement it stirs up. The thing is, Darnielle's writing is so good that it keeps hooking you and reeling you in, but by the time you're dragged to the boat the barb slips out of your lip and you find yourself drifting away in a kind of indifferent disappointment.

For as good as the writing is, there is a fair amount of unnecessary exposition going on too. Lots to learn about small towns in Iowa, and the people who populate them. All too often this narrative seems boring, yet you can't help feeling it must be building up to something important. However, it never compares to the awesomeness you were trying to picture in your head, but couldn't. One could argue that these tedious descriptions of time and place add to the atmosphere and story. Sure, I'll bite. But I can't deny that chewing on it for so many pages leaves a bland taste in my mouth. What seems like a straight shot to a bull's eye of a plot at the beginning, turns into a far more meandering case of confusing affairs by the end.

This could be a case of the writer losing the plot. Or, more likely, this is a case of an author telling a story you end up caring less and less about. It is rare that I read a book so intriguing, well written, and ultimately underwhelming. Still, there is clear value in reading John Darnielle's 'Universal Harvester'.

That value will certainly change from reader to reader, however.
Profile Image for Sheila.
940 reviews84 followers
February 7, 2017
I have no idea how to rate this book! I'm going with 3 stars ("I liked the book"). I did like the book--maybe I even really liked it--but it's so unusual and so unexpected that rating it seems hard.

This book meanders. It changes characters frequently, and often leaves stories hanging or unresolved to wander over to another character. It also changes time, going from past to present with little transition. This should have annoying, but I was so interested in all the different characters that I soon found myself caught up in another story. The writing style is very simple, but characterization is strong.

The main story is kind-of-but-not-really wrapped up, which was slightly frustrating as well (I really wanted more movie fragments). But overall this book is about mothers and melancholy--and oh boy, is it good at melancholy. It perfectly captures a decaying rural town, and perfectly captures the yearning for someone who's gone. It's enigmatic and unsettling, frustrating and fascinating.

I received this review copy from the publisher on NetGalley. Thanks for the opportunity to read and review; I appreciate it!
Profile Image for Katie.
267 reviews3,827 followers
June 17, 2022
Picked this up on a whim and now already have the urge to re-read it. This isn't "scary" but there are a few eerie moments with imagery that I can't stop thinking about. It's been a long time since I've connected with an author's writing style so much.

Reviewed it in my latest video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BckTw...
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews504 followers
April 14, 2017
My coworker read this and practically threw the book at me the next day at work and said I needed to read it. Is it good? I asked.

I don't know, she said. That's why you need to read it. You need to explain what just happened.

It doesn't take much for me to oblige bookish requests like this, and it so happened a four-day weekend was coming up for us - a perfect time for me to read this book.

I read it today. It's short. It reads quickly. It seemed appropriate to read over Good Friday.

I was on board throughout the entire first part of this book. It starts out in the late 1990s, a time I know very well, and so I felt a certain kinship with it. The whole VHS tape thing reminded me of The Ring movie franchise, and hey, that can be fun. And then I kept reading.

By Part Two I decided that not only was it a bit like The Ring franchise, but it also a smidge like the Sinister movies. I was still on board. It's a compelling read; not perfect, but readable, and with the windows open and the nice weather it just felt like a very comfortable read.

By the time I finished Part Four (the end of the book) I no longer had any idea what was really happening. I mean, I get it. I can go to work on Monday and talk with my coworker about it and, if she was serious, explain the story to her. But I can't say I liked it.

It's not a clean story. The jumps in time, the jumps between characters - it all made it just sort of a drag to read. For something that is considered by many readers to be a "horror" novel (it's not, not really), I would have thought that the end result would be way more satisfying. But the path to the end wasn't even satisfying, so that's a bummer all around.

I could read it in just a few hours because it is not even quite 200 pages. I think Darnielle is probably an okay writer. He's in The Mountain Goats, for crying out loud, they can usually spin a good sentence or two. I haven't read Darnielle's first novel that everyone was raving about for a few minutes, though I'm sure at some point I will. I just can't help but think, with this book anyway, that if someone else wrote the book, would it be considered good at all? I get what Darnielle was going for, his statements on loss, but it didn't come together for me with the rest of the story. It's almost like he had too many ideas that he wanted to put together in one book, and that's usually a recipe for disaster because it's hard to flesh any of those ideas out.

I said it's not quite a horror novel, despite what everyone is saying, but I am still going to put it on my GR horror shelf simply because there are aspects of this story that are actually very well written and creepy AF, and therein lies the success of Darnielle's novel. I just wanted more of it. Consistency. It's kind of like a NaNoWriMo novel I wrote a couple of years ago - small town, creepy as shit things happening, but not all that well written, and probably could have used better editing.

Not the worst thing I've read, but a bit of a let-down for me.

I'm sure this will become a movie at some point.
Profile Image for Trudie.
520 reviews553 followers
May 6, 2017
This was a spur of the moment book selection for me. I had never read John Darnielle before and didn't really know what style of novel I was in for. I ignored the 3.3 average rating on here and ploughed in.

It started pleasantly creepy, something weird had been spliced onto VHS tapes. VHS ! how retro that feels now. There was a healthy dose of what I call, late 80s early 90s technology nostalgia in this and quite a few film references that largely passed me by and I wasn't interested enough to look up. This book did make me think about the rise and rapid fall of the video rental store as well as film photography but alas I don't think that was the main point of this novel.
The book moves into territory I was far less comfortable with - small town Iowa, grain silos, lonely farmhouses in corn fields, small flickers of oddness in what the author helpfully acknowledges at the end - is a book about mothers. Hmmmm, ok, I guess I can see that.
The writing is fine, but structurally and tonally this book was all over the place at least from my vantage point.

Also I still don't know what a Universal Harvester is.
Profile Image for Justine.
1,112 reviews301 followers
March 5, 2017
Not quite a 4 star read for me, but so compelling to read and wonderfully written that it deserves to be rounded up.

This is a work of contemporary fiction about relationships, connections, and loss. It's told in a way that, at the start, makes you think there is something creepy and sinister going on, but there really isn't. That said, the story still raises as many questions as it gives answers. While complete closure is never delivered, it still feels strangely satisfying.

It's not that nobody ever gets away: that's not true. It's that you carry it with you. It doesn't matter that the days roll on like hills too low to give names to; they might be of use later, so you keep them. You replay them to keep their memory alive. It feels worthwhile because it is.
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews108k followers
April 6, 2017
In Darnielle’s latest novel, customers of a rural Iowan video rental store have been returning VHS tapes complaining of footage on the tapes that doesn’t belong. When video store employee Jeremy decides to take a look, he finds black-and-white footage shot in a barn, with only the sound of someone’s breathing in the background. Disturbed by the scene, he reluctantly finds himself in search of answers. Think of a less-supernatural-more-psychological version of the 2002 film The Ring. This novel was striking in a much quieter way than I anticipated, but it is an immensely captivating read nonetheless.

— Sophia Khan

from The Best Books We Read In January 2017: http://bookriot.com/2017/02/01/riot-r...
Profile Image for Krista.
1,351 reviews516 followers
February 7, 2018
In the movies, people almost never talked about the towns they spent their lives in; they ran around having adventures and never stopped to get their bearings. It was weird, when you thought about it. They only remembered where they were from if they wanted to complain about how awful it was there, or, later, to remember it as a place of infinite promise, a place whose light had been hidden from them until it became unrecoverable, at which point its gleam would become impossible to resist.

Universal Harvester is a strange kind of book: a rolling fog of a read that seems to be concealing something intriguing that you never quite get a glimpse of. It's gentle but anxiety-provoking; a promising character study that reveals little of its characters. Author John Darnielle is like a hipster hybrid of Kent Haruf and J. J. Abrams, and despite ploughing through this book in a few hours, I could never decide whether I was actually enjoying it or not in the moment; can't decide whether or not it was “important” upon reflection. I will say that the curiosity and disquiet this book caused me was intense while I was immersed in it, and I have to call a read that draws any strong emotions out of me a successful experience; even when there's no real pay off.

The book opens in the late 1990s: Jeremy Heldt is a twenty-two year old clerk at a Video Hut – a job he's wasting time at until he figures out what he wants to do with his life – in the small town of Nevada (pronounced “Ne-vay-da”), Iowa. It is soon revealed that Jeremy's mother died in a car accident six years earlier, and while Jeremy and his father tiptoe around each other's feelings and attempt to carry on a normal existence in the family home, it's obvious that it's lingering grief and filial duty that are holding Jeremy back from moving on into adulthood. Meanwhile at the Video Hut, customers start returning VHS tapes that have had upsetting scenes spliced into them, and when Jeremy takes one of these movies home in order to see for himself, he is so disturbed by what he finds that he's up all night watching and rewinding, and later, staring at his ceiling in uneasiness. At first the contents of these mysterious scenes aren't fully revealed to the reader – which made me totally anxious – and when the characters start discussing what's on the tapes, their inability to describe quite what they saw made me more anxious (one character namedrops The Blair Witch Project and that's a fair comparison: there's something that the camera isn't quite capturing, but since the characters are upset, that's transmitted to the viewer/reader). Just as the action is revving up, Part Two begins and we are introduced to another story from another time.

It's not that nobody ever gets away: that's not true. It's that you carry it with you. It doesn't matter that the days roll on like hills too low to give names to; they might be of use later, so you keep them. You replay them to keep their memory alive. It feels worthwhile because it is.

I can't say that I loved this disruption of the plot, but after finishing the four disjointed parts, you can see how it's all one story (with various doubling of experiences: missing mothers; car accidents; using the available technology to delve into mysteries), and how it all seems to be more about the general experience of living in small town America than the individual people who live there. Abandoned cars and collapsed silos rusting away in the cornfields, a young man seeing a real future in selling basement sealant, weekly Bible Studies, and folks who can't sit idle if they think there's someone in trouble: Universal Harvester is about a time just past, but somehow, the various characters' experiences feel as outdated as VHS tapes, dial-up internet, and the ability to disappear without a trace. There's ultimately nothing that unusual happening in Nevada, Iowa – this is neither a horror story or a paean to small town living – and the fact that it starts with an anxiety-provoking premise seems a trick worthy of whoever is splicing those videotapes. As for me, I took the hook but wasn't landed.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,666 reviews440 followers
January 29, 2018
Jeremy Heldt works as a clerk at a video store in a small farming community in Iowa in the 1990s. Customers returning their VHS tapes complain that there is unsettling footage of hooded figures spliced into the movies. Jeremy's mother died in a car accident, and while he and his father have settled into a comfortable routine, the sense of loss is always with them.

Jeremy's boss at the video store recognizes the house and shed in the spliced footage, and she forms a friendship with Lisa who now lives at the location. Lisa experienced loss of a loved one back in the 1960s. Grief and uncertainty came to define the lives of her family. A third family from the present day, and an unnamed narrator tie the story threads together.

"Universal Harvester" is more than a story of suspense and mystery. It's a book about the small towns of the Mid-West at various times over the last fifty years. Most of all, "Universal Harvester" is a story about loss and sorrow.

The author, John Darnielle, is also a songwriter, guitarist, and singer for the Mountain Goats. He writes in a lyrical way so you can see the landscape, and emotionally feel for the characters. The book keeps the reader guessing about the direction where it is heading, and leaves one with questions at the end. It's a wonderful book if you are looking for a strange, ambiguous story that's a little out of the ordinary. I loved the cover too! 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,037 reviews513 followers
March 16, 2017
After the rather show-offy Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle returns with a far different beast. Here the writing is so restrained and diffident it verges on clinical observation. There are subtle first-person narrative intrusions that the casual reader is all too likely to miss ... until the full horrific implications are teasingly, hauntingly revealed only at the end. Weirdly this struck me as a spiritual successor to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. No over-the-top farm murders here: just emptiness, absence, longing, despair, the peculiar stale vacuum of small-town claustrophobia. I have seen this described as a horror novel, which is so wrong on so many levels: rather this is an anti-horror novel. Or a meta horror novel that manages to distil all of your deepest, most undefined fears and hankerings. Profoundly, superbly creepy, and a mini-masterclass in the slow quotidian impact of great writing.
Profile Image for Angus McKeogh.
1,050 reviews50 followers
December 17, 2017
Should be retitled “Universal Dumpster”. What a sorry excuse for a “horror” novel. It was a blessing this book was so short or I would’ve stopped reading it. Even at that it took me three months of putting it down and picking it back up and slogging through 10 pages. Just phenomenally uninteresting. The main plot point about mysterious film segments showing up in the middle of rented video tapes was promisingly intriguing and then became nonsensical and unimportant. The book dragged and then dragged some more. A huge letdown after a really good rookie effort, Wolf in White Van. And certainly not scary or creepy. Just stupid.
Profile Image for Scottsdale Public Library.
3,178 reviews197 followers
October 5, 2021
Universal Harvester left me with the creeps.
It also left me with many questions. Questions that will never be answered, and therefore magnify the creepy ambiguousness of the book’s ending.
The premise of the book is brilliant and immediately captivating. Jeremy is a clerk in a sleepy video store, circa 1990, who receives reports of strange material recorded onto certain VHS tapes. The content is clearly very disturbing to the viewers and once Jeremy investigates, he becomes more involved than he intended.
My recommendation would be make a friend read it, so you’ll have someone to talk to about it! –Lisanne E.
Profile Image for Viv JM.
689 reviews154 followers
March 12, 2017
I liked this book but I didn't love it, and it wasn't really what I expected it to be. Darnielle's writing is beautiful and he definitely manages to convey a melancholic sense of loss and grief. However, at times, I found Universal Harvester to be just a bit...well...boring, for want of a better word.

I still love The Mountain Goats though :-)
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