Universal Harvester (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
Written by John Darnielle
The town of Nevada, Iowa doesn’t have much going for it in the late 1990s, apart from the Video Hut. Twenty-something Jeremy works full time there while living at home with his widower father. Life is pretty quiet until customers start returning videos with hesitant complaints about “something wrong with the tape.” Jeremy finally sits down to watch these movies and finds sudden cuts to home video footage spliced in. These strange videos reveal a possible dark secret one of the townspeople is keeping. Jeremy begins to share these film clips with his manager and other people close to them causing more and more people to become entangled in the darkness surrounding his town.
Universal Harvester is one of the most painfully disappointing novels I’ve read in awhile. This doesn’t mean it is poorly written because Darnielle is a very talented writer and can pen beautiful prose. The problem with the novel is its inability to pay off its incredibly promising premise. This partial lies in how unmotivated so many of the characters are. There is a very enticing premise laid out before them that should create momentum for their investigation and lead us down unexpected paths. Instead, every time a character is on the precipice of discovering something or is in a situation where they need to ask a major question they sort of slink shyly away. It becomes very bizarre in the latter half of the book because this is when we need some answers.
The book is divided into four parts. The first part sets up the mystery. The second part jumps back in time 20 or so years to establish some backstory to a central character. And these two parts are a slow burn but enough to keep me intrigued. By the time I got to the third part, set back in the 1990s, I had started to get the sense the story wasn’t going where I wanted it to. In fact, by the end of the third part, it began to become apparent this isn’t even a horror novel, despite it being sold as that.
There was some backlash towards the film. It Comes At Night, released in June 2017. The major complaint was that the trailers were selling the film as something it ended up not being. Now it is a very well made, powerful film, but it most definitely is not the type of horror film the trailers presented it as. I think this is the case with Universal Harvester. The hook is the mysterious tapes, but the novel ends up not really being about the mystery behind them.
There is also a big issue with character development as all the major characters end up as bland “good people” who don’t actually accomplish much or learn anything by the end of the novel. The fourth part jumps forward to present day where new characters trace the paths of Jeremy and his associates to learn what became of them. Apparently, everyone is okay, albeit a bit sad. And that’s what the novel ends up being about, in the end, grief and sadness…and the tape plot just sort of gets pushed to the side and explained in a throw away mundane manner.
Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in a White Van had similar errors in execution. They are great concepts, but the books are sold on them. The stories end up not delivering on the promise of the concept but are still well written. I would say that after this second experience with Darnielle I’m not likely to pick up his books anymore because it is evident they aren’t necessarily about what they claim to be about.