Review: ‘Universal Harvester’ by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 7, 2017)
224 pages; $15.00 hardcover; $11.99 e-book
Reviewed by Blu Gilliand

When you work at Cemetery Dance, you tend to make certain assumptions about the books publishers send to you for review. Sometimes, those assumptions are way off. John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester proved to be one of those instances….in the best possible way.

When I got the book (cleverly packaged in a plastic clamshell case like an old VHS tape, for reasons that would become clear when I read it) and scanned its press sheet, a few things jumped out at me: mentions of the “haunted, open landscape of middle-America;” “ominous and disturbing footage” spliced into a video store’s rental tapes; an investigation into “the origins of these unsettling scenes.” I took these tidbits and began to splice together my own version of the book.

“It’ll be something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I reckoned.

“Video clerk sees these weird scenes cut into the movies, decides to play detective, see if he can figure out where they were shot,” I reasoned.

“Clerk figures out the stuff was shot nearby, loads up some of his buddies and they go out on a weekend to see if they can find the place,” I deduced. “Only they find some back-woods Tarantino wannabes shooting snuff films, and they wind up getting feature roles. Or maybe it’s a cult, and they wind up as sacrifices to some Lovecraftian thing called the ‘Universal Harvester.’ Or something like that.”

Sounded okay to me. I dove in. And discovered just how wrong I was.

Yes, there is a video clerk, and yes, he does discover that someone is splicing mysterious footage into the tapes from his store. And yes, he does, eventually, set out to find out who and why. But John Darnielle did not set out to write a B-movie creature feature (as awesome as that might be). Universal Harvester is far less exploitative, if no less provocative.

Darnielle’s book is a deliberately-paced meditation on how people can get stuck at certain points in their lives, unable—or simply afraid—to move forward. Maybe they don’t know what the next step should be; maybe they know, but are unwilling to take it, unwilling to shake up the status quo, no matter how unfulfilling it might be. This is where the main characters of Universal Harvester find themselves until this little mystery comes along, forcing each of them out of their comfort zone.

Darnielle, the accomplished singer/songwriter behind The Mountain Goats, applies his lyrical sensibilities to each and every sentence in his novel, producing some truly striking passages. He walks a fine line between plot and style, never fully sacrificing one over the other, blending them instead into something that is satisfying on both artistic and visceral levels. It is, simply said, a beautifully written book.

Is Universal Harvester a horror novel? I imagine there will be some debate over that. Some will say it’s a horror novel with literary aspirations; other will say it’s a literary work with shades of horror. I say: who cares? It’s an excellent book, one that anyone with an appreciation for good writing is apt to enjoy. It’s not the novel I envisioned when I first opened the package a couple of months ago; fortunately, it’s something much better.

Want to learn more about Universal Harvester? Check out the creepy book trailer below:

Leave a Reply