You may purchase Universal Harvester here.
My dear unknown friend,
I stumbled across Universal Harvester quite by accident. Why, I have no idea. Something about it intrigued me and truth be told I could never tell you what it was. The title itself is clever in its similarity to an icon of farm life. Perhaps a part of my subconscious registered the name of the author, John Darnielle, even though I did not make the connection until later. The cover and title caught my eye while the blurb hooked me. The flash worked. It was then I realized where I knew the name John Darnielle. The Mountain Goats. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”. 33 1/3 Master of Reality. I am frequently reminded I am a bear of limited intelligence.
Universal Harvester centers on Jeremy, a young man who lives in the small town of Nevada, Iowa in the mid-90’s. Jeremy spends his days working at Video Hut, his evenings in familiar routine with his father as the two circle the loss of Jeremy’s mother who died in a car accident six years ago. One day a customer returns a videotape complaining that someone taped over portions of the original movie. Jeremy offers to refund her rental fee yet the customer wants more action taken. It is not simply the rental fee. The images recorded disturbed her yet as to how or why she cannot say. Instead she urges Jeremy to watch the tape.
Jeremy puts off watching the tape. Partially out of a sense of routine being disturbed, partially from feelings he holds for the customer in question. Days later, spurred on by customer complaints of tampered films, he views the film in question, an old Boris Karloff film entitled Targets. When Jeremy sees the scenes in question he tells the owner of Video Hut of their existence. Struggling with the onset of big box video stores she herself takes days to watch the films yet when she does the scenes, which include a hooded figure dancing in a barn and bodies writhing under a sack, sends her off on an investigative spree of her own.
I feel as if I am stealing much from potential readers of Universal Harvester to say that a large part of the allure of this novel lies in the skilled manner with which John Darnielle establishes expectations only to elegantly shift the ground upon which the reader stands. This happens not only with genre expectations, but also with character arcs and the themes explored within the novel. Plus there is that voice. I cannot fully describe the experience the act of reading Universal Harvester cast over me. I saved this novel for late night reading sessions, either right before I was falling asleep or when I woke in the early morning hours and could not return to sleep. The voice of Universal Harvester is a near physical presence, close to the feeling of an intimate friendship.
Universal Harvester builds a sense of mystery and dread, yes. Slowly, teasingly, and with masterful strokes but this is a novel filled with beautifully evoked characters dealing with loss. I nearly fell back on the cliché of ‘grappling with loss’ there but while that would be the easy sentence it would not be honest. Darnielle’s character are shaped by loss, it forms a nucleus around which they swirl yet they are dealing with their loss in a very realistic and humane manner. It would have been far easier for Darnielle to have his characters fall into the comfortable and expected portrayals of grief we are all familiar with yet his multi-toned approach pays off incredibly well. Even though the central mystery at the heart of Universal Harvester is extremely intriguing and compelling, by the time the last piece drops into its very satisfying place this mystery is nearly secondary compared to the emotional investment in the novel’s characters.
I enjoy asking creators I interview for Lovecraft Ezine what the term “cosmic horror” means to them. The responses are fascinating for a variety of reasons. For myself the standard that Lovecraft set, that the universe does not care or “cosmic indifference”, is a relief. What I view as cosmic horror is that we are each a universe within ourselves and no matter how deeply in love one is with someone else you will never truly know them. Universal Harvester taps into this with a beautifully slow, uncoiling menace that is utterly hypnotizing. You know that danger lurks under those gently undulating rows of corn, you can feel it unwinding, relishing its own tensed muscled strength and know you should flee yet you simply must see what this revelation is. Universal Harvester makes one understand prey animals that stand absolutely still as their doom descends — yet all the while as you are experiencing that slow sense of mounting dread and menace you cannot identify, there is still that all pervading wise and reassuring voice.
I do believe it’s painfully obvious I loved Universal Harvester. Like most novels that arrive from nowhere to smack me in the back of the head I wish I could simply say, “This is brilliant. Read it,” yet I realize we live in a genre where a writer’s friends say words to the same effect on Amazon so frequently they have become quite meaningless. As such I have given the bare minimum with which I hope to whet your appetite yet not so much as to ruin the myriad opportunities for surprise and delight that await you inside Universal Harvester. This novel is a singular experience within modern weird fiction. Several times while reading Universal Harvester I asked myself why we weren’t seeing more works of this caliber given the frequent chest beatings and deceleration of greatness this scene provokes. My one sorrow is that Mark Fisher did not have the chance to read this work before his passing. I feel that it would sit quite comfortably within his thoughts on the eerie.
Soundtrack for this review:
You may purchase Universal Harvester here.
This review by Acep Hale.