John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a solid first effort, but I remember it feeling thin, perhaps not long enough. With Universal Harvester, Darnielle has found his stride in writing fiction. The writing here is immersive, empathetic, and occasionally funny. The first part of the novel evokes a nostalgic middle America; set in the late 1990s in a video store in Iowa, a clerk named Jeremy is getting complaints that certain VHS tapes are being recorded over with strange home video clips. As Jeremy investigates this mystery with his coworkers, various townspeople, and his widowed father, the story begins to get even more mysterious.
This isn’t really a horror novel, like it’s being described in some blurbs, but it does have a creepy, slow-burning cinematic quality to it, much like an indie horror flick that is more interesting than scary. I can’t really criticize the writing at all; it’s well plotted and paced, but I just didn’t “get it”, which is my least favorite review to give to a novel, because I know the fault is mainly mine. I liked the first quarter of the novel a lot, but as the narration progressed to different times and places, my mind started to wander and I started to lose focus. My interest completely fell off by the end of the novel, thus, I didn’t really get the ending or what exactly was going on. My bad. Universal Harvester is one of those vague, open-ended thrillers, one I really need to be in a certain mood to love.
So, consider this a non-review: I think John Darnielle is awesome, and his second novel shows that he is not just a musician-turned-author, he’s a talented author in his own right. I didn’t really “get” it, but I feel that way about a lot of similarly structured novels. If I were in a different mood, or it was closer to Halloween, I probably would have had a better attention span for this. You may love it, especially if you’re looking for something atmospheric, nostalgic and a little bit strange.