Jeremy is a young man a few years out of high school working in a video store in his home town in Iowa. Having lost his mother some years before, Jeremy drifts through a life of as few choices as possible. He and his dad share their home, both in their own ways paused by that loss, but for the most part content with only small changes in life. Slowly getting to the point where he might be contemplating a job that’s a career, Jeremy is puzzled when a customer brings a tape back and tells him “there’s something on it”.
It’s the first of many tapes that have scenes cut into them, shot on videotape, that suggest something sinister taking place. Jeremy’s boss Sarah Jane is convinced she knows where the inserts were shot, out in the cornfields and farms of the nearby area, and sets out to investigate. Meanwhile Jeremy tries to not get involved, freaked out by this very unusual and unwelcome intrusion into his ordered life.
That synopsis might suggest that John Darnielle’s second novel is going to be a King-esque rural horror and at least initially that’s what it seems to be. Darnielle isn’t interested in something so straight forward however, and Universal Harvester quickly veers off into much more oblique territory. This is an almost intangible novel about elusive memory, grief, loss and how they affect those left behind in profound but impossible to explain ways, in this case the space mothers who have gone leave for their children to fill.
Darnielle has a gift for language and the pages are filled with random turns of phrase where he finds rhythm and beauty in the everyday and the odd. It’s seemingly dreamily languorous even in it’s more sinister parts but is actually tightly controlled. He populates the story with numerous characters and in short passages that mix bluntness with a poetic lyricism, he’s able to make them all vividly real. Whatever the blurb on the book might say, do not mistake this for a tale of horror. Universal Harvester is instead a strange meditation on unanswerable questions, something about how the living go on in the space between the buried and the vanished. It’s an unfamiliar and not immediate novel that will probably reveal more on subsequent readings. As such, it’s difficult to give this novel something so prosaic as a rating, as that could change with each go through, but we can say this is a compelling, unsettling, warm and unusually human piece of art.
UNIVERSAL HARVESTER / AUTHOR: JOHN DARNIELLE / PUBLISHER: SCRIBE UK / RELEASE DATE: 17TH APRIL