Book Review: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

This book was included in Powell’s Indiespensable #61, and the description was so intriguing that I sat down and started reading it then and there.

The book primarily follows Jeremy Heldt, high school grad and video store employee in Nevada, Iowa in the mid 1990s. Life is fairly normal for Jeremy, he lives with his father, the two carrying on quietly after the death of his mother several years ago in a car crash. 

The peace and quiet is slowly broken apart when a customer comes into the store, saying that her rental “has another movie on it.” When a second customer comes in complaning of te same thing, Jeremy investigates. Playing the movie through, a black and white film, barely a minute long, has been inserted into the middle of the movie. Though there’s nothing concrete in the short film, it is vaguely unsettling. When other films begin appearing in other movies at the store, the creep factor goes up exponentially. Moreover, there are familiar landmarks in the background of these strange, vaguely threatening films . . .

I really enjoyed this book. Darnielle has a writing style that manages to be descriptive and stark at the same time. In addition, the book is told from the point of view of a smugly omniscient narrator who seems to delight in keeping bits an pieces back from the reader. We are instead forced to circle around the mystery behind the tapes like a vulture, seeing only the smallest parts at a time. The whole thing reminds me of  House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. With that book, it was hard to pin down what exactly was so creepy, but it kept you up at night.

Fans of psychological suspense will like this book. It’s a finely creepy sophomore work from an up-and-coming author.

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