Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut.
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle is a 2017 mystery/fiction novel set in the late 1990s. The story follows Jeremy, a man in his early twenties who works at his local Video Hut, a dead-end job he finds palatable because it gets him out of the house and makes his daily life predictable. He lives with his father; his mother having died six years previously in a car wreck. His daily monotony is interrupted when he starts to notice a trend of people complaining about “something else” being on the tapes they’ve rented. Troubling, homemade footage not a part of the movie. It’s a premise that I found quite tantalizing, as I’m sure many others have. An effectively simple concept that promises to unsettle, yet you feel drawn in. Despite how this sounds, however, this book is not a horror story.
On a surface level, it was hard for me not to be a little disappointed with the novel by the time I finished it. The premise is vague and alluring, but it is also a rather cliché idea on its own. Anybody familiar with online “creepypastas” or the stories from Reddit’s No Sleep forum have probably come across a number of stories with a premise just like this. Most of the time they’re pretty shallow too. The thrill is in imagining yourself in such a situation, especially the onset, and in my experience the payoff is usually pretty weak. What I was hoping for was a horror story like those expanded into a novel that really works, without all the cliched drawbacks.
It’s hard to say just how much Darnielle was inspired by the horror implications of the bare premise, or how conscious he was of the expectations it might create in readers. Regardless, he took it and expanded the concept into a novel that is less concerned with exploring the “what did I just watch?” reaction to the footage on the tapes, and much more focused on why someone might be compelled to make them.
If you go into this novel expecting something continually creepy or thrilling you won’t quite get it. The subject matter of the footage, which is sometimes laid out but frequently withheld, is definitely unsettling and fascinating, but they’re really more of a point of interest that characters orbit around. I found their meaning functioned more as a carrot throughout the story, compelling me along with the desire for a better understanding. Some of the answers are there, slowly revealed to you, but they’re not obvious. I don’t want to unpack things too much, but the novel is more about processing grief and the jarring feelings of losing someone important, especially through tragic and/or confusing circumstances.
It’s always a bit of a shock when I remind myself that the book is only 214 pages long. There’s a density to the story that made my time with it feel much longer. The story line is a slow burn, spending a lot of time with key characters; where they’re at in their lives, their relationships with other people, and how they deal with their personal baggage. There isn’t a lot of forward movement, which some readers may find dull. We’re presented with a compelling mystery, yet even Jeremy spends a lot of time ignoring it. We learn a lot about the people in this story, but not so much the one thing that likely drew us in in the first place.
To its credit, the book does do a great job of building up its main characters and making them feel like real people. Even those who get comparatively less attention feel distinct too. Darnielle is definitely good at giving characters a unique voice. Recalling numerous characters evokes different feelings in me still. While reading I was especially intrigued by the narrator’s voice and their relationship with the story. For most of the book they will seem like a standard third-person, near-omniscient narrator. What occasionally slips in are references in the first-person, small unnerving moments that are easy to miss early on. The implications of this have stayed with me since finishing the book, and while I haven’t pinned down all of what this could mean, I’m sure I’ll be pondering it for a while yet.
Universal Harvester was a well-written novel that explored many facets of small town living, processing grief, and the ways that we hold onto the past. The mystery of the footage was used effectively to give the story a creepy edge that compelled me along, but often this thread got lost following characters who were uninterested in pursuing the mystery, not actively involved at all, or in one case chose to abandon said pursuit at a pivotal moment. I liked that the continued obscurity stopped the creepiness from diffusing, but I also think the story could be a little too vague for its own good.
My rating: 3.5 out of 5