05 February 2017
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut
Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town—the first “a” in the name is pronounced ay—smack in the center of the state. This is the late 1990s, pre-DVD, and the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut. But there are regular customers, a predictable rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: It’s a job; it’s quiet and regular; he gets to watch movies; he likes the owner, Sarah Jane; it gets him out of the house, where he and his dad try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.
But when Stephanie Parsons, a local schoolteacher, comes in to return her copy of Targets, starring Boris Karloff—an old movie, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, Lindsey Redinius brings back She’s All That, a new release, and complains that there’s something wrong with it: “There’s another movie on this tape.”
So Jeremy takes a look. And indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blink dark for a moment and She’s All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She’s All That is back. But there is something profoundly disturbing about that scene; Jeremy’s compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks a lot like a barn just outside of town.
Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious. In truth, it freaks him out, deeply. This has gone far enough, maybe too far already. But Stephanie is pushing, and once Sarah Jane takes a look and becomes obsessed, there’s no more ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same . . .
The minute I saw that there was a book set in small town Iowa, by John Darnielle, with some weird Clerks crossed with The Ring plot, was like Give. It. To. Me. Now. I was very disappointed with the big "Iowa" book last year - The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - and hoped that the setting for Universal Harvester would ring true.
Universal Harvester is set in Nevada, IA - which is an actual town over by Ames in the center of the state - in the late 1990s. Jeremy's mom died in a car accident when he was a teen, he and his dad are just trying to get through each day, and while working at the Video Hut is fine for now, Jeremy really ought to start looking at getting a job with better potential. The daily Video Hut routine is interrupted one day by a customer complaining about a weird scene inserted into a copy of Targets. Soon another one surfaces in She's All That. The scenes are crude, black-and-white, in a barn, with creepy breathing and a hooded figure tied to a chair. The scenes are unsettling, disturbing. When Jeremy and his boss Sarah Jane begin investigating how many tapes have inserted "barn scenes", the rails come off their quiet Iowa lives.
John Darnielle, whose debut novel Wolf in White Van detailed the haunting life of a shut-in running a turn-by-mail RPG after two participants die trying to turn the game into live action, has perfectly captured the rural central Iowa countryside. He gets what it's like to live here, to drive out into the fields on two-lane blacktop or dirt roads during the growing season when the fields rarely have people in them. How eerie and quiet it is. The deadening of sound. (And if you're in the dark, how absolutely certain you get that The Children of the Corn might actually be real.) Darnielle also picked up on how Ames was growing out into the surrounding rural area in the 1990s, as did many other large Iowa cities, and how the balance between City and Country changed.
Universal Harvester of the strangest books I've ever read, but at the very end it all makes sense. The layers of the story twist and change as the characters themselves change and share perspectives during the story. The book's reality shifts but this isn't a book with supernatural elements. Right at the point I thought for sure someone was going to turn out to be a demon-possessed ax-murderer Darnielle pointed the story in another direction. An excellent reading experience.
Universal Harvester comes out in a few days on Tuesday, February 7!
Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.