Just One Reader's Opinion!

Universal Harvester

Universal HarvesterUniversal Harvester By John Darnielle

Source Purchased

on February 7, 2017

Rating: three-stars

Cover image and synopsis from Goodreads:

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 blinks 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 . . .

I read John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van last fall. It was strange and I quite liked it. So I was excited to read another book by this author, and I was so intrigued by that synopsis.

I felt kind of let down by this book. The idea of these tapes was so compelling – for a long stretch of the book I didn’t know what the scenes actually were that had been inserted into the video tapes, but there was an ominous air about them. It seemed like a dark little mystery. But the reveal didn’t warrant the build up, in my opinion. In fact, the entire story felt like it almost got somewhere but never quite did.

I also felt jolted by the sudden change of focus midway through the book, and although it tied together in the end, shifting to a different setting and different characters seemingly unrelated to what I had read so far was not enjoyable, especially because I was really enjoying the first part of the book.

All that said, I didn’t outright dislike this book. There is something about John Darnielle’s writing that I really like, and I was pulled into this book right away. I’m sure I’ll check out whatever novels he writes in the future, but I’m so torn on this one.


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