“We live in a world now where people see things all the time, all kinds of things, and they think nothing ever leaves a mark on them, but—”
So says a character in John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester—a book about loss, mothers, and rural America’s particular brand of ominous dread. It’s partly set in Video Hut, a tiny video store not-so-proudly serving the residents of Nevada, Iowa. Its bored employees—renting and shelving VHS tapes as PG-rated movies blare on the store TV—have no idea they won’t be around much longer.
Netflix and Hulu have yet to appear on Iowa’s wintry horizons, let alone wipe out nearly every video store in the country, but the Video Hut gang has a different threat: the tapes themselves. As Jeremy, slacker employee extraordinaire, discovers, some of Video Hut’s tapes have something... wrong. Certain movies—She’s All That, Targets, Tango & Cash—get returned with footage spliced in. Footage that doesn’t belong. Footage that upsets everyone who sees it, that both begs investigation and warns viewers away.
Early on, Universal Harvester’s setup can’t help but recall a few other things: the haunted VHS from The Ring, the titular film at the heart of Infinite Jest, the small-town horror of Lee Child’s Make Me. But Darnielle digs deeper and stranger—he isn’t interested in what’s on the tapes so much as how the tapes affect those who watch them. As any film geek can tell you, it’s never about the movies. It’s about how the movies make us feel.
As Universal Harvester progresses, Darnielle often takes readers directly toward the unexpected. The book’s constant, though, is the same thing that makes Darnielle’s songs with the Mountain Goats so goddamn great: He has an incredible efficiency and skill with words, subtly eliciting a slew of reactions—heartache, fear, the emptiness of half-healed grief—in a few quick lines. Like Darnielle’s previous novel Wolf in White Van, Universal Harvester hits hard, with Darnielle again writing about wounded people, the tattered remnants of families, and tragedy—and those who, smelling blood, can’t help but gawp and stare.
Another element of Wolf in White Van is here, too. What seemed like one of the clunkier parts of that book—a major aspect of its lead character’s life left frustratingly opaque—finds echoes here. This time around, it’s clear any omissions are intentional, and that, even in novels, Darnielle feels some stories are best left untold. Not all of Universal Harvester’s questions are answered. The answers that do come are rarely the kind that satisfy.
But answers aren’t the point. Despite taking a few cues from mysteries, Universal Harvester isn’t about unraveling plot. It’s about tracing the history and scars of people, of families, of farms and towns. As any bookworm can tell you, it’s never about the story. It’s about how the story makes us feel.