Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review: "Universal Harvester" by John Darnielle

This should be an interesting exercise: writing a review of a book that you do not understand but you couldn't stop reading, both because you were hoping things would finally become clear, and because the writing was quite good, even as it meandered.

It's the late 1990s, just before DVDs become the preferred method of entertainment, leaving video stores struggling. Jeremy works at Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa, a small town in the center of the state. He should be thinking about college, or at least getting a "real" job, but he likes not having much to worry or think about—he can perform all of the "store opening" functions in a matter of minutes.

One day, one of the store's regular customers, brings in a copy of an old movie with Boris Karloff that she rented. She says that there's something else on the tape. Jeremy means to watch it in his spare time but he gets distracted and forgets. A few days later, another customer returns another movie, saying, "There's another movie on this tape." When Jeremy watches the video, he can't explain what he sees, but it disturbs him. The scenes appear to be poorly shot home videos, sometimes an empty room with just the sound of breathing evident, sometimes there are masked people moving around, but Jeremy can't determine if the people are involved of their own volition or if they're somehow being controlled or threatened.

When Jeremy shows the videos to Sarah Jane, the store's owner/manager, she recognizes the farmhouse where the scenes were shot as being in a nearby town. She feels compelled to visit this house and see if the people who live there know anything about these films. She is inexplicably drawn to Lisa Sample, the woman who lives in the house, and before anyone notices, she has practically moved in with Lisa, who seems to have some type of control over Sarah Jane, and has some secrets of her own.

Jeremy can't understand what has prompted Sarah Jane to practically abandon her store to spend time with Lisa, and he can't get the videos out of his mind. Should he just let Sarah Jane live her life as she chooses, and should he move on with his own life? Or should he try and figure out just what these videos mean, especially when he finds other videos in the store with increasingly disturbing scenes?

This book is creepy and confusing, with a mood that falls somewhere between Twin Peaks and The Ring, although it really resembles neither in terms of plot. The story shifts perspective several times, with a few sections narrated from Jamie's point of view, a few narrated from Lisa's point of view (and her family history), and a section narrated from another family's point of view.

As I mentioned earlier, John Darnielle knows how to write, to create vivid pictures and atmosphere, and ratchet up the tension so you can't stop reading even as you wrack your brain trying to figure out what this book is about. Is it a horror story? Is it a meditation on loss, and our need to try and find answers to what causes those losses? Or is it just one great big collection of red herrings?

I honestly don't know the answer to the above question, and it's pretty frustrating. While I like to use my imagination when reading, I do like there to be somewhat of a definitive plot, with some resolution. Universal Harvester is well-written (although the book shifts perspective every time the narration is building up steam, thereby cutting the plot off at the knees) but for me, ultimately unsatisfying, yet I couldn't stop reading it!

NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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