John Darnielle Spins A Quietly Mesmerizing Tale with 'Universal Harvester'
Advance copies of John Darnielle’s new novel, Universal Harvester, don’t look like books — not at first. The paperbacks approximate the size and weight of VHS tapes and were shipped out to critics in plastic clamshell cases with grainy black-and-white printouts of the book’s jacket art stuck beneath their clear outer sleeves. Each insert depicts a dark cornfield stretching out beneath a sky of lines that swoop and flatten into the sort of non-patterns you can find in the warped mesh of an old screen door or video with degraded magnetic tape.
It’s an apt tableau for a novel in which Darnielle filters sleepy heartland vistas through a thin haze of distortion. In Universal Harvester, reality is fractured just enough to snap sad truths through the canvas into plain view. “You see cars pulled over and people who have gotten out to take pictures sometimes, around midday — families or couples who are driving cross country,” he writes, describing the novel’s rural Iowa setting. “Near sunset, long wheeling shadows suggest a different sort of picture, one with maybe a quiet hint of menace to it. But by then most of the people taking pictures have moved on.”
Though he scored a 2014 National Book Award nomination for his previous novel, Wolf in White Van, Darnielle is still best known as the principal songwriter (and sometimes sole member) of the beloved indie-folk band The Mountain Goats. He’s spent almost three decades telling offbeat stories of people in or en route to Bangor, Bogotá, Lebanon, Reykjavík, Monaco, and other far-flung locales, and he excels at making his characters come across to listeners as both real and complex, all inside of three minutes. Universal Harvester, however, is set in a land much more familiar to Darnielle: In 1996, he moved from Southern California to the Hawkeye State to live with his girlfriend Lalitree while she studied at Grinnell College. They married in 1998 and spent five more years living in nearby Colo and later in Ames before leaving Iowa for their current home of Durham, North Carolina, in 2003.
Universal Harvester takes place circa 2000 in Nevada, Iowa, a small town resting on a stretch of Highway 30 strung between Ames to the west and Colo to the east. Its protagonist, 22-year-old Jeremy Heldt, is a clerk at the town’s only movie rental store. His mother, Linda, swerved off Highway 30 and hit a telephone pole in the winter of ’94. In the following six years, we learn, Jeremy and his father “shaped the space they lived in around [her] absence,” creating “a comfortable place you didn’t have to think about that much ... a known quantity, a knowable outcome.” Ritual is a friend to them, or at least a willing helper. By minimizing variability in their lives, they hope to minimize risk. But you can’t plan for everything. Strange things happen in Universal Harvester, and the Heldts come to realize that the wounds they’ve been guarding never really healed in the first place — the pain just seeped out, filled their home, became ambient.
Early in the novel, Jeremy is surprised when customers start bringing tapes back to the Video Hut with the complaint that there are other movies on them — disturbing footage of hooded people in barns whom one customer wants to call “victims.” Jeremy would rather believe that it’s some bored teenagers’ prank, or a factory error, or anything else that will let him forget about it and move on with his life. But he can’t forget. He takes the tapes home, and much like Naomi Watts’s character in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, he cannot escape what he has seen.
Universal Harvester is a quiet story of grief with the trappings of a Stephen King suspense-thriller — the first book through which Darnielle has really spun a yarn. His other major fictional works, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality (a 33 ⅓ series entry themed around the band’s 1971 album) and Wolf in White Van, were both extended character studies of troubled young men, focused more on following the narrators’ fragmented thoughts than crafting a traditional narrative arc. If adapted for the stage, either could make for a brilliant one-man show. Universal Harvester, on the other hand, is cinematic, action-driven. Its characters are constantly on the move, speeding toward destinations they fear will hold “scenes of unspeakable devastation and loss,” and Darnielle seamlessly transfers their dread straight into readers’ hearts.
It’s all part of Darnielle’s ongoing mission of crafting vibrant worlds around his own cultural interests and populating them with characters that his audience can cheer for. Case in point: His last big project, The Mountain Goats’ 2015 album Beat the Champ, was a concept record about professional masked wrestling. Where Master of Reality went deep on ’70s heavy metal, and Wolf in White Van dealt with escapism via role-playing games, Universal Harvester provides Darnielle with a vehicle to talk about movies, and about how telling stories can help the bereaved work through trauma.
While the novel is largely told from a third-person omniscient perspective, Darnielle periodically injects a digressive narrative voice that offers personal anecdotes and commentary. Because of this, the book often comes off kind of like an extended campfire story. (Please take a moment here to imagine John Darnielle out on a camping trip, packing away his acoustic guitar and surplus s’mores ingredients by the light of a low-burning flame, readying himself to tell a scary story of his own invention.) The narrator’s exhibition of both uncanny omniscience and a personal stake — or, perhaps, a presence — in the action is especially chilling. Yet as different versions of the story we’re reading gradually come to light, some hinging on small, admittedly disputable details, the effect isn’t eerie so much as somber and reflective. A world of endless possibilities might seem full of light and promise to some, but for the lonely, grief-stricken characters in Universal Harvester, Heaven might be more like, as David Byrne once put it, “a place where nothing ever happens.” Such a territory, Darnielle suggests, could have its own kind of beauty, something only those who live “within its boundaries” are capable of recognizing. “You have to get inside to see anything worth seeing,” he writes. “You have to listen long enough to hear the music.”
Darnielle is a noted horror aficionado, but the movies featured in Universal Harvester reflect the way his love for film stretches far beyond traditional monster and slasher flicks. The second tape that Jeremy finds strange footage on is Targets, a low-budget 1968 thriller that Darnielle presented at the Alamo Drafthouse in Denver this past October. It’s about a Vietnam vet who snaps and goes on a shooting spree, but it also follows the aging horror-film actor Byron Orlok, played by Boris Karloff in a sort of proto-Birdman Hollywood meta-role, who crosses paths with the killer in the film’s final scene. It’s a shocking story, but in the context of the novel, it’s about a tragic everyday truth: The universe brings some people together just as easily as it tears others apart.
Elsewhere throughout Universal Harvester, horror conventions lay open like bear traps, and they get scarier the longer they’re left agape. Most are revealed to be innocuous little homages, red herrings to fool horror fans who think they have the story figured out because they’ve seen Children of the Corn. A few traps do close, but even then they don’t work the way you expect them to. One example is the end-of-days cult whose followers cut ties with their past lives in order to join, a choice that often leaves gaping holes in the lives of others. Darnielle explored a similar idea in the song “New Zion” from the Mountain Goats’ 2008 album Heretic Pride, noting in the record’s “comic book press kit” that as a kid he felt as though “cults were second only to Santa Claus in their mysterious powers.”
The cult in Universal Harvester is not New Zion, but it’s just as enigmatic. Even at the book’s end, big questions are left unanswered, but fans of Darnielle’s work know to expect this. For him, relating how a character feels is much more important than explaining why they choose to do something, since people so often do things that even they can’t explain. In the absence of answers, characters in Universal Harvester manufacture their own conclusions or create narratives they think they can control.
I tend to read mysteries much in the way that I handle interstate travel — speeding through, stopping only when I get too tired to keep my eyes open. Traditional practice held for my first read of Universal Harvester: It’s so wonderfully strange, almost Lynchian in its juxtaposition of the banal and the creepy, that my urge to know what the hell was going on caused me to go full throttle, eyes on the prize. I can imagine other readers also going about it with this mentality, but I urge against it. Darnielle hides so much beautiful commentary in the book’s quieter moments that you would be remiss not to slow down, get out of the car every once in awhile, and look hard at the scenery. Although if you don’t, that’s fine; you know what to do. Like the smiley-face sticker on the spine of the faux-VHS case says: Be kind, please rewind.