John Darnielle’s new novel, Universal Harvester, begins with a premise fit for a horror movie. At Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa, customers have noticed strange footage spliced into the movies they’ve rented. In the middle of She’s All That, four minutes of a dark room, a person breathing, the sound of movement. In the movie Targets, two scenes: an empty chair in an outbuilding, a workbench also partially visible; then the same location, this time with a figure seated on the chair, wearing a canvas bag for a hood. Darnielle’s description of the ensuing action is startling:
she rises to her feet, or he to his, it makes no difference and it’s impossible to tell, and raises both arms from behind her back up and over her head, hands held like claws, fingers splayed and pointed downward as one poised to descend on the keys of a piano or shoot lightning bolts at the ground. Slowly, she lifts her left foot; her right knee quivers, and half-buckles, but she holds the pose.
The hood, the wraith-like pose, the spare surroundings: this isn’t far off from the famous photograph of the tortured prisoner from Abu Ghraib. But this is a small town in Iowa in the 1990s, those horrors have yet to take place, and Darnielle is up to something much different here.
As the novel opens, Jeremy, a college graduate who is vaguely content with his current job as a Video Hut clerk, is alerted by several customers to the footage. “There’s something on this one,” says Stephanie, a schoolteacher, returning Targets. Nevertheless, it takes Jeremy a little while to get around to looking at the tapes for himself. When he finally watches She’s All That, he’s not sure what to make of it: “Someone had taped something personal onto a movie they’d rented; that wasn’t supposed to be possible, but maybe it was; who’d ever tried, but who cared?” Nevertheless, he tells his boss, Sarah Jane, and then moves on with his life. It isn’t until Stephanie shows up again and prods him into watching Targets and its footage of the hooded figure that he becomes truly disturbed.
Stephanie and Jeremy begin to investigate—Stephanie avidly, Jeremy reluctantly. But it’s Sarah Jane who takes the matter most seriously. After discovering more spliced footage in She’s All That, she identifies the location where it was shot—a farmhouse not too far outside of town—and goes to confront whoever answers the door.
With a such a haunting premise established, a reader might be forgiven for imagining the direction of the rest of the story: more altered videos show up, doling out more disturbing imagery, with a few clues to their origin interspersed; the protagonists are drawn into a dark conspiracy, or an all-too-human horror show. But Darnielle’s book is full of surprises—not least, Jeremy’s ongoing reluctance to look too deeply into the mystery, even when Stephanie urges him on—and, without revealing too much, let it be said that the story subverts these expectations.
In his captivating previous novel, Wolf in White Van, Darnielle explored the labyrinthine recollections of a man who suffered a disfiguring accident in his teens. In that book, the relationship between fantasy and and reality played an important role. After his accident, the narrator conceived of a play-by-mail, post-apocalyptic role-playing game, Trace Italian; much of the novel concerns the details of that game and the narrator’s ongoing management of it. And in a significant subplot that echoes the narrator’s own traumatic past, a pair of teenagers endanger themselves after taking the game too seriously.
Universal Harvester similarly explores the power of fantasy in its characters’ lives. Jeremy resists it: daunted by the aura of menace around the videos, he finds solace in routine—opening Video Hut, watching movies at home with his father, diverting his mind from the memory of his mother’s death in a car accident many years before. But Sarah Jane embraces it: after learning more of the footage’s origin, she withdraws, and soon hardly bothers to show up at Video Hut at all. And then there’s the spliced footage itself: dark fantasies that refuse to be contained, that must be interjected into the safer, Hollywood-sanctioned fantasies of the movies.
Even the narrator—whose identity becomes another source of mystery—indulges in speculation, at various points considering the many paths the story could take before settling on the current version. Here, in a passage that showcases Darnielle’s ability to write elaborate, thrilling prose, the narrator muses on Jeremy’s fate as Sarah Jane returns from a trip to the farmhouse:
the young, bored Jeremy of the Nothing Happened variation rings false, and I put more stock in the one I see this afternoon, standing behind the counter eating a sandwich, reading through the classified ads in The Des Moines Register: the Jeremy who’s there when Sarah Jane gets back from Collins, throwing herself wildly through the door of Video Hut as though seeking shelter, her eyes wide, her face darting deerlike first to the right, now to the left, the story she brings so fresh with the terror of its insult that she takes over an hour to tell it, like a person who’s saying things out loud to make sure she won’t forget them: a person testing the things in her mind against the hard surfaces of the world before venturing to the claim that yes, they’re true and real, and have form, and shape, and weight, and meaning.
Universal Harvester frequently explores the way stories are told, and especially their relationship to trauma and fantasy—an important theme in Wolf in White Van as well. It is unfortunate, then, that Universal Harvester is never quite as compelling as that book. The mystery of who is splicing the footage into the video and why is left to lie fallow for long stretches of time, though it’s never entirely abandoned. This is not to say that the story is ultimately unsatisfying, but rather that the premise and the tone of the novel often seem at odds with each other. The spliced footage poses a disruptive, visceral challenge to the character’s lives, and seems to demand an immediate response, but the writing frequently takes on a discursive, quasi-ethnographic tone, describing the customs not just of the main characters, but of the entire community in and around Nevada, Iowa. These digressions are engrossing, well-observed—and somewhat maddening when the potential threat of those altered tapes is lingering in the background. A long section of backstory in the middle of the novel, which comes immediately after a cliffhanger, is particularly frustrating: by the time the narrative circles back to the present, much of the urgency has been lost.
Still, I admire the risk Darnielle takes in splicing together these disparate elements. Structurally, the book resembles the videos at its center, with trauma irrupting in surprising places. The characters do their best to cope with it through fantasy and denial, and occasionally by facing it head-on. Mostly, though, it merely becomes part of the fabric of their lives, part of the story they tell themselves, in all of its many variations.