by John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
224 pages / $13.21 buy from Amazon
2. Universal Harvester. The cover is pretty dope-looking. (Plus, it’s sorta cool that advance reader copies came in a VHS case). It totally vibes with my anodized rainbow finish razor. (That’s 2 for 2 Darnielle, tho, I am not actually counting Master of Reality).
3. But hear me out. I want to get this out of the way, like, right away: the book is marketed as horror and perhaps maybe even a little bit mystery. It’s none of these things, really. Or rather, the story isn’t horror in the way you’d expect it to be horror. And it’s also not mystery, in the classic sense of the word, mystery. It’s a little bit of both, and then some.
4. I’m not taking points away from the book either, because of this, no. It’s not Mr. Darnielle’s fault. Rather, he did this on purpose, and I applaud him (in a way) because of these things—Darnielle is trying to do something new & interesting here and, as you might expect, the average reader is not going to be so into that (I’m guessing). (Maybe the not-so-average reader, as well). The narrative is sort of non-linear (so be prepared for that).
5. I must confess, tho, to what intrigued me initially—what made me want to read the book as soon as possible—the story takes place in Iowa (I got my BA from a school in Iowa, this is no secret; and actually, the town where I went to school is mentioned, pretty early on). Also, the fact that it has something to do with VHS culture and film. (I have never seen The Poughkeepsie Tapes but the idea of VHS tapes and weird things happening on VHS tapes made me think of this film, for whatever reason).
6. I also tend to enjoy most things taking place during a time when the VHS market is / was still booming.
7. Told in four parts, Darnielle makes sure there’s a lot of dread-stuff happening, and he does a good job at saying just enough to keep the reader interested, but keep in mind, it’s not amazing writing. Okay, maybe a little above average, or a lot above average, but I repeat, the dread-stuff stuff is done pretty well and it’s actually kept up throughout most of the book. The problem is, anytime the book seems to finally be going somewhere with what it is trying to say, it jumps to a different moment in time. (This might be mini spoiler-ish, but whatever).
8. It’s pretty evident, super early on, too, that Universal Harvester really is more about the characters and their experience(s) and the setting (the Midwest and all that) than actually about the strange stuff happening on the VHS tapes. And the way this made me feel, is like when a movie trailer is deceptive and makes you think a film is going to be a certain way but then, when you finally get to see(ing) it, as you are watching it, the film, you realize is nothing at all like the trailer, or how marketing made it out to be.
9. Crimson Peak, for example, was marketed as a horror film. I remember seeing the trailer for the first time in the theatre as part of the sneak previews-thing that happens before films. I was not aware, at the time, of Crimson Peak, but knew I liked Guillermo del Toro and thought Pan’s Labyrinth was cool, so once I saw his name and that it was going to be directed by him, I knew I was willing to give it a chance.
10. I ended up watching Crimson Peak a few months later and while I enjoyed the film (tremendously, actually) it was not at all like the trailer said it was going to be, which is why I think so many people said they didn’t like it.
12. But getting back to the book, Universal Harvester. The prose is good. There’s some style to it, in the way Darnielle says certain things. “The wind comes across the plains not howling but singing.” You can tell he writes lyrics on the side (or vice-versa, depending on how you want to look at it).
13. Or how about: you have people like Stephen King who don’t have much style to the way they write (because Stephen King doesn’t necessarily care about all that). The way he writes, it’s very matter-of-fact and the point is to just tell a damn good story.
14. Then you have writers like James Salter or Cormac McCarthy, writers’ writers, if you will, who write sentences that inspire and intrigue and seem absolutely fucking magical.
15. Darnielle’s writing is somewhere in the middle. It oohs and aahs in certain parts, but big picture, isn’t going to blow you away.
16. There are a lot of references to different films too (which makes sense since Jeremy, the main character, works at a video store) and I appreciate that Darnielle does not take the time to belabour what easily could have been belaboured. I like that if the reader is not familiar with a film title, they are free to Google it. Also, I’d like to think that maybe, each title that is mentioned at that specific moment in the book, is for a reason. Mostly, I am thinking this because Darnielle is a singer-songwriter first and essentially a poet also. So there must be some sort of meaning to these film titles and their sequence, right? At the same time, that’s just me speculating.
17. But there was never a point in the book where I thought, jeez, this is so good! Actually, a few times. And here, I am referring to both the story & prose (until near the very end tho—the story gets so very good near the end, like omg). There wasn’t ever a point either, where I felt like what I was reading was a chore and that it was going nowhere. (Actually, that’s not true. I felt that a couple times. That it was maybe going nowhere. Not that it was a chore). The story is a good one. And the atmosphere is there, definitely. For instance, “The horizon began rippling with hints of the earliest blackish purple.” That’s pretty sick.
18. It’s always interesting when an actor or musician or (some sort of) celebrity writes a book or does something that strays from what they are known for, because it’s very hard (sometimes) for them to distance themselves from what they are known for. With Darnielle, I feel like the Mountain Goats is a small enough thing that most people who read books will not be familiar with the Mountain Goats.
19. Artists who try and distance themselves from their other work remind me of people like Billy Bob Thornton. Or more specifically, when Billy Bob Thornton freaked out during an interview with his band, the Boxmasters, because he’s totally an asshat & diva sometimes. (I am not saying Darnielle is like this, just thinking about Billy Bob Thornton and how he acted is certainly something to think about).
20. The book opens with Jeremy, who is a step below your typical every-man, as he introspects just as much as any book character is wont to do, but there are also instances within the text (several, actually) where he is too much like a real person, if that makes sense. “Jeremy felt himself getting ready to do something he wasn’t comfortable doing.” I personally enjoy very much when main characters are problematic in this sense, where they ask too many questions, for instance, hesitate a lot, and refuse to engage in dangerous activities or go exploring too far. Kind of like, if you’ve ever done improv. They’ll tell you you can never say no. You are not allowed to say no. Now, imagine Jeremy, if you can, saying no to just about everything you are not supposed to say no to. “She rose to follow him out. ‘We could just drive out there and look around.’ ‘No,’ he said, opening the passenger door for the her reflexively and shutting it after she got in, finishing his thought out loud as he walked around the driver’s side: ‘Be serious.’”
21. In short, the way Jeremy acts, throughout the book, is how I imagine many of us would act, in real life. That must mean Jeremy is pretty realistic, right? Sure, and no. Since this is a work of fiction, I found that I was distracted by Jeremy’s reluctance to jump headfirst into different situations, like, quite a lot. My being distracted is also my probably looking too much into one thing that is most likely not even that important in the end. But I enjoy that Jeremy isn’t god-mode brave and instead, is full of reservations—just like any sensible person (should / can be(?)).
22. I feel like someone could maybe make a good film out of this. It’s already pretty much ready to be adapted to screenplay. “Near sunset, long, wheeling shadows suggest a different sort of picture, one with maybe a quiet hint of menace to it.” There’s that sort of filmic quality to it, in the way Darnielle frames most of the scenes, and the way he talks about what he talks about. “The highway abutting the fields is miraculously uniform for miles on end; this is true on both the east-west and the north-south routes.” And the dialogue (too). [I was going to include an example here, of the dialogue, but to really get a feel for it, I would have to basically quote the entire book].
23. I don’t want to talk about what is on the tapes because when Darnielle talks about the tapes, each time, and what is on them, it’s both brief & powerful. I don’t want to take away from that.
24. I do, however, want to highlight the feeling of dread happening throughout the entire book, again. It’s like how you might feel watching the infamous Mulholland Drive diner scene.
25. In the end, tho, what it’s really about, the book; it’s a story about a story about a place about a story about people. It’s about Jeremy Heldt and his dad, Steve Heldt. It’s about Sarah Jane Shepherd, the owner of Video Hut. It’s about Lisa Sample, whose folks are from Pottawattamie County (and not Poweshiek County). It’s about Irene Colton and Peter Sample, Lisa Sample’s parents / folks. It’s about Stephanie Parsons, who is obsessed with the tapes and what is on the tapes. It’s about Ezra, who is younger than Jeremy Heldt and also works at Video Hut but seems to have no real / true ambition in life. It’s about a very nice and kind woman named Shauna Kinzer. It’s about a family (originally) from California: Ed & Emily Pratt and their two kids, Abby & James (Pratt) and how they all now live in Iowa. It’s about Bill Veatch, who owns Veatch & Son. It’s about a lot of different people, and this, you might not like. It may not even make sense to you (totally) (the way the story is presented, how it is told and why it is told this way). Or, it might make sense. I dunno. But know this: don’t get too caught up on the idea that this is a horror / mystery novel about creepy people doing creepy things on creepy tapes. It’s not really about all that. It’s about something else—something much scarier.