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Universal Harvester
Cover of Universal Harvester
Universal Harvester
A Novel
Borrow Borrow

Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut

Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa—a small town in the center of the state, the first "a" in Nevada pronounced "ay." This is the late 1990s, and while the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It's good enough for Jeremy: It's a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.

But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets—an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: "There's something on it," she says, but doesn't elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns She's All That, a new release, and complains that there's something wrong with it: "There's another movie on this tape."

Jeremy doesn't want to be curious. But he takes a look and, indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blinks dark for a moment and She's All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She's All That is back. But there is something profoundly unsettling about that scene; Jeremy's compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks much like a barn just outside of town.

There will be no ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same . . .

Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut

Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa—a small town in the center of the state, the first "a" in Nevada pronounced "ay." This is the late 1990s, and while the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It's good enough for Jeremy: It's a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.

But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets—an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: "There's something on it," she says, but doesn't elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns She's All That, a new release, and complains that there's something wrong with it: "There's another movie on this tape."

Jeremy doesn't want to be curious. But he takes a look and, indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blinks dark for a moment and She's All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She's All That is back. But there is something profoundly unsettling about that scene; Jeremy's compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks much like a barn just outside of town.

There will be no ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same . . .

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About the Author-
  • JOHN DARNIELLE's first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a New York Times bestseller, National Book Award nominee, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction, and widely hailed as one of the best novels of the year. He is the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and sons.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 12, 2016
    Beginning on the cusp of the 2000s and spanning more than 25 years, the second novel from Darnielle (Wolf in White Van) is a slow-burn mystery/thriller whose characters are drawn together by an eerie discovery. In his early 20s, Jeremy Heldt lives with his father, Steve—Jeremy’s mother was killed in a car accident six years before—and bides his time clerking at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa, waiting for better prospects to arise. It’s a steady job that keeps him out of the house, though things turn weird when customers begin to report dark, disjointed, unnerving movies-within-the-movies on their rented VHS tapes. At first reluctant to become involved in tracking down the origin of the clips, Jeremy, at the urging of his acquaintance Stephanie Parsons, uncovers the tragic decades-long story behind the videos and experiences an unsavory side of Iowa that he never imagined could exist. Powerfully evoking the boredom and salt-of-the-earth determination of Jeremy, his friends, and a haunted survivor determined to redress a great loss, Darnielle adeptly juggles multiple stories that collide with chaotic consequences somewhere in the middle of nowhere. With a nod to urban legends and friend-of-a-friend tales, the author prepares readers for the surreal truth, the improbable events that “have form, and shape, and weight, and meaning.” Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, the Gernert Company.

  • Los Angeles Times "Brilliant . . . Darnielle is a master at building suspense, and his writing is propulsive and urgent; it's nearly impossible to stop reading . . . [Universal Harvester is] beyond worthwhile; it's a major work by an author who is quickly becoming one of the brightest stars in American fiction."
  • Nylon Magazine "It only makes sense that a lyricist as profound and masterful as Mountain Goats' John Darnielle would also be a brilliant prose stylist. . . . Jeremy's narrative journey is eerie and unsettling; it's one you won't soon forget, that will haunt you in the best possible ways."
  • National Post "A meditation on loss, faith and the nature of family, threaded through with mysteries. . . . The novel is better than scary: Universal Harvester is genuinely haunting."
  • Winnipeg Free Press "A harrowing midwestern mystery. . . . Taut, unsettling. . . . what lingers long after the final pages of Universal Harvester is a haunting sense of the timeless power of grief and absence."
  • The Globe and Mail "Universal Harvester is a novel of fragments, a collection of broken pieces that slowly coalesce into a larger meditation on grief and small-scale survival. It is a story about loss, splintered across generations, much like the altered videotapes at the heart of the book."
  • Paste Magazine "Universal Harvester pivots around what Darnielle calls the 'sad/frightening axis,' relaying some stylistic aspects that will be familiar to readers of Wolf in White Van and his records as The Mountain Goats."
  • Kirkus Reviews "A smart and rangy yarn: file under suspense, horror, and domestic drama."
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review) "A slow-burn mystery/thriller whose characters are drawn together by an eerie discovery. . . . Darnielle adeptly juggles multiple stories that collide with chaotic consequences somewhere in the middle of nowhere."
  • O, the Oprah Magazine "This chilling literary thriller follows a video store clerk as he deciphers a macabre mystery through clues scattered among the tapes his customers rent. A page-tuning homage to In Cold Blood and The Ring."
  • Washington Post "A stellar encore after the success of [Darnielle's] debut novel, Wolf in White Van . . . Beneath the eerie gauze of this book, I felt an undercurrent of humanity and hope."
  • The Wall Street Journal "Universal Harvester is a novel about noticing hidden things, particularly the hurt and desperation that people bear under their exterior of polite reserve . . . Mr. Darnielle possesses the clairvoyant's gift for looking beneath the surface."
  • Raleigh News & Observer "Darnielle writes beautifully . . . He builds a deep sense of foreboding by giving pieces of the puzzle in such a way that you really can't see the solution until that final piece is in place."
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Universal Harvester
A Novel
John Darnielle
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