Universal Harvester: Book summary and reviews of Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester

by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle X
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
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Book Summary

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. It's a small town in the center of the state - the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if 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 a different tape, a new release, and says it's not defective, exactly, but altered: "There's another movie on this tape."

Jeremy doesn't want to be curious, but he brings the movies home to take a look. And, indeed, in the middle of each movie, the screen blinks dark for a moment and the movie is replaced by a few minutes of jagged, poorly lit home video. The scenes are odd and sometimes violent, dark, and deeply disquieting. There are no identifiable faces, no dialogue or explanation - the first video has just the faint sound of someone breathing - but there are some recognizable landmarks. These have been shot just outside of town.

So begins John Darnielle's haunting and masterfully unsettling Universal Harvester: the once placid Iowa fields and farmhouses now sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. The novel will take Jeremy and those around him deeper into this landscape than they have ever expected to go. They will become part of a story that unfolds years into the past and years into the future, part of an impossible search for something someone once lost that they would do anything to regain.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. 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.'" - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Darnielle fast-forwards, rewinds, and occasionally even ejects the plot to insert a new one, never letting readers establish a footing. All the while, his grasp of the Iowan composure-above-all mindset instills the book with agonizing heartbreak." - Booklist

"Darnielle's contemporary ghost story may confound with its elusiveness (who is the mysterious "I" narrator?), but its impact will stick with readers." - Library Journal

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Author Information

John Darnielle

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.

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