It’s the 1990s and the VHS tapes in a tiny independent video rental store are being returned with short, profoundly disturbing clips spliced into them. Despite having misgivings, the customers and employees of Nevada, Iowa’s Video Hut are drawn into the mystery of these creepy videos. Their obsession leads to the discovery of one family’s slow disintegration.
That’s the plot of Universal Harvester but the actual story John Darnielle is telling is buried behind the book’s pages. Like the viewers of the altered videotapes, the reader has to do the work of figuring out what’s really going on in Iowa. Darnielle provides all the clues you need to work out the underlying story, but it isn’t easy to get through and I’m not even sure if I totally understand the whole thing. I’m also not sure if understanding everything is necessary. The mood is everything.
Many reviewers have categorized Universal Harvester as a horror novel, but nothing overtly horrific ever occurs. Instead Darnielle offers a story of loss, of small-town malaise, and of parent/child relationships.