When I first heard about Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, I immediately thought of the 2002 film, The Ring. But, while the basic premise is similar (unexpected black-and-white footage showing up on video rentals), Universal Harvester is striking in a much quieter way. If you were nervous about picking it up, I would by no means call this book scary - it leans more toward the literary side with some suspenseful elements.
In this story, customers of a rural Iowan video rental store have been returning VHS tapes complaining of footage on the tapes that doesn’t belong. When video-store employee Jeremy decides to take a look, he finds black-and-white footage shot in a barn, with only the sound of someone’s breathing in the background. Disturbed by the scene, he reluctantly finds himself in search of answers.
The plot of Universal Harvester hops between time-periods and points-of-view. While the information provided in these jumps is necessary and helpful, I think it contributes to why the plot feels a bit slower than expected. It has a mellow, meandering quality. This isn't a bad thing - but, if you go into the novel thinking it's a thriller, you may be disappointed (so here is my warning).
This book was unexpected. There are a few areas I wish Darnielle would have spent more time on (the videos!), but, ultimately -- and maybe surprisingly, this story is about mothers, family, and the effects they leave on us. The prose is atmospheric and transportive: haunting and mesmerizing at once.
*Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for sending me an advanced copy of this book*