Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle

John Darnielle is best known for his role as the singer/songwriter behind the indie-folk band The Mountain Goats, although he has recently been drawing attention and acclaim with his writing. His debut novel Wolf in White Van was easily one of my favorite novels of the past few years. The follow-up, Universal Harvester, is equally strong and layered. Like its predecessor, it's a novel that functions almost as a puzzle. Rather than focus on a single character, as Wolf did, this story consists of many interlocking narratives that encircle the characters and their often inscrutable motives.

Universal Harvester begins with events that may seem familiar to horror aficionados. A young video store clerk named Jeremy lives in a rural town in Iowa in the late 90s, unsure of how to move forward with his life after losing his mother in a car accident. On an otherwise ordinary day at work, a customer returns a video tape with an unusual segment in which the film is replaced by an eerie scene apparently captured by a camcorder. It could easily be a prank by some bored kids, or an accident, but the gradual discovery of similar footage on several other tapes suggests otherwise. Does the scene of a hooded figure in a chair depict a crime involving kidnapping and torture? Placed alongside another clip of a woman fleeing down a dark rural road, it seems even more sinister. Other clips are more innocuous. We never get a thorough description of what the characters are watching when they view the tapes, which adds a layer of uncertainty and anxiety the events as they unfold. It's a plot device reminiscent of that of The Ring or The Blair Witch Project, both of which also drew upon the unsettlingly grainy analog aesthetic of shot-on-video horror of the 80s to blur the lines between reality and fiction.

While Jeremy is reluctant to investigate the origin of the scenes, others around him can't help but be drawn in into their mystery. He's goaded into a deeper investigation by Sarah Jane, a local substitute teacher who discovered one of the tapes. Meanwhile, his manager at the store recognizes a farmhouse in one clip and withdraws from work to spend time tracking it down in real life. The story frequently jumps between characters and viewpoints, even pausing at times to allow its narrator (whose identity is a mystery for the majority of the novel) to indulge in digressions about the possible nature of the clips, and how the story might have turned out had the characters made different decisions.

This nonlinearity makes the story intriguing even when it becomes a bit more mundane. Most of the fun in this novel comes from trying to figure it out, so I'll avoid saying too much more except that Darnielle's craft is fantastic. He's aware of horror tropes (he was an occasional visitor to the Retrofantasma double features I used to frequent at Durham's Carolina Theater) and he avoids allowing them to take control of the direction of his story. He means to mislead and push your attention in one direction while sneaking up behind on the other side.

Complex structure aside, at its heart this is a story about we make sense of loss. Tragedy often strikes by chance and leaves us reeling in the absence of an explanation. Humans are expert storytellers, quick to establish causation and invent confounding variables to aid in our understanding of events that are truly random. Is there any meaning to the video clips, or are we so desperate for a story that we'll invent an outlandish one just to fill the gaps?

In many horror stories, we begin with a glimpse of something unsettling only to have the curtain drawn back slowly over the course of the plot. By the end, the monster stands in full view, and our newfound knowledge of it is what gives rise to terror. Here, the true fear is never knowing what exactly has happened. Fear lies in the gaps between what we know, and in the stories we construct to connect the disparate fragments we have. At the end of Universal Harvester we have an explanation, mostly. There remain a few frustrating loose ends, which I suspect were left deliberately. There are no easy answers in this novel, and to tie up everything neatly would run counter to its themes.

Universal Harvester is easily one of the best books I've read so far this year. It will provide a welcome challenge to horror fans who enjoy having their expectations gleefully subverted.

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