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Universal Harvester

A Novel

About the Book

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 . . .

Educator and Librarian Resources

Critical Praise

“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.” —Los Angeles Times

“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.” —Nylon Magazine

“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.” —National Post

“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.” —Winnipeg Free Press

“Haunting and unforgettable. . . . Packed with unsettling twists and turns, Universal Harvester explores we all leave, intentional or not . . .” —Mashable

“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.” —The Globe and Mail

“A quiet tale of absences and what they render in the lives of those left behind. . . . Darnielle displays a big heart and a strong sense of place.” —AV Club

“Darnielle’s prose is lucid and precise. . . . Horror tropes abound but quickly fall away. . . . The dread the pulses through the early pages is replaced with a different kind of anguish: the dimensions of human loneliness and grief.” —NPR

“An unsettling, gripping meditation on grief. . . . The unreliable narrator with potentially sinister motivations is a new wrinkle within Darnielle’s work.” —Spin

“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.” —Paste Magazine

“A smart and rangy yarn: file under suspense, horror, and domestic drama.” —Kirkus Reviews

“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.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Universal Harvester] is like an extended X-Files episode that turns into a moving meditation on loss.” —Slate

“At the heart of Universal Harvester are the same complex, nuanced individuals Darnielle has been bringing to life lyrically for decades.” —Exclaim

“A slow burn of a book . . . Like a David Lynch adaptation of a Marilynne Robinson novel.” —Amazon.com

“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.” —O, the Oprah Magazine

“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.” —Washington Post

“[Universal Harvester is] so wonderfully strange, almost Lynchian in its juxtaposition of the banal and the creepy . . .” —MTV

“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.” —The Wall Street Journal

“[Universal Harvester is] constantly unnerving, wrapped in a depressed dread that haunts every passage. But it all pays off with surprising emotionality.” —GQ

“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.” —Raleigh News & Observer

Product Details

  • ISBN: 9781443452724
  • ISBN 10: 1443452726
  • Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers
  • On Sale: 02/07/2017
  • Pages: 224
  • List Price: 21.99 CAD
  • BISAC1: FICTION / Literary
  • BISAC2: FICTION / Thrillers / Suspense
  • BISAC3: FICTION / Horror

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

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