Confronting the Horror of Time: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

There are three things that scare me. Really, deep-in-the-marrow scare me.

(1) Since I was a tiny child I’ve been afraid that I’ll be convicted of a crime I didn’t commit and be given the death sentence for it. This fear has persisted to this very day, despite the fact that my gender and the whiteness of my skin has protected me from being falsely accused of anything.

(2) That I’ll be flung out into the vacuum of space without a suit. (I’ve discussed this at some length in my recaps of The Expanse.) Now, you have to understand, I’m terrible at math, and there is no way I’m ever joining NASA or going to space. I’m stuck here. So this is an oddly specific fear, and yet there it is.

(3) Japanese horror. I mean, even just typing that? Even just thinking about that? Will probably affect how I sleep tonight. Ringu destroyed me. The Ring destroyed me. Ju-On destroyed me. Dark Water destroyed me, and Dark Water isn’t even that good.

So when I started reading Universal Harvester, and characters began speaking in ominous tones about a videotape that went wrong, I had to pull my blankets around me. By page 60, I was freaked out enough to take a break.

Such is the power of John Darnielle’s writing.

It’s pretty well accepted by now that good horror deals with larger issues. I think it is the great way to deal with social class, and from Stephen King to George Saunders to our own Grady Hendrix, some of the best depictions of working class life you’ll ever find are tucked between bloodcurdling horror. Darnielle continues this tradition. Nevada, Iowa (it’s pronounced ‘Nev-ayy-duh’) is a small town surrounded by a farming community. Jeremy Heldt works at Video Hut even though he’s 22, because he’s still too depressed by the death of his mother to plan much of a future for himself. Dad’s in construction, as are many of the customers. Conversations tend to revolve around fishing, weather, where peoples’ folks are from and how they got to Iowa, and the new construction going on out in Ames. (Ames has a Hollywood Video.) The one character who has a Master’s Degree mentions her time at college as often as possible. Many pages of this novel are punctuated with phrases like “out by I-85” and “out by the old Lincoln Highway”. When it’s clear that winter’s setting in, most folk stop off at Video Hut on their way home from work to stock up on movies for the weekend. Jeremy and his dad mostly communicate through brief reviews of the movies they watch together.

The book explores the fine-grained class difference between the types of people who drive in from farms to work at minimum wage jobs, the people who live in suburbs but still grow their own vegetables and keep a few chicken in a coop, the people who live in ranch homes versus renting a room in a building downtown, the people who can sell a four-bedroom home on the west coast to tool around in an RV while the kids are in college—it all seeps through the book, so that we can see who is forced to deal with horror, who can never recover from horror, and who can skim safely across the surface and go on with their lives.

The best thing about good horror like this, though, is that Darnielle makes you care about these people. They are good people. You don’t want to see them getting hurt by the darkness at the edge of the story, but there it is, creeping in and popping out at them during videos they’ve rented, invading the privacy of their own living rooms, catching them when they were safe at home.

And tangling around the central mystery is the pitiless advance of time. Darnielle skips through eras circling around the book’s central mystery and trusts his readers to follow him without needing to be led through each plot point or emotional shift, until we’ve traveled from the early 1960s all the way up to a couple of years ago, dipping into the minds of half a dozen different people who could all be called Universal Harvester’s protagonist. We watch as towns build up, as technologies change, as kids lose their ties to the land and move into town. But this isn’t an exercise in pure nostalgia: each new generation of kids assimilates to a new world, yes, but they also hold onto a set of core values that create a powerful humanist thread through the whole novel.

Speaking to Publisher’s Weekly, Darnielle said:

In some ways, that sense of loss and memorialization extends to the era in which the novel is set—the bygone age of the video store. “It’s not specifically grieving the video store, but grieving an era in which there were a lot of things that only people who have experienced them can know,” he says. “That’s true of any age—that no one who wasn’t there can understand it.”

This is Darnielle’s second novel. After many years of success with his musical project, The Mountain Goats, he wrote a now-classic entry into the 33 1/3 series. The usual m.o. of the series is to highlight rock criticism: a writer contributes a long form essay that delves into the history, making, and meaning of a single album. Darnielle’s is different. A young boy, confined to a mental hospital, writes impassioned journal entries about the greatness of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality in the hopes that his therapist, Gary, will give him his fucking Sabbath tapes back.

The 33 1/3 book got him attention as a prose writer, and his debut novel Wolf in White Van, was released in 2014. Wolf is about a traumatized game designer whose only connection to the world comes via his game, an RPG played through the mail. It was nominated for the National Book Award, and won an Alex Award. Wolf was one of the most exhilarating, claustrophobic reading experiences I’ve ever had, so I jumped at the chance to review his newest book.

Where Wolf was locked into tight spaces, Universal Harvester opens up and embraces the rolling hills and fields of Iowa. But along with that, it embraces the stillness, the silence, the ominous rustling in the corn.

The tiny perfect details scattered across this book! The way Jeremy’s dad asks his son if he’d like a can of Milwaukee’s Best by saying, “Want a Beast?” The way Jeremy and his co-worker Ezra marvel at their boss, Sarah Jane, taking more than a day off from work to get over a cold. The way the entire novel traces its action between Nevada, Colo, Collins, and Ames (with Ames the biggest town) and the way it never makes it out to Boone, where Ezra lives, because it’s back the other way down the highway. Darnielle packs character into dialogue:

When he made conversation these days he sounded like a farmer at an auction waiting for the bidding to start.

“This one’s a real good one,” he said, tapping Best of Bass Fishing Volume Four. “They get smallmouth, they have to throw half of them back.”

“Ever get up to Hickory Grove?” Jeremy asked him. He had lived in Iowa all his life. Men in his family always talked about fishing.

“Used to. All the time,” said Bob. “We used to go out for bluegill in the winter.”

And when he delves into his characters’ interior monologues he shows us exactly what we need to understand them, as in this moment when Jeremy’s increasingly desperate state of mind is shown through a gas station hamburger:

The fuel indicator was nearly red by the time he got back to Story County. He pulled off the highway at a Casey’s in Colo to get gas; at the counter, paying, he saw the foil-wrapped hamburgers under the bright heat lamp, all that shiny false promise. He knew they would be dry, bland, barely worth eating, but he was suddenly ravenous. The huge bites he tore off with his teeth as he drove, burger in one hand and steering wheel in the other, felt like the most nourishing food he’d ever eaten, like something from the potluck at a wake.

Late in the novel, some Californians come into the book, and it’s fascinating to see these outsiders butt up against the Midwesterners we’ve spent so much time with. I was startled to find myself thinking that they all talked too much and needed to maybe get used to the town before they charged into other people’s lives. But this isn’t some sort of Midwestern kitsch, this is a lived-in, loved setting. That’s what makes the horror so effective, after all: we care about these people. We come to love their town. We don’t want them to have to see any evil.

If I seem like I’m skirting around the idea of the horror at the book’s center, that’s because I am. Obviously, I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s also that the book itself circles around the mystery of what’s on those tapes, and why. I’m not sure if every reader will find the answers as satisfying as I did, because some of it’s purely human—a family is destroyed because of one terrible day, and the effects of that destruction radiate across decades and lives. Some of it feels more than a little like fate. I found the truth shocking precisely because it’s so quiet and inevitable. The truth forces several of the characters to make difficult decisions, and face private grief in painful ways. Universal Harvester is not a typically scary book, but the horror, when it comes, is all the worse because it will touch all of us reading this book, and we’ll all have to struggle to keep our humanity in its face.

Universal Harvester is available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Leah Schnelbach is gonna make it through this year if it kills her. You can find her on Twitter!

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