Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Universal Harvester

"It's not that nobody ever gets away: that's not true. It's that you carry it with you. It doesn't matter that the days roll on like hills too low to give names to; they might be of use later, so you keep them. You replay them to keep their memory alive. It feels worthwhile because it is."


I finished reading Universal Harvester by John Darnielle literally minutes before his event started at BookPeople on Saturday night, and (like most everyone else I've talked to) I wasn't really sure what to make of it. It is very well-written and intriguing, mysterious and creepy. It's one of those books that you have to ruminate on for a few days before you can really decide what you think of it–or, at least, that was my experience.

The story takes place in the late 1990s–a time before the Internet made video rental stores obsolete and everyone still had a VCR–in the small town of Nevada (neh-VAY-duh), Iowa. Jeremy Heldt works at the Video Hut in town where he sees the same people every week. He goes home every night to eat dinner and watch a movie with his widowed father. Sometimes they talk about Jeremy finding another job, trying something new, but it never goes beyond that. It's all a part of the routine, which is fine with Jeremy.

Then something breaks his routine. When a customer returns her rental of Targets, she makes a point to tell Jeremy: "There's something on this one." A couple of days later, another customer complains that a tape of She's All That cuts out in the middle and another movie starts playing. The scenes patched into these films appear to be home videos, but are somehow ominous, sometimes violent, and always unsettling. Despite himself, Jeremy is drawn in.

As the story unfolds, it poses more questions than answers. If you're expecting all loose ends tied by the last page, you may initially be disappointed, but I say give it a day or two. You'll realize, like me, that this story wasn't really about the video tapes. I would argue that it's not even a horror novel, as some have dubbed it. There were definitely parts that sent chills down my spine (including a passage on page 74 that was so good I read it aloud to anyone who would listen), but it's much more than that. It's a novel about grief and loss and coping–maybe not getting over, but moving on the best we can.


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