Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Only For the Hardcore Fan
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Publication Date : February 7th, 2017
Available as eBook & hardback – 224 Pages
Source : Netgalley (Thank you!)
I will fully admit I went out on a limb with Universal Harvester. I was on the fence about Wolf in White Van when I read it back in its hardback days. The idea of a mail in game (as someone who plays a lot of video and tabletop games) was fascinating. Much in the same way this one sparked my interest with its promise of hidden clips on VHS tapes. It was such a neat idea however, this one didn’t quite cut the mustard for me. It felt like he was going for a mix of Stephen King and Mark Z. Danielewski but he couldn’t quite make that connection.
I’m not entirely sure to be honest just what the point to this one is, I’ve got my suspicion but the overall plot was so chopped up to fit into the jumping timelines and flashbacks that I think the parts we needed may have been completely cut. His writing, the one saving grace of this for me, is beautiful. Even if overall the pieces didn’t make sense as a whole, they were individually so well written it was hard not to be enchanted. Then stepping away you’re left to wonder what you just read.
It seemed to be following a cult for the first half, and it’s machinations in these people’s lives then branched and became disorganized. Jeremy’s story is strong at first, and I empathized with him. Being a young adult, looking to find your place. Stephanie as well was interesting for the unfortunately short time we saw her. The questions start to rise, who is putting these clips in and where are they coming from. I was even okay with the jarring jump half way through to the past. After that it began to crumble. Not only did I lose the greater plot, I’m still not sure why our characters seemed to go up in smoke. They were passive in the extreme, the only character who seemed to have any get-up-and-go, Stephanie, was talked into ‘letting it go’ and eventually evening moving away for the bulk of the book.
I’m also curious as to the narrator of this as the first person tense was used so rarely. Was that intentional or was my copy simply not edited? If it was a first person narration was it meant to seem ominous in it’s all knowing presence? That jarred me every time. The first time I got excited, we had some sort of menacing presence. But it faded away, and didn’t return for another 50 or 60 pages.
There are some books that can pull off the puzzle in the horror genre, but this one didn’t work for me. The writing, I stress, was amazing. I loved his way with words and I’d read a huge novel from John Darnielle. It had a few moments of true creepiness. However the way the plot twisted and dropped without returning, leaving huge chunks out? That didn’t work for me. Maybe someone else can explain this one too me? Did I miss something? This may be one of those niche books that only a hardcore Darnielle fan will enjoy. If that’s you, it might be worth a read.