John Darnielle was already an accomplished author before writing Universal Harvester: his first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His new book has earned plaudits from Kazuo Ishiguro, Joe Hill, and Oprah’s magazine. The main character, Jeremy, works at a Blockbuster-type video store when customers begin reporting odd problems with their tapes. Strange and ominous footage has been spliced into the middle of various movies. As Jeremy investigates this mystery, his life intertwines with many others, both directly and indirectly.
Universal Harvester was marketed as a horror novel, but I’m not sure this is the right designation. While the spliced-in footage definitely has sinister overtones, the book is less about scaring the reader and more about examining the psyches of the main characters. If this is horror, it’s psychological horror. Most of the action is fairly sedate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful. The characters have a great deal of depth, and their relationships are carefully portrayed. One gets a sense of Jeremy, his father, his colleagues, and eventually the filmmaker as real people with real lives. However, readers expecting fights against axe-wielding murderers or races against time to prevent the summoning of ancient evils may feel as though they’ve been bait-and-switched. For those who are fans of psychological horror, quiet horror, and stories that stick a toe just barely over the line into horror, Universal Harvester is well worth reading.