Review: Universal Harvester

Review for "Universal Harvester" by John Darnielle (2017)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

This book is weird, man…

It’s the 1990’s, and someone is placing disturbing images on VHS tapes at the local Video Hut in the small town of Nevada, Iowa. At first Jeremy, a young employee, brushes it off, but when he watches the videos for himself it greatly disturbs him. The scenes appear to be poorly shot home movies with people being controlled by others in masks. He shares the videos with the store’s manager, Sarah Jane, and she eventually becomes drawn into the discovering their origin, the farmhouse where it was made, as well as the mysterious woman behind them.

The only word I can think to describe this book is cerebral, because the disturbing imagery it describes does manage to rattle your brain and leave you with a sense of impending danger. The ominous tone of the book reminds you of the feeling you get when you watch a David Lynch movie or The Ring, though the plot is not as straightforward. In a lot of ways this is a successful tactic, because even though I didn’t get this book completely I found myself continuing to read it just because I wanted to know what was behind the videotapes.

The major problem is that this book never really makes that answer clear, or tells you what the hell it really is. Perspectives shift as the book meanders back and forth through time and between characters and I was stuck trying to figure out what it all means. Is it a horror story? A human drama? Even after 200 something pages, I’m still not sure. Not that I’m a person that likes labels on everything, but a real resolution and an actual plot would have been reasonable. Harrumpf.

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