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Darkness gets televised in John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’

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Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

Universal Harvester By John Darnielle, $25.

John Darnielle—the frontman for indie band The Mountain Goats, who debuted as a novelist with 2014’s Wolf in White Van—returns with Universal Harvester, an eerie tale that evokes 1990s nostalgia, cults and small-town life in Iowa.

Jeremy Helt is 22, living in Nevada Iowa, (“Nev-ay-da,” the locals say), in the late ’90s. Though his mother died in a car crash when he was 16, things have pretty much normalized. His work at a local video store is predictably mundane until one customer returns a video and says, “There’s something on it.” Two days later another customer returns a different tape with the same complaint. Jeremy reluctantly views one of the tapes and discovers something dark and potentially violent spliced into the middle of the tape:

A black-and-white scene, shot by a single camera, mounted or held by a very steady hand. At first, he had to turn the volume up to hear whether there was even any sound at all: There was, but not much. A little wind across the camera’s microphone, the audible rise and fall of a person breathing.

He discovers more of these haunting scenes on additional tapes, more fragments of potential crimes cut into his store’s movies. Darnielle draws together lyrical diction and carefully timed doubt to build tension on every page. He leads Jeremy on a hunt for the tapes’ meaning, and parallels Jeremy’s story with a much older one about another character who has also lost her mother.

Darnielle’s non-linear timeline mirrors the broken tapes; ambiguity is wielded so artfully, it might as well be the secondary setting. This is a world of both comfort and silence, where characters learn young “how to consign hard thoughts to hidden corners.” Darnielle thankfully avoids overwriting and spoiling the beautiful confusion until he draws it to a satisfying end. Universal Harvester calls to mind both ’90s preoccupation with the occult and the early 2000s influence of Blair Witch Project. Before streaming and wifi, when families gathered around the glow of the latest VHS rental, it was easier to imagine a great unknown. Darnielle epitomizes both the mystery and the yearning of a decade.

Universal Harvester is a story about the children that mothers leave behind. It’s about generational dissonance, about the futility of any method of record keeping or art to preserve history or truth. Darnielle paints a haunting picture as notable for its blank spaces as its thrilling detail.

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