Review: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Billed as a mystery and a suspenseful thriller, Universal Harvester is instead about the intertwining lives of the people who are involved in the creation and discovery of altered VHS rental tapes. It is mostly a study of tangentially related lives in a small area of Iowa.

In a strong opening, the story begins in the 90s when the clerk at a movie rental store is told by a customer that something has been added to the film they’ve rented. The footage sliced in is disturbing and leads more than one viewer to believe that the people featured are in danger. Over the next few months more of these altered video tapes pop up. Where you would expect this to be the focus of the rest of the novel, it isn’t.

Instead, the altered tapes serve as a pivot point to connect and discuss different characters lives. Swept into the story of these tapes are an array of people – the owner of the rental store, the two clerks who work there, the woman who creates the film, and the family who moves into the farm where the tapes were filmed and discovers the original footage. While each of these people are connected to each other through contact with the tapes, their stories are told in fits and starts from various points of time without explanation or continuity. This leads to a disjointed and pointless feeling narrative which lacks a driving plot. When you turn the page at the end of a section, there is no way to tell who and what the next page will be about.

While the plot of this book still eludes me, Universal Harvester is compellingly readable even while having an uncomprehensible purpose. It’s not at all that this book is poorly written, but rather it’s narrative pointlessness that leads me to rate it so poorly.


Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Publication Date:
February 7, 2017
Hardcover, 214 pages


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