Over the last 20 years, the found footage technique has become nearly ubiquitous in mainstream American horror films. Sure, there are earlier international examples—such as the highly controversial Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Guinea Pig 2 (1985), and Man Bites Dog (1992)—as well as an abundance of domestic cult classics—like The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) and the August Underground (2001-2011) series—but it wasn’t until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project demonstrated the appeal and profitability of it that the method wound up in many widely released genre movie. Since then, there have been several series built around the gimmick (most notably, 2007’s Paranormal Activity), not to mention countless standalone titles.
It’s only natural, then, that novelists dip their feet in the pool, too, such as with John Darnielle’s sophomore effort, Universal Harvester. Perhaps better known as the mastermind behind Californian folk/rock quartet The Mountain Goats, his first book, 2014’s Wolf in White Van, quickly established his prowess as a fiction writer (it was even nominated for a National Book Award). With Universal Harvester, he continues to excel by fusing bits of Blue Velvet (1986) and The Ring (2002) into an acutely accessible and stimulating tale with likeable characters and unique stylistic choices. True, the novel doesn’t always payoff or explain things fully, but it’s a hell of a ride along the way.
Essentially, the story takes place in the late ‘90s and revolves around Jeremy Heldt, an Iowan 20-something who enjoys his “quiet and predictable” job working at Video Hut because it “gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they… try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck”. However, he and his boss, Sarah Jane, soon discover that several movies at the store contain “a few minutes of jagged, poorly lit home video. The scenes are odd and sometimes violent, dark, and deeply disquieting. There are no identifiable faces, no dialogue or explanation… but there are some recognizable landmarks… just outside of town”. Obviously, that’s quite an intriguing premise, and for the most part, Darnielle does it justice with a strong mixture of plot, world, and character development, including some solid twists and a keen eye for the minutiae of setting.
His practical third person approach is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Rather than craft excessive asides that spiral inwardly with details, Darnielle veers more towards Hemingway-esque levels of idiomatic, pointed prose (“She’d taken several Polaroids of the image on the screen during the end credits’ most harrowing moment; a snapshot of a paused screen wasn’t much, but you could still see the face clearly enough, the spatter drooling down its chin onto the dirt of the driveway”). Not only does this keep the text open and involving, but it also aligns with the quaint vibe of its universe.
In addition, the ways in which his omniscient narrator occasionally breaks the fourth wall is ingenious for two major reasons (both of which, oddly enough, evoke Chuck Palahniuk’s brilliant debut, Fight Club). For one thing, s/he often alludes to different outcomes for certain situations (“In some versions of this story, there’s an argument here, because Jeremy feels like his father is being nosy”). S/he just as commonly acts as a prophetic voiceover, insinuating identifiable traits while reminding the reader that s/he is telling the tale from the future (“‘The house,’ said Sarah Jane, reaching back into her purse and retrieving the printout of the frame from when my hand slipped and the front porch came into view”).
Darnielle goes to equally great lengths to avoid anachronisms and make his atmosphere feel reliable. There are countless references to the ‘90s that give his story more authenticity, such as when Jeremy and his father, Steve, watch Reindeer Games and, later, when another character uses a Gateway desktop computer that “had come in a big box with adorable cow spots on the sides”. In general, his dialogue feels very genuine and purposeful, too, which, as any fiction writer knows, is a lot more difficult to achieve than it sounds.
There’s also an overarching Lynchian quality to how the story plays with time shifts and under-the-surface grotesqueness. Specifically, the novel is divided into four sections, with each one revolving around a different era and family (although they’re all connected, of course). Plus, it’s somewhat unsettling how quickly things go from being harmless and humble to “sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding”. In that way—and like many comparable flicks—it’s like you’re privy to actions that should never be seen, let alone done in the first place.
While most of Universal Harvester is alluring, it’s ultimately a bit disappointing, as well. I say “somewhat unsettling”, because as inherently disturbing as the videos are (due to their atypical concepts), they never go far enough in content or explanation to be startling. Granted, such depictions can go too far sometimes (A Serbian Film, anyone?), but it still seems like Darnielle is building up to something that he never adequately delivers. As such, it never feels wholly justified for the characters to be so captivated by what they see (or deadest on exposing the truth about them, which is another aspect that feels underdeveloped). Furthermore, there are a couple characters and events that move the plot along but don’t serve much of a purpose by the conclusion.
Universal Harvester is an absorbing mystery that shows that Darnielle is as strong a fiction writer as he is a musician. Although it doesn’t feel completely satisfying by the end, there’s enough richness along the way to make the trip worthwhile. Surprisingly, the most rewarding aspect of it this book is its blend of style and substance (what’s being told is as impactful as how it’s being told), so both his ideas and his methods are relatively distinctive. Universal Harvester won’t shock you or stay with you for a long time, but like most found footage movies, it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat along the way.
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