“It’s the late ’90s, and you can find Jeremy Heldt at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa―a small town in the center of the state. The job is good enough for Jeremy, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a carwreck. But when a local school teacher comes in to return her copy of Targets―an old movie, starring Boris Karloff―the transaction jolts Jeremy out of his routine. “There’s something on it,” she says as she leaves the store, though she doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, another customer returns another tape, and registers the same odd complaint: “There’s another movie on this tape.”
In Universal Harvester, the once-placid Iowa fields and farmhouses become sinister, imbued with loss and instability and foreboding. As Jeremy and those around him are absorbed into tapes, they become part of another story―one that unfolds years into the past and years into the future, part of an impossible search for something someone once lost that they would do anything to regain.” – Amazon’s Summary
Jeremy is just a good ol’ southern boy trying to keep his head up and his life on track after losing his mother years ago. He works at a video rental store, but his dad hints at construction job offers and he does consider them more and more seriously as he feels he should be moving on to bigger things and getting out of his father’s way. However, something strange started happening at the video store and, as much as he hates to admit it, he is curious about it and wants to see its conclusion. Customers have been returning tapes saying someone filmed over them with disturbing home footage. Jeremy brings them home to see and is pulled into the mystery – along with the store manager and the customer who first complained.
In regards to the story arc itself, its an interesting concept and certainly kept me guessing, though the conclusion was a bit anti-climactic for me. The section of the book dedicated to the past of the character Lisa Sample – the story of her mother really – was slow and I had trouble keeping my attention to it. I do see its relevancy however in the long run.
There were several aspects of John Darnielle’s writing style that stood out to me in this book. I haven’t read anything else by him so I don’t know if some of these are common in his books or just this one. One of these writing choices is that most of the book is in the 3rd person, but there are random lines or sections that go into 1st person. You don’t know who this random, secret 1st person narrator is until the end since all the characters are accounted for in the 3rd person as well. Some of the time, it seemed like the 1st person narrator was Iowa itself – which I thought could’ve been pretty neat – but it didn’t turn out to be that. This narration swap confused me more than intrigued me, but that’s just my personal preferences. Another thing Darnielle did throughout the book was mention alternate realities where the characters made different decisions and how things could have turned out for them. They weren’t very drawn out, just quick little asides. I really enjoyed these and thought it was an interesting choice to make; I don’t remember any books I’ve read that have done that before.
I liked the juxtaposition of quaint little southern town vs isolated spooky country. What I mean by this is that Darnielle often speaks of the close knit, easy going nature of the town. Everyone is fairly friendly with each other, conversations don’t go very deep and are usually about family or mutual friends, and other small town clichés. However, these tapes start showing up with shots of people seemingly being tortured in an isolated barn house, and Darnielle throws in a section describing how people can easily get lost in a cornfield – or attacked – and no one can hear you scream.
Overall, this story seemed to me to be about our interest in the past. Documenting the past so we, and future generations, can look back on it. Whether it be that we are nostalgic for the past, simply interested in learning about the past, or looking back at certain things and thinking “we could do that again, but better,” we are all in some way drawn to the past. Though we also have our sights set on the future – its the only direction for us to go – we often consult the past, through being taught about it as well as through the memories we hold. Wanting to leave your own mark on the past is a major part of John Darnielle’s book, as well as a major part of our own lives.