Review: “Universal Harvester” By John Darnielle (Novel)

Several weeks earlier, I saw a mention of John Darnielle’s 2017 novel “Universal Harvester” on an online list of recommended horror novels.

The premise of the story intrigued me and it seemed like my kind of thing. So, naturally, I… forgot about it for several weeks before eventually remembering it and tracking down a second-hand copy.

So, let’s take a look at “Universal Harvester”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Scribe (UK) paperback edition of “Universal Harvester” that I read.

The novel begins in the late 1990s in a small town in Iowa called Nevada. Jeremy Heldt works in Video Hut, an independent video rental shop that is gradually losing out to the larger video shop nearby. It is a fairly ordinary winter afternoon and Jeremy passes the time talking to the regular customers. But, when a regular called Stephanie returns a video, she mentions that something has been spliced into the tape.

Curious, Jeremy takes the video home to check it out. Sure enough, there are a few seconds of bizarre gloomy footage in the middle of the film. Not only that, one of the other tapes contains bizarre camcorder footage of a hooded woman in a barn. Although Jeremy is a bit freaked out by this, he gets on with his life and only mentions it to his boss, Sarah Jane, a while later.

Sarah Jane begins to look into the mysterious tapes and becomes more and more curious. So much so that she tracks down the barn from the film. After talking to its current owner, Lisa, Sarah Jane starts spending more and more time there…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is what would emerge if David Lynch, Jack O’Connell and Alice Hoffman sat down and decided to write a novel together 🙂 In other words, it is an atmospheric and strange story that only just about makes sense, but is so unique, interesting and well-written that you won’t really care. Seriously, if you like weird novels and TV shows from the 1990s, then you’ll love this novel 🙂

Surprisingly though, this wasn’t as much of a horror novel as I’d expected. Yes, there are some ominous, mysterious and chilling moments. Plus, there is a creepily mysterious backstory involving a cult and a theme of death and loss running through the story too. But, it isn’t really a horror story. In a lot of ways, it is like the TV show “Twin Peaks” – in that it contains elements of horror, but isn’t really a horror story.

And, yes, I should probably talk about this novel’s 1990s elements, since they are brilliant 🙂 Not only does this novel almost read like an “alternative” novel from the 1990s (eg: the sort of thing that would have been reprinted by Vintage in the 2000s), but it perfectly captures the warm and wintery rural atmosphere of various American films/TV shows from the decade too.

In addition to this, it is also a novel that includes stuff like video rental shops, lots of VHS tapes, old computers etc… Seriously, if you remember any of this stuff from the late 1990s/early 2000s then the book is wonderfully nostalgic 🙂

Interestingly though, this novel isn’t entirely set in the 1990s. There are a few random time jumps to both the 1950s-1970s and the present day which, although they are a bit unexpected, really help to add a lot of extra depth and atmosphere to the story. Seriously, I cannot praise the atmosphere of this novel highly enough.

One other cool thing about this novel is it’s focus on alternate timelines and parallel universes. Although this is mostly just a stylistic thing where the narrator will talk about what could happen, it really adds a lot to the novel. Not only that, there is at least one scene (where Sarah Jane describes what she saw in the farmhouse) which contradicts the descriptions in previous chapter – implying either an unreliable narrator, a multi-verse or an unreliable character. This really helps to add a lot of atmosphere and mystery to the novel.

In terms of the characters, this novel is really good. We get enough characterisation and detail to really care about the characters, but enough is left unexplained or unsaid to make some of the characters seem intriguingly mysterious. Interestingly, although Jeremy is set up as the main character at the beginning of the novel, the story is more about several of the other characters than him. This reminded me of a very vaguely similar technique used in M.John Harrison’s “Nova Swing” and it really helps to add depth and realism to the story.

Needless to say, all of this makes the novel really compelling. The best way to describe the characters in this book is that they are like a very slightly more understated, mysterious, realistic and/or hardboiled version of the characters you’d see in an Alice Hoffman novel or an episode of “Twin Peaks”.

In terms of the writing, this novel is really brilliant. For starters, the novel is technically narrated from a first person perspective, but it often reads more like a third-person novel until the narrator suddenly drops a dramatic fourth-wall breaking description or intriguing plot spoiler. Likewise, you’ll also spend quite a bit of the novel trying to work out who the narrator actually is until their identity is (sort of) revealed in the final few pages of the story.

The writing style in this novel is really brilliant too. It’s “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving, but also beautifully descriptive and unique at the same time. It’s a little bit like a mixture between the high-brow hardboiled prose of Jack O’Connell and the vivid, poetic prose of Alice Hoffman.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a gloriously efficient 214 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, although this isn’t a fast-paced novel, it isn’t a slow-paced novel either. Although the story’s time jumps can take a while to get used to, there is enough atmosphere and mystery to keep the story really compelling 🙂

All in all, whilst this novel probably isn’t for everyone, I really loved it 🙂 It’s this gloriously weird mixture of 1990s nostalgia, ominous mystery, meta-fiction/experimental fiction and atmosphere. If you want a story which explains everything and has a linear plot, read something else. If you want a unique, intriguing and well-written novel, read this one.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

When Is It Ok To “Break The Rules” In Your Writing?

One of the interesting things that I noticed in the novel that I reviewed yesterday was that it often “breaks the rules” in all sorts of interesting ways (eg: making up new words, breaking the fourth wall, using a film script-like format for dialogue segments etc…) and, surprisingly, this actually works really well.

So, naturally, this made me wonder when it is ok to “break the rules” when writing fiction. And, I would argue that there are three criteria that you must think about before deciding to do something a bit different in your story.

It is ok to “break the rules” when it improves your story, when it emerges organically from the story you are telling and/or when what you are doing is easily understood by your readers. Out of these three things, the first and third are the most important.

If you remember these three things, then you’ll know whether it is ok to do something a bit quirky or uncommon in your story. For example, the film script-like dialogue segments in the novel that I mentioned earlier (“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero) fit into all three of these criteria.

Firstly, the script-like formatting removes a lot of superfluous speech tags and descriptions – which makes the dialogue flow faster. Secondly, it fits in well with the TV show-style theme of the story (and doesn’t seem too out-of-place). Thirdly, most readers have seen scripts before and won’t have too much trouble understanding one.

Likewise, the novel’s made-up words also fit into these criteria too. Firstly, they allow for more unique descriptions. Secondly, they fit in with the slightly eccentric and informal atmosphere of the story. Thirdly, they are often made up from pre-existing words or used in a context where their meaning is obvious. So, the reader can usually understand what Cantero is trying to say.

In short, you need to think about your reader first and foremost. If breaking the rules makes the story more readable or interesting for them, then break the rules. However, if breaking the rules leaves your readers feeling confused or is something that you’re just doing to show off, then think twice about it.

And, yes, although you might understand the reasons for doing something a bit more weird and/or experimental, you need to be sure that your reader does too. In other words, you need to be a reader yourself – since seeing both good and bad examples of this sort of thing in other people’s writing can help you to see your own story from your reader’s perspective.

Another thing to remember is that “the rules” are there to make stories enjoyable and understandable for readers. If you are able to find a way to break the rules that still allows your readers to enjoy and understand your story, then don’t be afraid to do it. But, again, remember to think about things from your reader’s perspective.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂