This novel sneaks up on you. You’re lulled into comfort with descriptions of old video rental places, suburban living rooms, and the polite peace of the Midwest before being startled awake by sudden glances of violence and fear. These shocks originate from movies. Movies within movies. Were they intended for you to see? Why are they here? Who spliced an almost still image of heavy breathing and a woman with a bag over her head into She’s All That?
Uncertainty creeps around every corner- breeding fear, confusion, and an overwhelming urge to know more. The young people of Universal Harvester are driven by an almost religious reverence for grief, causing them to charge headlong into the unsettling. Questions do not go unanswered, but those answers come in middle-of-the-night drives through empty cornfields to near-abandoned farmhouses.
“There are other times when people go into the fields and yell different things: ‘Help!’, for example, often repeatedly with increasing volume, or ‘Where are you taking me?’ But nobody usually hears them. A few rows of corn will muffle the human voice so effectively, that, even a few insignificant rows away, all is silence, all is silence, what to speak of out at the highway’s shoulder: all the way back there, already fading into memory now.”
Scenes of suspected malice are spliced into an old Bogdanovich video, allowing the story presented and the story created to become one:
“Orlok, like the actor, is a surviving remnant of a bygone age; the monsters he played when he was younger and stronger have given way to the ongoing shocks of the late twentieth century, to atrocities of war and the isolation of modern life. There are new monsters now.”
Fear and grief grow into something stronger- something mythological, even- much like other Darnielle (specifically Mountain Goats) projects: what began as “Michael Myers Resplendent” blossomed into “Old College Try” by the time Universal Harvester came to a satisfying close.