I loved Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, and was eager to get my hands on Universal Harvester. The plot sounded like fantastically creepy fun – video store VHS tapes inexplicably spliced with eerie scenes shot at a local barn. Early reviews put me off somewhat – I’ve heard the term “puzzle box” tossed around a lot to describe this book, so my anticipation changed to expect something potentially indecipherable – perhaps even all style, no substance. Happily, Universal Harvester has plenty of substance. And it’s not in the least indecipherable. Fear not, it won’t take notebooks full of theorising to glean answers to the book’s mysteries. They’re all right there on the page – the chronology is just a little scattershot.
So, misgivings aside, Universal Harvester certainly lived up to its eerie potential. Perhaps my favourite element was infrequent asides from an omnipotent narrator, who occasionally branched off into multiverse versions of the story, where X chose Y option instead of Z, and look at how differently it all turned out. Narrative tricks are far from the book’s only strength, though. Darnielle has an understanding of people in pain and people in crisis that comes across so plainly on the page as to be painful. It’s a strength Universal Harvester shares with Wolf in White Van, and is really its key asset. The book might have an awesome hook to draw readers in, but the threads of the characters’ lives are the mesh that will ensnare them.
[Read from 14-21 May 2017]