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Universal Harvester

Universal Harvester

by John Darnielle

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Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town in the center of the state—the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy:


Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town in the center of the state—the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: it’s a job, 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 car wreck.

But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets—an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns a different tape, a new release, and says it’s not defective, exactly, but altered: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious, but he brings the movies home to take a look. And, indeed, in the middle of each movie, the screen blinks dark for a moment and the movie is replaced by 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—the first video has just the faint sound of someone breathing— but there are some recognizable landmarks. These have been shot just outside of town.

So begins John Darnielle’s haunting and masterfully unsettling Universal Harvester: the once placid Iowa fields and farmhouses now sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. The novel will take Jeremy and those around him deeper into this landscape than they have ever expected to go. They will become part of a story 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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Joe Hill
Universal Harvester sound[s] like the stuff sweet nightmares are made of—but ultimately the novel doesn't belong in the horror aisle. I couldn't tell you where it ought to be filed, and maybe that's O.K. Darnielle's aims are finally sweeter, quieter and more sensitive than one would expect from a more traditional tale of dread. He writes with the simple clarity of a young adult novelist, effortlessly sketching modest lives in the green, empty expanses of the heartland. Much of what seems, at first, to be merely skillful ornament—descriptions of desolate barns and scouring winds—turns out to be at the very center of the story itself. Grief is a landscape, Darnielle seems to imply, that is so often explored alone, and where shelter is hard to find…In a place where loneliness is an almost physical presence, audible as the shriek of the wind, the desperation to seek company and comfort might drive people to find community wherever they can, whether in the ranks of a fringe doomsday cult or in the aisles of the local video rental store. The two might have more in common than we'd expect.
Publishers Weekly
★ 12/12/2016
Beginning on the cusp of the 2000s and spanning more than 25 years, the second novel from Darnielle (Wolf in White Van) is a slow-burn mystery/thriller whose characters are drawn together by an eerie discovery. In his early 20s, Jeremy Heldt lives with his father, Steve—Jeremy’s mother was killed in a car accident six years before—and bides his time clerking at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa, waiting for better prospects to arise. It’s a steady job that keeps him out of the house, though things turn weird when customers begin to report dark, disjointed, unnerving movies-within-the-movies on their rented VHS tapes. At first reluctant to become involved in tracking down the origin of the clips, Jeremy, at the urging of his acquaintance Stephanie Parsons, uncovers the tragic decades-long story behind the videos and experiences an unsavory side of Iowa that he never imagined could exist. Powerfully evoking the boredom and salt-of-the-earth determination of Jeremy, his friends, and a haunted survivor determined to redress a great loss, Darnielle adeptly juggles multiple stories that collide with chaotic consequences somewhere in the middle of nowhere. With a nod to urban legends and friend-of-a-friend tales, the author prepares readers for the surreal truth, the improbable events that “have form, and shape, and weight, and meaning.” Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, the Gernert Company. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“[Universal Harvester comes across] like a gentle, Midwestern riff on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (maybe with a pinch of Fargo thrown in for good measure) . . . Darnielle spins an uneasy scenario that grows in menace as the pages stack up . . . [But] Darnielle’s aims are finally sweeter, quieter and more sensitive than one would expect from a more traditional tale of dread. He writes with the simple clarity of a young adult novelist, effortlessly sketching modest lives in the green, empty expanses of the heartland . . . Grief is a landscape, Darnielle seems to imply, that is so often explored alone.” —Joe Hill, The New York Times Book Review

Universal Harvester is a novel about noticing hidden things, particularly the hurt and desperation that people bear under their exterior of polite reserve . . . [Darnielle is] discerning and skillful at navigating the inner lives of the easily ignored: recluses, outcasts, even cordial middle American retail clerks . . . [An] absorbing book . . . Mr. Darnielle possesses the clairvoyant’s gift for looking beneath the surface.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

“[Universal Harvester is] constantly unnerving, wrapped in a depressed dread that haunts every passage. But it all pays off with surprising emotionality.” —Kevin Nguyen, GQ.com

“Darnielle’s prose is lucid and precise, the sort of clear-eyed, knife-jab sentences that defined both his debut Wolf in White Van and his whole songwriting career. He moves through the plot with an enviable looseness.” —Carmen Maria Machado, NPR.org

“[Universal Harvester is] the most unsettling book I’ve read since House of Leaves, but it’s also a gorgeous, minimalist exploration of loss, family, and epistemology.” —Adam Morgan, Electric Literature

“Darnielle imbues a familiar story about a town with a dark secret with depth and resonance . . . [Universal Harvester] sets the bar high for any dark fiction that comes after it.” —Sam Reader, The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

“Darnielle writes beautifully . . . He builds a deep sense of foreboding by giving pieces of the puzzle in such a way that you really can’t see the solution until that final piece is in place.” —Salem Macknee, News & Observer

“[Darnielle] applies his lyrical sensibilities to each and every sentence in his novel, producing some truly striking passages. He walks a fine line between plot and style, never fully sacrificing one over the other, blending them instead into something that is satisfying on both artistic and visceral levels. It is, simply said, a beautifully written book.”—Blu Gilliand, Cemetery Dance

“A captivating exploration of the vagaries of memory and inertia in middle America . . . [Universal Harvester] serves as a stellar encore after the success of [Darnielle's] debut novel, Wolf in White Van . . . Beneath the eerie gauze of this book, I felt an undercurrent of humanity and hope.” —Manuel Roig-Franzia, The Washington Post

"Universal Harvester is a quiet story of grief with the trappings of a Stephen King suspense-thriller . . . Its characters are constantly on the move, speeding toward destinations they fear will hold ‘scenes of unspeakable devastation and loss,’ and Darnielle seamlessly transfers their dread straight into readers’ hearts . . . [Universal Harvester is] so wonderfully strange, almost Lynchian in its juxtaposition of the banal and the creepy, that my urge to know what the hell was going on caused me to go full throttle . . . [But] Darnielle hides so much beautiful commentary in the book’s quieter moments that you would be remiss not to slow down.” —Abram Scharf, MTV News

"[A] brilliant second novel . . . What appears to be a chilling horror tale is also a perfectly rendered story about family and loss . . . Darnielle is a master at building suspense, and his writing is propulsive and urgent; it's nearly impossible to stop reading. He's also incredibly gifted at depicting the dark side of the rural Midwest . . . [Universal Harvester is] beyond worthwhile; it's a major work by an author who is quickly becoming one of the brightest stars in American fiction." —Michael Schaub, Los Angeles Times

"Eerie . . . unnerving . . . Darnielle adeptly juggles multiple stories that collide with chaotic consequences somewhere in the middle of nowhere. With a nod to urban legends and friend-of-a-friend tales, the author prepares readers for the surreal truth, the improbable events that 'have form, and shape, and weight, and meaning" —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Darnielle’s masterfully disturbing follow-up to the National Book Award-nominated Wolf in White Van reads like several Twilight Zone scripts cut together by a poet . . . All the while, [Darnielle’s] grasp of the Iowan composure-above-all mindset instills the book with agonizing heartbreak.” —Daniel Kraus, Booklist (starred review)

“Darnielle’s second novel opens like a dark suspense story . . . but he ultimately pursues a softer and more nuanced exploration of family and loss . . . Darnielle’s prose is consistently graceful and empathetic . . . [Universal Harvester is] a smart and rangy yarn.” —Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
Far from a midcareer side project, this unsettling second novel from the frontman of indie folk band The Mountain Goats confirms the promise of his National Book Award-nominated debut, Wolf in White Van. Jeremy Heldt is working at the Video Hut in small-town Iowa during the late 1990s when a customer returns her VHS rental, complaining that another movie appears to have been spliced in—not much action, just some faint breathing. Soon after, another customer reports something similar, this one involving a figure in a chair with a bag tied around its head. Jeremy's boss Sarah Jane recognizes the barn in this second video and ultimately gives up the video store trying to find answers. From this spooky premise, Darnielle goes further into an oblique, moving meditation on grief: Jeremy's mother was killed in a car accident when he was younger, and the woman whose barn Sarah Jane identifies lost her mother to a religious sect more than 20 years earlier. Their losses haunt the novel, as does the foreboding Iowa landscape. VERDICT Darnielle's contemporary ghost story may confound with its elusiveness (who is the mysterious "I" narrator?), but its impact will stick with readers. [See Prepub Alert, 8/15/16.]—Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt

Universal Harvester

By John Darnielle

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2017 John Darnielle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71402-4



People usually didn't say anything when they returned their tapes to the Video Hut: in a single and somewhat graceful movement, they'd approach the counter, slide the tapes toward whoever was stationed behind the register, and wheel back toward the door. Sometimes they'd give a wordless nod or raise their eyebrows a little to make sure they'd been seen. With a few variations, this silent pass was the unwritten protocol at video rental stores around the U.S. for the better part of two decades. Some stores had slots in the counter that dropped into a big bin, but Nevada was a small town. A little cleared space off to the side of the counter was good enough.

Bob Pietsch was renting Advanced Big Game and Best of Bass Fishing Volume Four today; he stood there now, at the counter, patient, semimonolithic. He stopped in sometimes on his way home from the co-op; any tapes he rented he'd keep for a week. Stephanie Parsons was in line behind him; Jeremy could see her back there, looking mildly anxious, but there wasn't much he could do about it.

Bob spent most of the year by himself in a farmhouse on a property he owned outside Collins. If he still hunted or fished, it wasn't with anybody he'd known back when he lived in town: nobody really knew what Bob did with his time. People talked a little about him, out there all by himself; it was hoped he'd remarry. But he'd sold the family home after his wife died, and the Collins place was pretty remote. There weren't a lot of opportunities to meet people. When he made conversation these days he sounded like a farmer at an auction waiting for the bidding to start.

"This one's a real good one," he said, tapping Best of Bass Fishing Volume Four. "They get smallmouth, they have to throw half of them back."

"Ever get up to Hickory Grove?" Jeremy asked him. He had lived in Iowa all his life. Men in his family always talked about fishing.

"Used to. All the time," said Bob. "We used to go out for bluegill in the winter."

"Sure," said Jeremy. It continued like this for a minute. Bob eventually dug his Video Hut membership card out from behind his driver's license and signed for the tapes. His card was one of the old laminated ones; it had gone yellow at the edges. Membership cards were really a formality at this point, but Jeremy let him show it anyway.

Stephanie waited as Bob made his way slowly past the shelves and out the door before stepping up to the counter. She didn't set her tape down; instead, she held it in her hand, chest-high, a little away from her body.

"There's something on this one," she said.

Jeremy reached for the tape; he recognized it. He'd circled its title when the distributor's catalog was making the rounds about a year ago. Everybody who worked the counter had a say in what got ordered; Sarah Jane, who owned the place, had implemented this system when she took over from the previous owner. She was privately proud about it. As a younger woman she'd worked retail for years.

"Oh, yeah," he said, turning toward the shelves behind him, several hundred videotapes in clear cases and a few dozen in translucent pink: soft adult movies that hardly anybody ever rented. "Sorry. It sounded really good in the catalog but it's really old, right?" It was called Targets. It had Boris Karloff.

Stephanie looked a little blankly at Jeremy, measuring him, then said: "No, it's a great movie, I've seen it before. At school." Stephanie'd taken a masters in education from the University of Chicago; she made mention of it when she could. "It's the tape, there's something on it."

"I can credit your account," said Jeremy.

Stephanie put on her measuring face again and seemed to decide Jeremy wasn't going to understand. "No, it's fine," she said. "Never mind. Maybe tell Sarah Jane about it, though, OK?"

"Sure thing," said Jeremy. He felt stupid: he wasn't stupid, but he found Stephanie intimidating, and he didn't know how to talk to her. He told himself as he put the display case back on the rack that he'd remember, but he closed the store himself that night, and didn't see Sarah Jane until Monday, and by then he had forgotten.

* * *

Steve Heldt was reattaching a rain gutter to the awning over the front door when Jeremy got home after dark; he'd turned on the floodlight on the side of the garage. His breath in the glare made giant clouds.

Jeremy parked in the driveway and stepped out. "Maybe wait until morning?" he said. His voice came out solitary, singular in the February air. Dad was in his boots up on the ladder, continuously adjusting his perch as he worked.

"Not today, big man," Steve said. Jeremy'd been "big man" ever since the day he'd helped his father change a tire when he was eight years old. "It's going to snow all night. If it warms up after noon this thing'll fall right off."

The gutter wasn't going to fall right off if they waited until daylight to fix it: Steve knew it, Jeremy knew it. But they also both knew to keep busy in winter if they could. Mom had gone off new Highway 30 into a telephone pole in the snow six years ago, in 1994. Jeremy'd been sixteen.

He put his gloves back on and held the ladder while his dad drove in the nails. There wasn't much wind but a little breeze, maybe; it moved the snow around at his feet. "Get home late today?" he said.

"No," said Steve. "Just didn't think of it until after dark. Saw the forecast." Then there wasn't much else to say, and the hammer pounding dully became the only sound you could hear in the neighborhood besides the occasional creak of a branch.

* * *

Later on they watched Reindeer Games: Jeremy brought home new releases when they were something his dad might like. Spy stuff. Cop movies, sometimes. They got a late start because of the rain gutter; the movie wasn't over until nearly midnight.

They both found Reindeer Games confusing, and their attention wandered as it ran. They talked through the slow parts. Afterwards they tried to answer each other's questions about it, but they couldn't get it straight. Then Dad started in about the job.

"There's soil labs, water labs right here in town," he said.

"Dad," said Jeremy. "I have a job."

"Sure. Not a whole lot in it, though, you know."

"I know." He picked up the remote and hit REWIND. "You're right. I don't know."

"Well, I saw some postings, anyway."

"I was thinking about starting DMACC next semester."

"Well, you said that last year, though."

The VCR auto-ejected and Jeremy put the tape back into its case. "I know," he said. "You're right."

In some versions of this story, there's an argument here, because Jeremy feels like his father is being nosy, and because he feels ashamed of being twenty-two years old and not having made anything of himself yet; he's resentful when something reminds him about it. In these variations Jeremy tells his father to give him a little breathing room, and Steve Heldt, who is a good father and who shares, with his son, an incapacitating loss, thinks to himself: Stay out of your son's way; he'll find his way if you let him. In some other versions Jeremy stays awake for a couple of hours, maybe watching another movie he brought home but unable to focus on it, and in the morning he tells his father to write down some of those job listings, and he ends up getting a position at a soil testing lab in Newton, eventually transferring to a bigger lab back home in Nevada.

In this version he keeps his job at the Video Hut, and then something else happens.


Story County was prairie until the mid-1800s. In school they taught a little about the Iowa tribes, but it was hard to get a clear picture of who exactly'd been in Story County when the settlers got there. There had to have been somebody, though. That word Iowa, that was a native word, and lots of places throughout the state were named after tribes: Sioux City. Tama. Black Hawk. Plus it was a known thing that tribes had been removed from their land all over the state at some point during the westward expansion. But they didn't really dwell on this too much in high school, so all Jeremy really had was a rough outline. Few details, or none.

About his own family, where they were from, he knew a little more; when his grandparents or his aunts and uncles got together on the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving it was pretty much all they talked about. All conversations tended toward simple genealogy and geography: who was related to whom, who lived where now, where they'd lived in the first place. There was a numbing comfort to it. These conversations, endlessly repeatable at any family gathering, were a zero-stakes game. Is Pete still in Tama? No, he got a job over in Marshalltown working in sales for Lennox. Is that the air-conditioning people? Well, Pete says "climate control." Oh, "climate control," is that it? Sure, sure.

Tracing of movements was the whole of the process. If the recruiter from Caterpillar collared Mike at the job fair and offered to double his salary inside of two years, then that was how Mike and his family ended up in Peoria: but simple movement atop a shared, internalized map was still the heart of the action, the desired point of engagement. Bill's up in Storm Lake now. Did he sell the Urbandale place? The place off Seventy-second? No, that was a rental. Oh, is that right? Yes, the Handsakers owned it, they rented it out for years until their youngest got back from Coe. You mean Davy? Well, but he goes by Dave now. From Davy to Dave to Dave's parents to their folks you could get a fair bit of talking done, but the trail went cold at about that point. Jeremy's mom's grandparents were Russian somehow, one of those places that wasn't really Russia any more. His great-grandfather on his dad's side had come from Germany. But it went no further than that. The tracking of local movements was sufficient work until it came time to part ways, and they'd pick up where they left off at Labor Day, or Christmas.

By the time he was fourteen, Jeremy could locate magnetic north from practically any place in Story County, even in the total absence of known landmarks. Knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all. In the movies, people almost never talked about the towns they spent their lives in; they ran around having adventures and never stopped to get their bearings. It was weird, when you thought about it. They only remembered where they were from if they wanted to complain about how awful it was there, or, later, to remember it as a place of infinite promise, a place whose light had been hidden from them until it became unrecoverable, at which point its gleam would become impossible to resist.

* * *

Video Hut opened at ten in the morning, which was ridiculous. Anybody returning tapes before mid-afternoon just used the slot in the door, and hardly anybody ever came in to rent before noon at the earliest. Still, there'd be one person sitting behind the counter just in case, waiting for the store's day to actually begin. Sometimes hours would pass.

There was a television mounted above the racks in one corner of the store. During shop hours it showed movies continuously. By policy, these had to be movies with a PG rating or lower. Picking out the movie and starting it up was one of the duties listed on the A.M. OPEN sheet, a six-point list printed on neon-green paper and affixed to the counter by the register with clear tape whose corners had frayed and blackened over the years:

1. lights front and back

2. power up register

3. count cash on hand in strongbox, record in notebook and move to register

4. file slot returns, return cases to displays

5. pick tape (PG or lower) for in-store, start up computer

6. check database for tapes overdue 3+ plus days and make phone calls

The list was there to make the opening routine look like work, though in practice it took Jeremy about five minutes altogether. He went to the computer before even turning on the lights; it was a Gateway 2000. Gateway'd still been a more or less local company when the computer was new; it creaked through its start-up routine for a full five minutes now. By the time it was ready to use, Jeremy'd gone through everything else on the list except the overdues. He wasn't going to call anybody about overdues before noon, anyway.

Underneath the counter there were six or seven tapes that got played in rotation — this was the "pick tape" step, almost entirely mechanical. The Muppet Movie, Bugsy Malone, A League of Their Own, Star Wars: most people working the opening shift just grabbed one without looking. There were a couple of newer ones that got traded in and out from month to month. Jeremy usually went for these, keeping the sound muted until customers started showing up.

He had Reindeer Games in his hand when he got to the store, so he put it on with the sound down and paid it no mind, letting it run while he leafed through a summer courses catalog from DMACC. Joan from Mary Greeley stopped in to trade out a couple of exercise tapes for new ones; the hospital got these tapes for free, which was fine, since nobody else rented them. Joan used them for classes on the convalescent ward. She came up to the counter and nodded over her shoulder toward the screen overhead: the picture went black and white for a second as Jeremy looked up, then stabilized.

"Not expecting a lot of customers today?" she said. Charlize Theron was in a swimming pool untying her bikini.

"What? Oh. Sorry, sorry," said Jeremy, reaching for the remote.

Joan laughed. "No, it's fine." He stopped the tape just as things were starting to get explicit. "Sorry, I watched this last night, I don't know what I was thinking."

"It's fine," said Joan again, nodding encouragingly; Jeremy's face was flushed. "I'm forty-six, I've seen it all before."

"No, I know, I just — wasn't thinking," he said. He grabbed the two new exercise tapes from the shelf, brow still furrowed.

"You OK?"

"Yeah, yeah," he said, shaking his head like a cat waking up. "I don't think I slept well. Fell asleep on the couch."

"Happens to me all the time!" said Joan, signing the rental slip with its crossed-through zero in the "amount" column and sliding her new tapes into her puffy oversized purse.

"Yeah," said Jeremy, "me, too," which wasn't true. Neither was the part about falling asleep on the couch; he didn't know why he'd said it. He was off his rhythm.

"See you next week," said Joan.

"All right," said Jeremy, and that sounded wrong, too.

* * *

The rest of the day was a winter day at a video store in the late 1990s: long stretches without any customers, a big rush between 5:30 and 7:00 as people were getting off work and heading home, and then the slowdown. Lindsey Redinius brought back a copy of She's All That during the rush and said there was something wrong with it, that the movie cut out at some point, turned into something different and came back later. Jeremy set it aside. This was the second complaint about a tape in two days. Maybe they were making tapes from cheaper materials now? DVD players were supposed to be the next thing.

He looked around the store as he was shutting down. It was a heated Morton building, same materials they used for barns now: the same building exactly, just with different stuff in it. In the dark you could see how temporary it was. He rifled through the returns bin and grabbed another tape in case he couldn't sleep, and he stopped at Taco John's up the street for a family value pack. Then he got onto old Highway 30 and headed for home.

They'd plowed the road earlier that morning and several times throughout the afternoon. Everyone was driving a little slower, to be careful. This was the feel of the season for Jeremy. Slow cars moving over icy roads in the dark. Heavy branches on trees. Headlights. Mute and palpable, the melancholy would last at least through March. There was a melody to it you could catch if you weren't trying too hard.

Dad was already home when he got there; they ate their tacos at the dinner table, like a family.


"Everything OK at work?"

"Sure. Big contract from a firm in Minnesota building a new motel over in Ames."


"Just a Holiday Inn Express. They need everything at once, want to be up and running in time for Big 12." Jeremy kept it to himself, but he was happy to hear his dad would be busy all winter, coordinating orders of resin from competing suppliers and ordering his team around, shipping pipe out on flatbeds. Dad seemed happiest when he was busy enough to be worn out by the end of the day.


Excerpted from Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Copyright © 2017 John Darnielle. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a New York Times bestseller, National Book Award nominee, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction, and widely hailed as one of the best novels of the year. He is the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and sons.

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