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Universal Harvester

3.24  ·  Rating details ·  10,443 ratings  ·  1,870 reviews
Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut

Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town—the first “a” in the name is pronounced ay—smack in the center of the state. This is the late 1990s, pre-DVD, and the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video H
Hardcover, 214 pages
Published February 7th 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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William Woodhouse
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Nancy In an interview with NPR this is what John said when asked about the meaning/origin of the title:

"It's the people who make combine harvesters. And it…more
In an interview with NPR this is what John said when asked about the meaning/origin of the title:

"It's the people who make combine harvesters. And it might have been International Harvester, which is a big company, but I remember driving out to Ames, [Iowa,] or Nevada and seeing a corporate headquarters that I believed at the time, just in passing, said Universal Harvester. And, you know, I'm me, I'm into words. Universal Harvester? I mean that sounds just deadly, you know, it just sounds very, very ominous to me. Because what is the Universal Harvester? Obviously, it's the skeleton in the cowl and cloak carrying the scythe — that's your Universal Harvester right there."(less)

Community Reviews

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3.24  · 
Rating details
 ·  10,443 ratings  ·  1,870 reviews

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Larry H
Jan 03, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: netgalley
I'm between 2.5 and 3 stars here, but I'm going to round up because of the quality of John Darnielle's writing.

This should be an interesting exercise: writing a review of a book that you do not understand but you couldn't stop reading, both because you were hoping things would finally become clear, and because the writing was quite good, even as it meandered.

It's the late 1990s, just before DVDs become the preferred method of entertainment, leaving video stores struggling. Jeremy works at Video
Julie Ehlers
Sep 25, 2016 rated it liked it
I guess I'm going to have to be the outlier on this one, at least for now. When I got this ARC in my latest Indiespensable shipment, I was immediately pulled in by the description on the back cover. It sounded like such a creepy, amazing thriller that I started reading it almost immediately, which is pretty rare for me--usually books have to sit around the house for a while before I feel drawn to finally dig in.

I knew enough to know that this wasn't going to be a conventional thriller, that it w
Mar 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
John Darnielle is a fantastic writer. This is his second novel, and it is just as good as his first. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, the story is divided into four parts that feel a little disjointed at first but ultimately connect to each other. His writing is top notch here. Paragraphs just describing silos in Iowa or movies from the 90s are just a pleasure to read.

Now, I can see where JD draws some negativity from some critics, but maybe I can help clear things up a bit here. You see, th
Raeleen Lemay
*I'm so disappointed*

The only thing I enjoyed about this book is the synopsis. It drew me in and made me want to read the book, but nothing about this book delivered for me. The plot and writing were all over the place, my main problem being the way the POV constantly switched back and forth between 3rd and 2nd person with no explanation. It made the plot difficult to follow, and I never felt connected to any of the characters. All of these issues might draw from the fact that I listened to this
Feb 28, 2017 rated it did not like it
There is a version of this story where it actually gets told.

But this isn't that version.
Kevin Kelsey
Posted at Heradas

This was leaps and bounds better than Wolf in White Van, which I thought showed a lot of promise, but ultimately didn't deliver on it. The plot strayed just a little bit from what I was expecting, but I feel like the detours eventually built the foundation for the path to the climax/ending. Fantastically clever storytelling, with just enough of a resolution to satisfy while still leaving a few threads unexplained. I feel like this novel would heavily reward a second reading. Som
Feb 13, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction, mystery, meh
I think the only word I can find to describe this book is disjointed. Disjointed narration, disjointed characters, disjointed plot, disjointed pace. This is neither a horror story, as the words of the blurb made it out to be, nor this is a weird, trippy story, as the cover tried to convene. The weird things showing up on the VHS tapes amount to a total of half a heartbeat of uneasiness, they don’t add up and they are not explained. Actually, unexplained things I can live with; but things that fe ...more
Edward Lorn
Jul 21, 2017 rated it did not like it
I want you to read the description of this book. I want you to focus in on the words "disturbing", "haunting" and "threatening". Those three words, plus the premise (VHS tape with weird imagery changes the lives of some fuckers living in BFE) made me buy this book. In hardcover. At full price. Legit went down to my local BAM and paid $25.00 for this.

I'm mad. I've been lied to. I'm sure this book is splendid, but it's not as advertised. So I'm stopping here and will come back to it when I want to
Feb 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
In looking over other people's responses to this book, I'm finding I had a pretty different experience with it. I guess some readers found it disjointed or hard to follow? But that wasn't my experience at all. Admittedly, I love it when a book's structure is only clear once you've finished it, so maybe I'm a good reader for this one. But I found the story to be pretty straightforward, just told in a non-linear way. I didn't feel like it ended up being super mysterious or even leaving much unreso ...more
Sep 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: my-reviews
This book is a mystery surrounded by mysteries. It’s also a work of art. Theories and interpretations float around it, anger hovers over it, condescension is thrown at it. It’s the price any piece of art pays for grabbing one’s attention without paying the regular price of offering an explanation about its true nature. It’s the only way I can explain the low average rating this peculiar book has gotten on this website.

Maybe my reading of this book was greatly helped by the fact I knew nothing ab
Aug 05, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
This book is like its cover, super weird, kind of not telling a story, and absolutely, stunningly beautiful. I think. Because this book is so weird - for me it sits right at the edge of unreadable and unputdownable. Do not read this book expecting a coherent story to be told, or if you need a clean resolution (or any resolution at all, come to think of it). I am fine with it being vague, and metaphorical, and more a collection of snapshots, but then again, I love this kind of weirdness and rando ...more
In an online interview with NPR, author and musician: John Darnielle discusses his book: Universal Harvester.
"This is an examination of grief," he says, "and ... grief is horrific — that moment that you have in the early going ... where you realize that nothing you do can bring back the thing or the person that you have been brought to grieve. That's what horror is, you know, that's that moment of helplessness."
I wholeheartedly concur. Universal Harvester has the atmosphere of a horror
Aug 05, 2016 marked it as to-read
This sounds super creepy and cool, and if it's even half as good as Wolf in White Van was then I will be ecstatic. February 2017 can't come soon enough.
Thomas Wagner
Jan 10, 2017 rated it it was ok
Puzzlebox stories are a particular species of weird fiction that have become all the rage in American popular culture over the years. Whether we’re looking at the films of directors like Christopher Nolan or David Lynch, or television series like Lost or The X-Files or True Detective, there’s been a successful wave of stories that hook audiences by creating elaborate internal mythologies that rely on mysteries built upon mysteries, with only tiny tidbits of revelation offered ever-so sparingly t ...more
Rebecca McNutt

As someone who still has two VCR machines and a large collection of VHS tapes, I find it depressing that the format is slowly dying out. So, I'm really glad when books like this one come out where VHS and the video rental stores of the 20th century are used as almost characters in their own right. Universal Harvester is my favourite book this year, and not just because I'm a VHS tape nerd but also because I love horror, mystery and rural-set novels, categories which this book falls into. Jeremy,
Mike W
Feb 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
In her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan wrote of a time when people could still get lost. She was speaking of the time before social media and search engines, when a friendship once tight could completely disintegrate over the years, a person once close to you becoming just a husk of a memory. In Universal Harvester, John Darnielle sets much of his story near the end of that time and takes the thought a step further, reminding us that there was a time when a person could willful ...more
Brian Joynt
Feb 14, 2017 rated it it was ok
After a creepy, promising intro, this novel quickly segues into a series of asinine meanderings. I had such high hopes for this. The author has a nice relationship with the words; he's a stylist, and knows his way around a sentence, which, usually, is all I need to enjoy a book. But what happened? Maybe I just didn't get it. It jumps around too much and left me lost. Was that the point? I don't know. But I'm not going to waste too much time thinking about it, because there's so many books, and s ...more
Dec 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Still chewing on this one.

I really like Darnielle's writing. I flew through it in two sittings, so it is definitely binge-worthy, but it wasn't as weird or creepy as I thought it was going to be.
May 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A very strange and moving genre-bending book. Unique in terms of tone and the oddly nested narrative structure. Unsettling from the start, it seems at first to be a straightforward psychological suspense novel, but ends up going in a surprisingly different direction. Darnielle's prose is concise and lyrical, and the themes of love and loss are realized to great effect. Loved this novel.
I have no idea how to rate this book! I'm going with 3 stars ("I liked the book"). I did like the book--maybe I even really liked it--but it's so unusual and so unexpected that rating it seems hard.

This book meanders. It changes characters frequently, and often leaves stories hanging or unresolved to wander over to another character. It also changes time, going from past to present with little transition. This should have annoying, but I was so interested in all the different characters that I s
Apr 14, 2017 rated it it was ok
Recommended to El by: Coworker Nicole
My coworker read this and practically threw the book at me the next day at work and said I needed to read it. Is it good? I asked.

I don't know, she said. That's why you need to read it. You need to explain what just happened.

It doesn't take much for me to oblige bookish requests like this, and it so happened a four-day weekend was coming up for us - a perfect time for me to read this book.

I read it today. It's short. It reads quickly. It seemed appropriate to read over Good Friday.

I was on board
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a weird book. I love the prose and the characters and the mystery and pretty much everything about it. But it jumps around so goddamn much, and reveals almost nothing, I can't help but close this book slightly frustrated. It's worth a read. I wouldn't call it a good story—there are hints of a good story, here and there—but it is a good...atmosphere? I enjoy being in Darnielle's world. His words are medicine.
Apr 29, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2017, tob18
This was a spur of the moment book selection for me. I had never read John Darnielle before and didn't really know what style of novel I was in for. I ignored the 3.3 average rating on here and ploughed in.

It started pleasantly creepy, something weird had been spliced onto VHS tapes. VHS ! how retro that feels now. There was a healthy dose of what I call, late 80s early 90s technology nostalgia in this and quite a few film references that largely passed me by and I wasn't interested enough to l
Mar 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-read
Not quite a 4 star read for me, but so compelling to read and wonderfully written that it deserves to be rounded up.

This is a work of contemporary fiction about relationships, connections, and loss. It's told in a way that, at the start, makes you think there is something creepy and sinister going on, but there really isn't. That said, the story still raises as many questions as it gives answers. While complete closure is never delivered, it still feels strangely satisfying.

It's not that nobody
Mar 26, 2017 rated it did not like it
Well-written yet frustrating.

I can’t decide whether I’m being too harsh in giving this one star. I toyed with the idea of giving it two simply because the writing is admittedly very good and some of the plot lines engaged me ever so slightly, but whenever I try to think of a genuine reason I would recommend it to someone, I come up stumped.

First things first, if you’re picking this up because of anything involved with the marketing, I’d stop now and read some of the reviews first. The cover, th
Feb 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018
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.

Das Buch fing super spannend an, fast, als wäre es ein Thriller, ist sich dann aber leider nicht treu geblieben und hat mich insgesamt ein wenig enttäuscht. Das war einfach keine runde Sache, lediglich Schreibstil und Charaktere konnten mich gut überzeugen. Schade!
Mar 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Jeremy Heldt works as a clerk at a video store in a small farming community in Iowa in the 1990s. Customers returning their VHS tapes complain that there is unsettling footage of hooded figures spliced into the movies. Jeremy's mother died in a car accident, and while he and his father have settled into a comfortable routine, the sense of loss is always with them.

Jeremy's boss at the video store recognizes the house and shed in the spliced footage, and she forms a friendship with Lisa who now li
Book Riot Community
In Darnielle’s latest novel, customers of a rural Iowan video rental store have been returning VHS tapes complaining of footage on the tapes that doesn’t belong. When video store employee Jeremy decides to take a look, he finds black-and-white footage shot in a barn, with only the sound of someone’s breathing in the background. Disturbed by the scene, he reluctantly finds himself in search of answers. Think of a less-supernatural-more-psychological version of the 2002 film The Ring. This novel w ...more
Franzi Bücherseelen
Also entweder ist das Buch wirklich so langweilig und nichtssagend ... oder ich hab die Geschichte nicht verstanden 😅
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Bloody Good Horror: April '18 - Universal Harvester 4 44 Mar 21, 2018 06:40PM  
  • Threaten to Undo Us
  • In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
  • The Best of McSweeney's
  • We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone
  • The Fisherman
  • Bedfellow
  • Elizabeth
  • Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone
  • We Eat Our Own
  • The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing
  • Last Days
  • A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain
  • There Is No Year
  • Little Heaven
  • A Million Heavens
  • I Am Providence
  • The Wilding
  • Harrison Squared
John Darnielle (/dɑrˈniːl/, born March 16, 1967) is an American musician, best known as the primary (and often solitary) member of the American band the Mountain Goats, for which he is the writer, composer, guitarist, pianist and vocalist.

Source: Wikipedia.
“Not everybody wants to get out and see the world. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you just want to figure out how to fit yourself into the world you already know.” 18 likes
“It's not that nobody ever gets away: that's not true. It's that you carry it with you. It doesn't matter that the days roll on like hills too low to give names to; they might be of use later, so you keep them. You replay them to keep their memory alive. It feels worthwhile because it is.” 11 likes
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