Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
My rating: 0 of 5 stars
As a fan of The Mountain Goats as well as enjoying Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle is making his case in the fiction realm for good with Universal Harvester. The good news is that the quality of the writing here remains strong, but the bad is that the plot itself is a bit of a retread and I don’t feel as if this stakes much of its own ground enough to turn the book into something special.
Taking place in the 1990s, there are videotapes being returned to the local rental store with mysterious scenes recorded onto them. The mystery deepens as more videos have this issue, and the book explores the phenomenon. Granted, in a sense, found video and mysterious film is a big subgenre ticky box for me, so I came into this read not only with high expectations, but a lot of expectations and beliefs about what makes a book like this work.
Universal Harvester works for the genre it’s in, but not so much in this subgenre. Darnielle is too good a writer to fail completely, but the lack of real oomph or urgency in this story is the real issue keeping this book from being something special. I felt, personally, that the things which drove me to the plot of this book were secondary in ways they weren’t in books like Night Film or Flicker, both of which are masterpieces in combining their genre slot with this sort of film mystery. I could have even taken something like The Ring as a point of reference for this book – goodness knows the setting would absolutely lend itself to it – but we didn’t get that.
Overall? A well-written book that didn’t grab me. If it had followed through better on its hook, it would move from good to great.
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