Universal Harvester — by John Darnielle

This was one of the many books in the giant tote bag Ann sent me home with the day she recommended Book of the Month Club to me (which I love!). It’s marketed as a horror novel, but I don’t think that’s accurate. I classified it was a suspense/thriller, because Darnielle excels at suspense and dread.

That being said, I wasn’t crazy about this one. If anything, I was disappointed at the end. I didn’t feel that there was enough payoff.

As far as emotional depth and the emotional intimacy of the writing, Darnielle is a master. He reminded me of Stephen King in that way – he makes you care about these characters even as you’re surrounded by this cloud of ever-thickening dread. (For me, the most masterfule Stephen King book I’ve read, for the reason of the emotional depth and caring for the characters, is Pet Sematary.)

That’s the main reason I enjoyed this book. But I felt that the emotional depth and intimacy, the gentlenes with which he unfolded his characters, invited us to care about each of them, unremarkable as they were, was at the expense of … oh, I don’t know, actual plot and answers.

We don’t know who the narrator is in the beginning. We do know by the end, but the reveal, which I felt should have been a little bit more dramatic, fell flat. The narrator, furthermore, is unreliable, and they say so. They describe in great detail scenes for which they weren’t ever present, and muse occasionally about this or that, different versions of the story they could have told us but didn’t because they are telling THIS version.

I know what is on the VHS tapes … but I don’t. I know some of it is surveillance footage. I know some of it is footage at the farmhouse. But I couldn’t really tell you of what. A woman in a chair, thrashing. A woman running. A woman standing on one leg. The answers aren’t there, and I think they’re important.

Maybe people who are a bit more  high-minded than me about fiction can live with this, and enjoy it, but I wanted more clarity. It matters what was on those tapes. I understand why Jeremy was made to answer certain questions … but then why was he hit so hard, three times? Why, when he was leaving, did he say that they weren’t hurt and so Stephanie shouldn’t call the cops? What?

I want to know more about what precisely Lisa is attempting to do. How does she thinks any of this makes sense, and how does she think it’ll help her find what she’s looking for?

The lack of answers in a work of fiction, I can live with. Sometimes, that’s the point. But the lack of answers in this book made the whole thing fall flat. I finished and thought to myself, …Why did I just read that?

I appreciated getting to know these characters, and caring for them. But beyond that, …?

Maybe you’ll like it better than I did.

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