Sometimes a book clearly does not belong to a genre, but works so much like that genre it seems to belong in spirit. Take John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester. It has the story-shape and uncanny affect of weird fiction despite not, in the end, containing anything weird. And though it draws from the horror-fiction end of the genre more than the Borgesian, there’s nothing horrific about it; it is, instead, gentle and compassionate. It’s weird-fiction adjacent.
(I almost don’t want to say that much… I don’t usually worry about spoilers here; I’m writing responses to books, not the kind of book reviews you’d read beforehand to gauge your interest. But I so rarely go into a novel not even knowing what kind of story it’s telling, and that feeling of discovery is amazing, so if this novel sounds interesting just go read it. This essay will still be here when you’re done.)
Universal Harvester starts with Jeremy Heidt, a video rental clerk in Nevada, Iowa, in the 1990s. Customers are coming in perturbed; they report uncomfortably strange scenes spliced into their copies of Targets and She’s All That. Jeremy, his boss Sarah Jane, and their customer and enthusiastic investigator Stephanie (a teacher who maybe finds small-town Iowa a little boring after the University of Chicago) play back the tapes and see short, inexplicable flashes: the inside of a shed, people wearing canvas sacks over their heads, a woman fleeing a farm. Sarah thinks she recognizes the farmhouse.
Universal Harvester tells its story with the tools of found footage. Appropriately for a book about a video store, it’s a cinematic genre. The point of found footage is that it’s incomplete. Most movies assume the camera is omniscient; it knows the whole story and can show the audience any part. The found footage camera narrates from inside the story. It asks us to reconstruct the story from incomplete data and a limited point of view. It’s often said of horror movies that what the audience doesn’t see is scarier than what it does: the images in the viewer’s imagination are wilder (and more specific to that viewer!) than anything the filmmakers could come up with. A good found footage movie extends this principle to the narrative logic. The story in the gaps is more uncanny than what’s on screen.
Universal Harvester’s narrator seems omniscient. It tells us about Jeremy’s job and home life, how he’s considering a new job in Des Moines. About how his mother died, and his father’s tentative new relationship. It tells us what’s going through his head at times. Oddly, it also tells us things that could have happened prefaced by phrases like “in some versions of this story.” Did Jeremy have an argument with his father? Did he get a job at a soil-testing lab, or stay longer at the Video Hut? When a personal pronoun slips out it confirms what we already suspected: the narrator is inside the story. The narrator knows Jeremy pretty well but what we’re reading is, in places, just a version of his story, reconstructed from available information.
Adding to Universal Harvester‘s aura of found footage is a documentary feel helped by its strong sense of place. Nevada, Iowa is a real town, not far from where I grew up. Contrary to popular belief Iowa isn’t all rural; I’ve spent my entire life in university towns, so Jeremy’s culture isn’t mine. But I know enough to tell Universal Harvester has the atmosphere right. I recognize the characters’ affect, their reticence, the way the favorite topic at family gatherings is who’s moved where. The geography’s right, too; Darnielle seems to know the area from more than Google maps.
There’s a second horror influence contributing to Universal Harvester’s aura of the uncanny: folk horror, or whatever the American equivalent of folk horror might be (I’ve seen good arguments that it exists). This is a novel of rural landscapes, odd rituals, and new religions born from old, in this case not a European pagan revival but a Christian cult. The cult figures into the middle of the novel, which jumps back a couple of decades to tell the story of a woman who joins a seedy strip-mall church and disappears with it when it flees town, leaving behind a confused husband and daughter. They hire a detective. The daughter grows up following the cult from town to town, scanning the ever-increasing piles of surveillance tapes for some sign of a mother who, even after the cult leader is arrested and the last few members deprogrammed, never turns up again.
What happened to her? Well, there are different versions of that story.
Nobody knows you the way you know yourself. They see the pieces of your life that happen to occur in front of them. The you they know is a story they reconstruct from the fragments. The story your close friends and family know is probably pretty accurate! But the only person who knows your true, entire story is you.
Universal Harvester’s narrator is reconstructing other people’s lives from the information available to her limited point of view. She’s piecing together fragments of video to find the story of a mother who disappeared. If she’s created strange rituals for herself they’re not so much attempting to reach back as out, to make connections. (Even for the mother, the cult was about connecting with something she was missing.) Universal Harvester is using weird fiction strategies to talk about the unknowability of other people’s lives, and how people reach out anyway in whatever way they know, however odd.
Most work in any genre is a bland mass of repetitious received ideas that blend into each other like gray soup. There are lots of reasons why a story might fail to rise above the general mass of forgettable oatmeal. One of the big ones is when creators never move past their first automatic assumptions about what genres, their tools, or their tropes, are for. Or what kinds of stories they could tell, whether they could be used for something new. Or whether they could bring in different tools altogether to serve the same purpose. Which is as good an argument as any for reading widely, and having a flexible concept of genre.
Though I’ve read horror stories formatted as collections of documents or, especially since found footage movies took off, descriptions of in-story videos. ↩
There are a lot of terrible found footage movies out there; they fail mostly because they failed to understand this. Most of them actually have two layers of thoughtless tropes. You can tell the filmmakers copied the style without thinking about what it’s doing because they’re using it to tell utterly rote, generic horror-movie stories: clearly defined character and thematic arcs, action climaxes, downbeat endings. There’s usually a point in these movies–maybe while the characters are running for their lives; maybe, alternately, while they’re having an argument that includes some important exposition but the characters themselves wouldn’t bother recording for posterity–when the audience asks why are these people filming this? The answer being because the filmmakers couldn’t conceive of a movie without the kind of scenes only an omniscient narrator would film. ↩
Even a well-documented historical figure is, to some extent, a mystery. Like, there’s enough on Lyndon Johnson for a multi-volume biography totaling thousands of pages. But there were still unwitnessed and unrecorded moments in his life. In most of them he was probably brushing his teeth or making a cheese sandwich or something. But could some moment have revealed him to be a completely different man? Who knows? ↩