Sonder Reads | John Darnielle's Universal Harvester


At the time of my writing this, it has been over 24 hours since I finished John Darnielle’s Midwestern gothic horror novel, and I can honestly say that I still don’t know what to think about it. I have read a lot of books in my lifetime, and very rare is the book that sits in my soul for quite this long. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of two: Universal Harvester, and Darnielle’s first full novel, Wolf in White Van.

JD (as he is known to many fans of his music) is a master of this brand of nearly-uncomfortable intimacy, and whereas Wolf in White Van used it to give a cathartic view into a life filled with inner pain, his second novel uses it as a tool to unsettle and disturb – all the things a good horror novel should do. This isn’t the typical tale of a murderer on the rampage, however; the horror comes from the space, from the open spaces, that encroach upon the average Midwesterner. In this novel, something is happening out in those fields, but all anyone (including the reader) ever gets are glimpses through the gaps in the cornstalks.

The novel centers around 22-year-old Jeremy (which certainly upped the creepy factor for me, personally) who is shaken from the doldrum of his dead-end job when clips of disturbing images show up on some of the returned video tapes. This novel’s horror revels in the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the incomprehensible with the mundane and the intimately, viscerally familiar. This story hinges on the disruption of families, particularly the removal/disappearance/elimination of a mother who had heretofore been the rock upon which the home was built.

I love the concept of entropy, especially when chaos and unfamiliarity are brushed with regularity. I love when books unsettle. And that is precisely what Universal Harvester does. Yes, it leaves a lot of loose ends hanging, and had me re-reading the last few pages over and over in case I had missed some detail to tie everything together, but that was the beauty of this novel: there are no such things as clean endings, especially in a world so filled with horror as ours.

If this review hasn’t convinced you to read Universal Harvester, perhaps the deeply unsettling book trailer will. The audio is the author reading, coincidentally, probably my favorite passage in the whole book.


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