Primarily known as a musician, John Darnielle has hidden his literary chops in plain sight through his narratively dense lyrics in The Mountain Goats and a consistently sharp-witted presence on Twitter. But after the success of his first novel Wolf in White Van, Darnielle has announced himself as an impressive novelist in his own right.
Darnielle’s new novel Universal Harvester introduces us to a strange mystery surrounding a video rental store. Jeremy is a 22-year-old sales clerk at the Video Hut who appears to be riding the clock on his days, avoiding commitments toward a career or college, but this rudderless existence masks a deep hurt caused by the recent death of his mother in a car accident. Now, his existence revolves around the shared comfort of quiet frozen dinners with his father and little else. This routine gets upset when customers begin complaining to Jeremy about strange scenes appearing in the rentals. Disturbing footage of people tied up in sheds and masked individuals abusing their captives, spliced randomly into harmless fair like She’s All That. Jeremy’s investigation into these crimes finds him pulled into the orbit of strange rituals and bizarre organizations, ultimately leading to a confrontation with the trauma he’s been avoiding.
Set in the '90s (as you probably guessed by VHS being back in style), the novel is written in clean and precise prose that is endlessly inventive. One of the neatest inventions of the novel is the narrator, a mysterious party with a secret to hide. They seem strangely omniscient, speculating about alternate paths and choices the characters could have made, while dropping sinister hints about their involvement in the story. It gives the novel a sense of impending tragedy that elevates its most languid moments. Pop-culture obsessives will enjoy the deluge of references to film and '90s ephemera, but fans of white-knuckle thrillers like Gone Girl will find themselves pulled in by the mounting suspense of Darnielle’s narrative.