Universal Harvester – John Darnielle

Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town—the first “a” in the name is pronounced ay—smack in the center of the state. This is the late 1990s, pre-DVD, and the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut. But there are regular customers, a predictable rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: It’s a job; it’s quiet and regular; he gets to watch movies; he likes the owner, Sarah Jane; it gets him out of the house, where he and his dad try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.

But when Stephanie Parsons, a local schoolteacher, comes in to return her copy of Targets, starring Boris Karloff—an old movie, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, Lindsey Redinius brings back She’s All That, a new release, and complains that there’s something wrong with it: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

So Jeremy takes a look. And indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blinks dark for a moment and She’s All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She’s All That is back. But there is something profoundly disturbing about that scene; Jeremy’s compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks a lot like a barn just outside of town.

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious. In truth, it freaks him out, deeply. This has gone far enough, maybe too far already. But Stephanie is pushing, and once Sarah Jane takes a look and becomes obsessed, there’s no more ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same . . . – Goodreads.com

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher via netgalley.com in exchange for an honest review.

I can honestly say that I have never read anything quite like this before. At first I felt as though I was reading something along the lines of a Stephen King novel, or something like Ring but it didn’t take long to realise that this novel stands in a category all of its own.

The underlying plot line was so much more innocent than I had initially imagined which only made it feel much more sinister. There are so many questions unanswered by the initial read that I feel I could easily revisit this novel more than once, maybe more than three times, and still enjoy trying to solve the puzzle of it.

This novel, as stated by the author, centres largely around the relationship between mothers and children and mothers more simply just as human beings. I think going into the novel knowing that would help you to pick out a steady theme in which to read everything around it. A strong context can really help in understanding some works and I think in this case, it really does. It was not a theme I picked out myself as I was more focused on the action.

Would love to re-read this with the theme of mothers in mind. I think it would be a totally new experience.

Also, can we just take a moment to enjoy that stunning cover?

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