In Nevada, Iowa (the first a is long), in the late 90s, someone is splicing creepy home footage into the videocassettes rented from the Video Hut. You might be enjoying a Boris Karloff classic with some popcorn when the narrative is disconcertingly interrupted by a few moments of someone breathing heavily in the dark, or maybe something more sinister waits for viewers of She’s All That. And despite obvious reservations, Jeremy, treading water as a clerk following his mother’s sudden death years earlier, can’t stop watching. A few of the clips seem to betray local landmarks, and what self-respecting meddling kid could resist checking it out?
This may sound like the set-up for a good thriller, but Universal Harvester is much stranger, much more ambitious, than that. Darnielle - the musician/writer whose unorthodox debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for the National Book Award – has written an understated slow burn of a book, lean on plot but dense in mood and dread. Darnielle is more interested in what ferments in the dark corners of our universal experiences: how we cope with loss and absence and the ways that they bend us, the peculiar ways we become bent. In fact, if ambiguity isn’t your thing, you might look elsewhere. People might be filming unnerving things in dilapidated, farm country outbuildings, but the pat, Psycho-style explanation is not forthcoming. Universal Harvester is like a David Lynch adaptation of a Marilynne Robinson novel, where manicured grass is replaced by fields of corn, but the bugs squirming beneath are the same.
As it turns out, Darnielle's influences are, unsurprisingly, much more esoteric. We asked him three questions about Universal Harvester, a February 2017 selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month.
The corn fields and farm country architecture of rural Iowa provide the setting for your story. What in particular about this landscape appealed to you?
Well, I used to live in Iowa, but I was a transplant: from where I grew up, in California, the midwest -- as an idea, as an imagined place -- feels like a fantasy realm. Cornfields, barns, frozen lakes in winter. When I moved there, I learned what you learn every time you move: that while places have their differences, the human element lends a universality to them. Still, when you're new to Iowa, you retain this romance until somebody corrects you. For me it was a guy named Gary who I worked with at a residential treatment center -- we were talking basic politics or something and the subject of farming came up and he said: "'Family farms' -- there are no 'family farms.'" Which is not technically true -- they exist, and are still part of the agricultural picture, though the small ones have occupied less and less acreage over time as medium and large ones occupy more -- but agriculture has been monolithic for a long time now, and the image of the family farm and the realities of what that means, of what a farm is - there's a disparity there, a romance that isn't supported by the actual picture. But still, when you find yourself in a field full of corn, there's a feeling -- I want to say an archetypal feeling, something maybe not primal but central to something in your American-ness -- that's impossible to shake. It's a connection to an imagined past, and sometimes to a present you didn't know you still imagined. I think some of that informs, at a really underneath-everything level, the way I talk about the landscape.
Were there influences - literary or cinematic – that you drew from?
The two writers who I hoped to sort of fuse in some maniac hybrid were Alain Robbe-Grillet and Robert Aickman... But I wanted to tell a story that was more page-turny than those guys usually went for. Robbe-Grillet was an architect of the French "new novel," and his books often have secrets you have to dig up -- in Jealousy, it's "who's telling this story?" for example. Reality is kind of slippery in his books, and when the slippage happens, that's when I always get the thrill I get from a good horror movie. Aickman is probably the more important influence, though -- he wrote short stories exclusively, and they're sorta-kinda horror; he called them "strange stories." They're stories in which things happen that are frightening, and in which dread is kind of the governing tone, but the whole big-reveal moment that reigns in cinematic horror: that's wholly absent, you'll never get it out of him, it's not what he's about. He's about texture & tone & mood & character. He also seemed to have few ambitions as a writer beyond "write stuff that seems cool to me," which makes him a model, I think -- you have to write books that you'd want to read.
The novel resists labels; for me it moved easily between literature, mystery, and the occasional horror. Did it start in one of those places and grow on its own, or was intended?
Well, it started out almost as an exercise -- I wanted to write the sort of dialogue I used to hear among men in Iowa -- this sort of granular dedication to matters on the surface, to the "what" and the "where." What was instructive to me was that as soon as I set off on this exercise, all kinds of things immediately began suggesting themselves to me -- depths, textures, subtleties -- it's really interesting to me that by setting out just to write about a guy returning a tape about fishing, I ended up in stranger waters, really, than I might have found if I'd set out for them intentionally. But as soon as I landed on those interpolated scenes on the tapes, I started thinking about Aickman, about how horror, in his work, insinuates itself into the everyday: that that's what's horrific, the intrusion, the insinuation that it's been there all along. Beyond that, I've always felt like the point of genre boundaries is to blur them -- which again recalls Robbe-Grillet, who wrote several books that are technically detective novels, except that the detective's name keeps changing without explanation and sometimes there's a 10-page sadomasochistic elegy that just naturally erupts from the prose and then vanishes again without trying to justify itself.
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