Living in small-town Iowa in the late 1990s, John Darnielle was a regular at the video rental store the next town over, picking up VHS tapes and Nintendo 64 cartridges. It’s a vanished world—in more ways than one—but Darnielle drew on those memories for his second novel, the unsettling and suspenseful Universal Harvester.
The book began as Darnielle’s effort to capture the speech patterns that had been rattling around in his head for 15 years.
“It wasn’t a deep moment of revelation or anything; I was trying to write a scene that sounded like the conversations I heard in Iowa,” he says in a phone interview with Paste. “I’m a fake extrovert; I generally keep to myself. But if you get me talking, I just go. In Iowa, you don’t meet many people like that. There’s a conversational rhythm and style, like the way men talk to each other at the beginning of a shift.”
Darnielle’s exercise produced about 10 pages of a scene, a conversation between a man returning movies and Video Hut clerk Jeremy, talking about their favorite fishing spots. From that somewhat mundane opening scene, Darnielle spins on a ghostly dime, driving into a story about grief, resiliency and the never-ending search for human connection.
At the narrative’s core are tapes returned to the Video Hut with unexplained footage added—homemade scenes of horror that Jeremy feels compelled to investigate. Darnielle created the scenes without having a sense of what they meant, feeding the readers’ questions without immediate concern for answers.
“I didn’t have any explanation for it when I wrote it,” he says. “I described the scene, and it was scary. And that’s what I liked about it. It looks a little frightening, and you don’t know what it is. I let myself go for a long time without any explanation in the first draft. I could say accurately and vividly what they are, but I couldn’t say why they are.”
After completing his first novel, Wolf in White Van (which was nominated for the 2014 National Book Award), Darnielle felt confident enough in his writing process to take his time crafting Universal Harvester’s direction. Very late in writing the first draft, Darnielle found his answer and the threads began coming together.
“Part of what I was doing with that first scene was trying to write something normal, because Wolf in White Van is so weird,” he says. “I wanted to try my hand at writing normal lives a bit. I started doing that, and as the story develops, I had objections with my own ideas. Everybody has their thing; everybody has some sort of grief. I painted some normal people and then started to see their scars.”
Universal Harvester pivots around what Darnielle calls the “sad/frightening axis,” relaying some stylistic aspects that will be familiar to readers of Wolf in White Van and his records as The Mountain Goats.
“I really have a jones for the forms of media we had prior to the digital age,” he says. “My songs have a lot of radios on them. The word radio is probably the second or third most occurring word in my songs. Any Mountain Goats listener knows John talks about photographs all the time and movies. I think you can spot my talismans; I’m not constantly looking at them, but I have them in my pocket.”
Darnielle maintains different approaches to writing fiction and writing songs, but he recognizes the end result is more about the labor than the initial inspiration.
“There’s a sense in which books and songs are both artifacts of creativity. The creativity happens before it takes form and you decide what vessel you’re going to pour it into,” he says. “With books, you don’t have the luxury of melody to tell people how to feel about it. Even once you’ve sketched some stuff into place, you’re still playing God everyday. The people you’re dealing with exist page after page after page. The people in a song only exist for three minutes.”
With Jeremy and the rest of the Universal Harvester cast, Darnielle has constructed a world where they must face their long-standing fears as well as unseen forces. On the foreboding landscape of an Iowa in winter, Darnielle has sketched what he calls a “cartography of grief.”
“I treasure the feeling of being unmoored, the moment of knowing where you are and then not knowing where you are,” Darnielle says. “One thing about my books that I’ve noticed, they are full of reveals. A curtain pulls away, and you see a little more of something that was hidden.”
Listen to a clip from the Universal Harvester audiobook, featuring original music and narration by John Darnielle here.
Eric Swedlund writes about music, books, science, travel, food and drink. He lives in Tucson.