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Universal Harvester by John Darnielle -Published by Scribe

Those readers well into their middle age will remember the thrilling and novel advent of the video cassette – of suddenly, for the first time ever, being able to view movies on their home TV at any time. They will recall going to their local video library to choose an old favourite or spend a little more on hiring a new release. They will remember the slots into which the viewed movies could be dropped – hopefully in time to avoid fees for late returns. They will remember the 1980s.

These same readers – though not only they – will enjoy the opening chapters of Universal Harvester in which the local video library, Video Hut, plays a crucial role. The year is 2000 and DVDs are on the horizon. But closer to home is a mystery – some of the videos have been doctored. Strange images are interrupting, albeit briefly, the main movies. This becomes a problem which Jeremy, who works at Video Hut, wants both to solve and avoid. His boss, Sarah Jane, the owner of the business, becomes even more involved.

The mystery unfolds slowly, but with never a dull moment, and on the way the reader meets a number of likeable ordinary small-town people, many of whom become entangled in the mystery. You also meet a most unattractive down-at-heal preacher who strangely attracts people to his congregation. (Possibly the title of the book derives in part from his activities.)

John Darnielle, the author of this enthralling novel, says it is largely about mothers. It is also a book about ordinary American people living in and around Nevada, Iowa. Darnielle beautifully captures their daily lives and their reluctant involvement in the mystery. Every once in a while he pauses from telling the story and addresses the reader directly:

Let me ask you a question…Are you seeing a Catholic church with a stoup full of cool water just inside the front door, leading through a pair of huge doors into a great high- ceilinged room full of wooden pews with prie-dieus for kneeling? Something more modest and Midwestern, maybe – a Methodist room with an angled ceiling, wooden beams, plenty of light? Is the organ pipe or electric? Maybe there is an upright piano instead of an organ, maybe…

This is disconcertingly effective. In the instance quoted here you end up seeing an undecorated shopfront as the place where church services took place. You see it in its stark simplicity because the author led you in stages from the grandiose to the plebeian.

Some books you pick up and discard after a few pages, but mostly a book, once started, is read to the end – sometimes dutifully, sometimes with page-turning excitement. Once in a while, though, you come across a book which you read and then immediately know you want to read again. This is such a book – not only for the quality of the language but because of the multifaceted messages it brilliantly conveys while telling a horror story in slow motion.