‘[S]o wonderfully strange, almost Lynchian in its juxtaposition of the banal and the creepy, that my urge to know what the hell was going on caused me to go full throttle … [But] Darnielle hides so much beautiful commentary in the book’s quieter moments that you would be remiss not to slow down.’
‘A major work by an author who is quickly becoming one of the brightest stars in American fiction.
Los Angeles Times
‘An eerie but lovingly detailed delineation of a landscape that, like all landscapes, is part external reality and part memory … Darnielle understands that there are things writing can approach but must pass over in silence. He risks those silences; listen.’
Colin Barrett, The Guardian
‘[Darnielle’s] writing is wonderful and his storytelling is unique and compelling.’
‘[Universal Harvester] starts like a spooky thriller, then opens out into a moving, beautifully etched picture of America’s lost and profoundly lonely.’
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Guardian
‘[A] strange and unsettling story … Think Don DeLillo and David Lynch teaming up to write a book inspired by the Japanese horror movie Ringu.’
Darragh McManus, Irish Independent
‘[A] taut thriller that captures the zeitgeist of the 90s.’
‘A bewitching and eerily still piece of fiction. Darnielle has a gift for domestic detail and a nimble way of capturing large feelings without dwelling on them.’
Ben Jeffrey, TLS
‘By page 60, I was freaked out enough to take a break. Such is the power of John Darnielle’s writing … The best thing about good horror like this, though, is that Darnielle makes you care about these people. They are good people. You don’t want to see them getting hurt by the darkness at the edge of the story, but there it is, creeping in and popping out at them during videos they’ve rented, invading the privacy of their own living rooms, catching them when they were safe at home … Universal Harvester is not a typically scary book, but the horror, when it comes, is all the worse because it will touch all of us reading this book, and we’ll all have to struggle to keep our humanity in its face.’
‘Darnielle's prose is lucid and precise, the sort of clear-eyed, knife-jab sentences that defined both his debut Wolf in White Van and his whole songwriting career. He moves through the plot with an enviable looseness … in its own way, a fairy tale — an old, un-Disney-fied one — filtered through the fragrant, dusty Iowan air; a ghost story that's all too real; a detective story with no simple solution … The novel strikes at the heart of the realities of small-town existence — not just their downsides, which would have been a cheap and easy shot, but their pleasures and comforts and truths. In White Van, Darnielle wound around a single act of violence like water orbiting a drain. But here, the violence is larger, more existential, more terrifying. It is not a single a moment that changes everything, but instead a culmination of choices, tempered by the ordinary details of daily life.’
Carmen Maria Machado, NPR
‘A few chapters into Universal Harvester, you might be forgiven for thinking you were reading an unusually artful novelization of some forgotten X-Files episode … Darnielle’s novel ultimately proves itself to be an exploration of — if not quite a meditation on—the experience of loss writ large. Though Universal Harvester sometimes teases true horror, that promised menace never quite materializes. Instead, Darnielle’s novel belongs to what might be called the literature of disquiet, a sentiment that emerges as much from his syntax as from the content of his story … In time, a pattern begins to emerge from these stoicisms, one that tells a quiet story about our estrangement from familiar people, places, and things … If Universal Harvester is ultimately a horror novel at all, as it initially seems to be, it is one in which the only monster is the deep well of our shared sadness.’
Jacob Brogan, Slate
Darnielle draws together lyrical diction and carefully timed doubt to build tension on every page. He leads Jeremy on a hunt for the tapes’ meaning, and parallels Jeremy’s story with a much older one about another character who has also lost her mother … Darnielle’s non-linear timeline mirrors the broken tapes; ambiguity is wielded so artfully, it might as well be the secondary setting … Darnielle thankfully avoids overwriting and spoiling the beautiful confusion until he draws it to a satisfying end … Universal Harvester is a story about the children that mothers leave behind. It’s about generational dissonance, about the futility of any method of record keeping or art to preserve history or truth. Darnielle paints a haunting picture as notable for its blank spaces as its thrilling detail.
Heather Scott Partington, The Las Vegas Weekly
Early on, Universal Harvester’s setup can’t help but recall a few other things: the haunted VHS from The Ring, the titular film at the heart of Infinite Jest, the small-town horror of Lee Child’s Make Me. But Darnielle digs deeper and stranger—he isn’t interested in what’s on the tapes so much as how the tapes affect those who watch them … The book’s constant, though, is the same thing that makes Darnielle’s songs with the Mountain Goats so goddamn great: He has an incredible efficiency and skill with words, subtly eliciting a slew of reactions—heartache, fear, the emptiness of half-healed grief—in a few quick lines ... Darnielle feels some stories are best left untold. Not all of Universal Harvester’s questions are answered. The answers that do come are rarely the kind that satisfy. But answers aren’t the point. Despite taking a few cues from mysteries, Universal Harvester isn’t about unraveling plot. It’s about tracing the history and scars of people, of families, of farms and towns.
Erik Henriksen, The Portland Mercury
Few books in recent memory have mastered the Midwestern uncanny as well as John Darnielle’s strange and lyrical Universal Harvester … the book defies expectations. Instead of unfolding as a gothic thriller brimming with mystery-solving and monster-dodging, it becomes something far stranger … The book becomes, in part, a meditation on grief and healing and a young man’s need to find his footing in a world of limited opportunity … It’s also gorgeously written. Via the Mountain Goats, Darnielle is known for poetic songwriting, a talent parlayed into elegiac descriptions of the Midwestern landscape ... By both celebrating and lamenting the harshness of the Midwest, Darnielle reveals why it allures as much as it repels. The deeply moving Universal Harvester, with its genre-eschewing structure and ambiguity, may prove to be equally divisive.
Amy Brady, The Chicago Review of Books