John Darnielle Is Going to Unsettle You

Talking horror, alternate Iowas and working the grain elevator with ‘Universal Harvester’ author and singer-songwriter, John Darnielle

Picture this. One night in the late ’90s, you put a VHS copy of She’s All That into your VCR. You’re alone. It’s dark. And in the middle of the movie, the screen cuts to amateur footage of a woman in a barn with a canvas bag over her head. It’s bizarre, but it only lasts a few seconds, so you return the movie and rent another. Then it happens again. And again. There’s a barn, and heavy breathing, and bodies writhing beneath a tarp.

Yes, John Darnielle — of The Mountain Goats and Wolf in White Van fame — has written a horror novel. In Universal Harvester, a 22-year-old video store clerk in Nevada (Ne-vay-da), Iowa discovers creepy-as-hell footage spliced into the store’s VHS tapes. It’s the most unsettling book I’ve read since House of Leaves, but it’s also a gorgeous, minimalist exploration of loss, family, and epistemology. I recently spoke with Darnielle over the phone about ambiguity in fiction, Universal Harvester’s unique narrative quirks, synesthesia, and working on a grain elevator during an Iowa summer.

Adam Morgan: Is there an actual video store in Nevada, Iowa?

Darnielle: There is a video store I remember in Nevada. It’s funny. I have two kids, and one of the best video gaming systems you can let kids play with is the Nintendo 64. It’s really intuitive and easy to figure out. I saw a game whose name I would not have been able to call to memory if you’d asked me, but I rented it from the Nevada video store. It’s called “Mischief Makers.” Actually commands a bit of a price.

In this game, when the little creature grabs ahold of something and wants to switch positions, he says, “Shake shake.” We’ve been saying that for 20 years. I had almost forgotten the origin of it, but I found this game and I remembered that we used to drive in from Colo — where I lived, which is northeast Story County — to Nevada, which is a little further in. Nevada is a town I know. I never worked there. I worked in Ames and in Colo, and Nevada is between those two, but it was a place I thought you could situate something. Nevada is small, but not small like Colo.

Morgan: Can we talk about the title for a little bit? I have synesthesia and some titles just look really nice, and this is one of them.

Darnielle: Do you get a color from it?

Morgan: It’s color-based for me. ‘U’ words are typically purple for me, and ‘H’ words are typically gold, so it matches the cover design really well.

Darnielle: Yeah, I love that iridescent cover design, because it brought out deep colors in these duochromatic-looking scenes, which was exactly what I was trying to do, right?

Morgan: How did you settle on the title?

Darnielle: The working title was Nevada, Iowa Video Hut. I really liked it because it was so awkward, but I like my titles to be evocative. In my other life, in my music life, I’ve released so many things with so many titles that it’s a stew of many different ingredients. Because I’m fairly new to books, I like to think about how they’ll all look on a shelf together at the end of my life. Or on that list of books, the “Also by John Darnielle” page.

Universal Harvester fits well next to Wolf in White Van. It goes a little backwards in the alphabet. Universal Harvester has more syllables, but it looks like a shorter title because it’s got fewer words, but it’s got a very nice — not iambic, but I think trochaic movement to it. It’s sort of whispery, like a Tennyson phrase or something.

I got it from a sign facing Highway 30 in Iowa. There was a company whose name I believe was Universal Harvester that we drove past once going into Nevada. I was new enough to Iowa for that to look really amazing to me. There’s a giant cylinder rising from the earth. We don’t see those back where I grew up. A lot of farm equipment names and stuff like that, they look very exotic when you’re new to the area. I wanted to bring out that exotic quality in the title.

But it could have been “International Harvester.” I’m not sure, but what went into my brain was “Universal Harvester,” which of course sounds like death, right? It sounds like a person, a person who does something quasi-final, you know?

Morgan: I think most novels are too long, but I wanted another 100 pages of Universal Harvester. You provide a sense of closure, but there are still so many loose threads. How do you find the right balance between closure and ambiguity?

Darnielle: Actually, it’s fun. Friends of mine look at the book while I’m writing it, because I need their gentle reminders that I have to close loops. I like open questions. The stuff I read for pleasure is quite often stuff that stubbornly declines to tell you anything. You don’t get to know the very thing that drew you in. I’m talking about like the French, the Nouveau Roman people, especially in the ’60s. There aren’t many people left who want to read that stuff.

I’ll send something to John Hodgman. “This is really good,” he’ll say, “but I want to remind you that at some point, you’re going to have to pay the reader back for their investment in your story. You can’t always drop them off at the door.” But I really want to. That’s the moment I like — the moment where a few things could be true. That’s one thing I do in this book. I say, “Well, there’s a version of the story where this happens, and there’s another version where this happens.”

There’s a scene where they’re editing video tapes, and originally there were cryptic labels on these canning jars that suggested something besides jam would be going into them — who knows what. Blood, or plasma, or whatever, right? It was creepy as hell, but you can’t plant that seed and never say anything about it again. You can’t. If I introduce something to the scene, I have to — at the very least — acknowledge that something has been left unknown there. I can’t just say something and never refer to it again…but the appeal of that is very strong and hard to resist.

Morgan: I think you struck a good balance. I was worried it was going to be like the last few seasons of “Lost,” where you gave me a bunch of answers I didn’t want.

Darnielle: No, I’m not into answers. There was a thing I said in one of the Wolf in White Van interviews: “I’m not writing to answer questions. I’m writing to pose questions.” That’s my thing. I happen to like the Victorian novel thing where in the last chapter they tie up every last loose end, but that’s not my style. I’m looking at loose ends and asking how they feel.

“I’m looking at loose ends and asking how they feel.”

Morgan: At several points in Universal Harvester, the narrator alludes to different versions of the story. It’s not a big part of the plot, but it implies this omniscience of alternate realities. Why was it important for you to bring that into the story?

Darnielle: When I first did it, it just happened sort of naturally. Writing for me has this improv quality to it. I don’t really remember anything besides going, “Well, here’s the story when Bob Peach returns the ‘Best of Bass Fishing, Volume 2.’” I got to the end of that scene, I didn’t want to just drop it, I wanted to have a nice transitional moment. So I said, “Well, that’s one way that scene ends. Then another way that scene ends could be this.”

I was thinking about how people stereotype Iowa. You hear this every Iowa Caucus: the news organizations grind up their “How do we talk about Iowa” machine, and it’s always this very stereotypical, “Well, it’s a simpler life in Iowa, and more people are closer to the farm.” They talk about family farms, even though hardly anybody’s ever seen a family farm at this point. It’s largely big ag, right?

The family farm is not the economic engine of Iowa. It’s all very kind of offensive and untrue. It’s just this weird narrative thing, and I wanted to clear a space to say, “Well, in Iowa a lot of things happen, actually.” Are they the same things that happen in Williamsburg or Chicago or wherever? No, they’re not. But that doesn’t mean it’s some sort of trap where you only get to live one way.

I was thinking about that a little, but then I realized it’s true of every story. When you’re writing, stories push you in one director or another, but you always resist and say, “Well, do I have to do X because Y happened, or is there another way?”

Morgan: What did you do differently in this book based on something you learned from writing Wolf in White Van?

Darnielle: When I started writing the first scene in Universal Harvester, I wanted to write a traditional scene that was in the first person and that had plenty of dialogue, because in Wolf in White Van I made a point of trying to introduce as much dialogue as I could into this first person, you-live-inside-the-guy’s-skull narrative. There’s a limited about of dialogue you can really do when a person is being so reflective. There’s a fair bit in there, but for the most part Wolf in White Van in a very long monologue. It’s a person opening up his brain and bringing you inside of it.

I wanted to grow as a writer and say, “Well, you know, the traditional model for fiction is the third person.” I was also feeling a little reactionary, because I feel like we live in a world that really privileges the first person super hard. I looked through a bunch of modern books and they’re all first person narrators.

I was like, “Well, what if I just wrote something with your standard omniscient narrative, except I don’t want an omniscient narrator to be editorializing. I don’t want to be telling you how you’re supposed to feel about something.” As we know from reading the book — spoiler alert for your readers — it turns out not to actually be in the third person.

Writing in the third person forces me to tell more story. It forces me to say, “Make something happen and make it interesting.” A first person narrator gets real reflective and you can get real pyrotechnic with that, but I wanted to let the story and the characters speak for themselves. You know, I wanted to do something that seemed less colorful on the surface but with more depth.

Morgan: That first slip into first person, about third of the way through the book…it cracked my head open.

Darnielle: When I did it, it was kind of an accident. I just sort of typed it. But then I thought, “Oh, wow. That’s creepy as hell.”

Morgan: Since I was reading a review copy, I prayed, “Oh, please let him be doing this on purpose, and not be an editorial mistake.”

Darnielle: No, you’re right. That could have been a relic of an entire draft that was in the first person. But no, it wasn’t. When John Hodgman was looking at the early draft, he was like, “I don’t know what this is gonna be, but keep that.” I knew it was a big moment, but then I had to resist doing too much of it. It’s so creepy, I wanted to do it again right away.

“It’s so creepy, I wanted to do it again right away.”

Morgan: You worked on a grain elevator for one harvest in Iowa. How did that impact or inspire you?

Darnielle: There was a sign at Brennan’s, the supermarket down the street, that said, “Harvest. Help Needed.” I was working part-time at the hospital, so I showed up. Basically, if you show up to do that job, they’re going to give it to you. You can learn it quickly. It just involved opening up the grates to let the trucks dump grain into the ground and moving the grain around by means of a pulley system within the corn elevator. Then the soybeans have their own separate room — it’s just a giant Morton building that they dump the beans into and form a giant mountain of soybeans. If you have something that has moisture in it in giant piles, and you don’t move it around, it’ll get hotter and hotter and will eventually rot. So you have to go up and knock down the peaks. You climb the mountains of soybeans with a shovel in your hand and knock down the peaks, and then dig around.

It’s the middle of the Iowa summer and there’s no air conditioning in the bean building. You get extremely hot in there. It’s really intense.

But I’m a liberal arts major guy, right? We grow up with the assumption that we’re not going to do manual labor. I enjoyed it to some extent, but we don’t want our jobs to take all of us. At the end of a day on the grain elevator, you don’t have a lot left. It’s a long day, and you come home and you eat dinner, and then you watch a little TV and go to bed. You don’t have a second shift where you go out and see a show or something. You’ve got to be back the next morning at seven.

At the end of that time, it started to get cold. The romance wears off real quick once it’s cold on top of the elevator. But I was glad I did it. I’d recommend it to anybody. My wife and her sister grew up detasseling in northern Iowa, which is another thing you can do to keep your hands busy. The thing is, you don’t want to be a tourist, but at the same time it’s great to work jobs if you can get a chance where you can get a sense of how other people who aren’t of your clan live their daily lives. It gives you a better sense of how people are.

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