In 'Universal Harvester,' Mountain Goats Lyricist Reaps A Creepy Crop

Feb 7, 2017
Originally published on February 7, 2017 6:47 am

"I think you work harder if you're haunted by some small darkness," says John Darnielle. And if the work he's produced is any indication, Darnielle is one haunted man.

Across several albums with his band, The Mountain Goats, Darnielle has written distinctive lyrics that are gloomy and full of wry humor. Lately, his storytelling has taken a different form: novels. His latest, Universal Harvester, takes place in the late 1990s in the small town of Nevada (pronounced Nev-ay-da), Iowa, near where Darnielle used to live. Its main character, Jeremy Heldt, is still grieving for his mother, who died six years earlier in a car accident. He's working as a video store clerk when he makes an unsettling discovery: Someone has been splicing weird, dark and sometimes violent home movies into the store's videos.

Darnielle used some tricks of the horror trade to write the book, but he tells NPR's David Greene that it's more than a horror novel. "This is an examination of grief," he says, "and ... grief is horrific — that moment that you have in the early going ... where you realize that nothing you do can bring back the thing or the person that you have been brought to grieve. That's what horror is, you know, that's that moment of helplessness."


Interview Highlights

On the origin of the book's title, Universal Harvester

It's the people who make combine harvesters. And it might have been International Harvester, which is a big company, but I remember driving out to Ames, [Iowa,] or Nevada and seeing a corporate headquarters that I believed at the time, just in passing, said Universal Harvester. And, you know, I'm me, I'm into words. Universal Harvester? I mean that sounds just deadly, you know, it just sounds very, very ominous to me. Because what is the Universal Harvester? Obviously, it's the skeleton in the cowl and cloak carrying the scythe — that's your Universal Harvester right there.

On how he became a fan of horror, and what kind of horror he likes

I think it comes in part from having a heavy resistance to it when I was a kid. I was, like, legitimately afraid of horror stuff when I was small. The first movie that I ever saw in the theater was The Wizard of Oz, and when they get to the wizard's room and his face is there with the firepots either side of him, I ran from the theater. I was so afraid. ...

So when I got a little older, I start wanting to approach the stuff that is frightening to me. So I have the same attraction of putting your hand into a fire, you know, that you sort of want to go: How long can I stand it? But then I discovered that what I like, the place I like to be, is before I get to the stuff; so stand in the near presence of the thing I don't want to see ... and maintain that distance.

I'm not into the torture porn style stuff. I mean, I'll watch any horror movie pretty much, but the stuff where it's like how much of this can you stand to see? That's not what I want. I want that glimmering moment from before the thing you don't want to see happens. I want that moment of dread.

On why he thought Iowa, and specifically its corn fields, would make a good horror setting

If you grow up on the West Coast, which I did, the first time you drive for 10 minutes and see nothing but corn, I mean it's like being in a movie. And if you drive all the way through Iowa like that, it'll really strike you. ... For people who aren't from there, they are naturally kind of frightened by this unknown thing.

People always talk about: What is scary? Well, the unknown is scary. And what don't most people these days know a lot about? They don't know what it's like to be out among rows of corn. They don't know, right? They haven't been. If they have, it's been once at Halloween in a corn maze, you drive out there and do that, you know.

But you haven't just walked out a good 10 minutes so that you are now far from the road. I have done that, and you just walk out and you go, "Oh, wow." And if you're me, then you go, "Well, if somebody shot me here nobody would ever find me." It's like, this is the first thing that comes to my mind is like, wow, you could abandon a body here. [Martin] Scorsese uses this in Goodfellas, right? Take somebody out in the cornfield; they're not likely to be found for a while.


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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And our next guest offered up this bit of wisdom just after he sat down for our interview.

JOHN DARNIELLE: I think you work harder if you're haunted by some small darkness.

GREENE: Lovely bit of advice there. Well, considering all the work John Darnielle has produced, he is probably one haunted man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP THE WOLVES")

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) There's bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet no matter where you live.

GREENE: So John Darnielle is a musician. He's the lead in the band The Mountain Goats. And he has brought us these distinctive lyrics - part gloom, part light, part wry humor. But recently he's taken on a different form - writing novels. His latest is called "Universal Harvester." And if that sounds a little mysterious, well, it's meant to. Darnielle wanted to use some tricks of the horror trade in this book. One reviewer said the novel reads like "Twilight Zone" scripts cut together by a poet. The setting is an actual town in Iowa - Nevada - and that's near where Darnielle used to live.

Let's just set the plot in motion here. Darnielle rewinds back to the late '90s and a video store. You remember those when you had to check out movies on a VHS to watch them at home? Well, there's this young clerk there named Jeremy. And he makes this unsettling discovery. Someone had spliced secret footage, like home movie footage, on the store's rental videos. And I asked John Darnielle to read from that moment.

DARNIELLE: (Reading) At first he had to turn the volume up to hear whether there was even any sound at all. There was, but not much. A little wind across the camera's microphone, the audible rise and fall of a person breathing. There was a timecode in the corner scrolling along. The date read 00-00-0000. There didn't seem to be much else to see. But then the breathing sound quickened, and movements began breaking roughly through the dark.

GREENE: John, you've got the creepy read going.

DARNIELLE: (Laughter).

GREENE: I mean, this does speak to you being a fan of horror...

DARNIELLE: Sure.

GREENE: ...And that genre and drawing from writers in that genre. Where does that come from?

DARNIELLE: I think it comes in part from having a heavy resistance to it when I was a kid. I was like legitimately afraid of horror stuff when I was small. The first movie that I ever saw in a theater was "The Wizard Of Oz." And when they get to the Wizard's room and his face is there with the fire pots at either side of him...

GREENE: Yeah.

DARNIELLE: ...I ran from the theater. I was so afraid. And I remember my father coming outside to tell me, you know, that, no, it's OK, it's - everybody's going to be OK. And I didn't want to go back in. So when I got a little older, I start wanting to approach the stuff that is frightening to me. You sort of have a - the same attraction of putting your hand into a fire, you know, that you sort of want to go, well, how long can I stand it? You know, but I discovered that what I like, the place I like to be is before I get to the stuff I - so stand in the near presence of the thing I don't want to see.

GREENE: The near presence, but never actually confront it, is that...

DARNIELLE: Yeah, and maintain that distance. I'm not into the torture porn style stuff. I mean, I'll watch any horror movie pretty much. But the stuff where it's like how much of this can you stand to see? That's not what I want. I want that glimmering moment from before the thing you don't want to see happens. I want that moment of dread.

GREENE: I mean, the horrors in this book, they feel very real. And people go through the horrors and have to experience the pain. I mean, I'm thinking of the car accident that killed Jeremy's mom when he was just 16 years old.

DARNIELLE: Horror is only - is a trope in this book. This is not a horror novel. This is an examination of grief - right? - and that's what it's about. And grief is horrific. That moment that you have in the early going, if you're grieving something, where you realize that nothing you do can bring back the thing or the person that you have been brought to grieve. That's what horror is, you know, that's that moment of helplessness.

GREENE: Why set the story in small town Iowa?

DARNIELLE: I lived in Colo, my wife and I. And I always like to say a town of 773 people when we lived there and 771 after we left. And it was when you first - if you grow up on the West Coast, which I did, the first time you drive for 10 minutes and see nothing but corn, I mean, it's like being in a movie. And if you drive all the way through Iowa like that, it'll really strike you.

GREENE: This doesn't seem like the automatic landscape you would say I'm going to write a horror book there, I mean, but what made it come together so perfectly?

DARNIELLE: For people who aren't from there, they are naturally kind of frightened by this unknown thing. People always talk about what is scary? Well, the unknown is scary. And what don't most people these days know a lot about? They don't know what it's like to be out among rows of corn. They don't know, right? They haven't been. If they have, it's been once a Halloween in a corn maze. You drive out there and do that, you know. But you haven't just walked out a good 10 minutes so that you are now far from the road. But I have done that. And you just walk out and you go, oh, wow. And if you're me, then you go, well, if somebody shot me here, nobody would ever find me (laughter). It's like this is the first thing that comes to my mind is like, wow, you could abandon a body here. Scorsese uses this in "Goodfellas," right? You know, take somebody out in the cornfield. They're not likely to be found for a while.

GREENE: When you were in Iowa, you were working at a grain elevator. I mean, is that...

DARNIELLE: Well - oh, briefly. I did one harvest on a grain elevator. That was all I was good for.

GREENE: (Laughter).

DARNIELLE: I am proud that I did it. You know, it's like - but physically it's very demanding work. You get stronger while you do it, but there are certain types of people who just want to do physically demanding work, and there's other people like us who want to yammer on about what they thought about the demanding work, right?

(LAUGHTER)

DARNIELLE: So - but, you know it mean, it's like I did it...

GREENE: Yeah.

DARNIELLE: ...But I remember the day that I put it in notice, my supervisor said, yeah, I had a feeling you were getting short. He could just...

(LAUGHTER)

DARNIELLE: Which I love that phrase.

GREENE: Without giving too much away, "Universal Harvester," that title...

DARNIELLE: Yeah.

GREENE: ...What is it?

DARNIELLE: It's the people who make combine harvesters. And it might have been International Harvester, which is a big company, but I remember driving out to Ames or Nevada and seeing a corporate headquarters that I believed at the time just in passing said Universal Harvester. And, you know, I'm me. I'm into words, you know? Universal harvester, I mean, that sounds just deadly. You know, it just sounds very, very ominous to me (laughter). You know, it's like because what is the universe harvester? Obviously it's the, you know, the guy - the skeleton in the cowl and cloak carrying the scythe. That's your universal harvester right there, you know?

GREENE: Yeah. And you said those words are deadly. It's not often you hear an author saying I'm going to use a deadly phrase to - for my book title.

DARNIELLE: Well, I have very heavy Goth tendencies.

(LAUGHTER)

DARNIELLE: And I think things that are not immediately comprehensible are frightening. And that's the appeal of a phrase like universal harvester, it rolls right off the tongue. But what does it really mean? You don't know right away. You have to ask. And when you ask questions, you might run into things that are kind of threatening, and I like that.

GREENE: John, it's been a real pleasure. Best of look with the book, really great talking to you.

DARNIELLE: Oh, same here, thank you so much. It was really a pleasure for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP THE WOLVES")

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome, but there's going to be a party when the wolf comes home.

GREENE: That was John Darnielle, the front man from the band The Mountain Goats. And his new book is called "Universal Harvester." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.