By Sean Titone
March 24, 2017
John Darnielle is a keeper of souls. Due to his oft-stated affinity for death metal music, you would be forgiven for thinking this is meant in a demonic, macabre kind of way. But the souls Darnielle keeps are people born of his restless creative muse who may be looking for love, comfort or guidance in their own challenging personal environment. They are manifested in the music he makes with his beloved indie rock group, The Mountain Goats (who have been going strong for over twenty-five years) and, now more recently, in the novels he writes. On Thursday, March 30, Darnielle will bring some of these people to life when he reads from his new work of fiction, Universal Harvester, as part of the cutting-edge New Frequencies at McColl Center series, with a book signing to follow.
Darnielle has created so many memorable characters in his music over the years, while also waxing poetic about real-life folks like Jimi Hendrix, Mexican-American wrestler Chavo Guerrero, the actor who played Michael Myers in the Halloween films, and on his upcoming album for Merge Records entitled Goths (due May 19), Andrew Eldritch, lead singer of Goth legends The Sisters of Mercy. In his debut novel, the National Book Award-nominated best seller Wolf in White Van, the protagonist Sean Phillips is a reclusive loner who creates a fantasy role-playing game to find solace in his own life while connecting with others who, like Sean, are “young and fresh and frightened, and in need of refuge from the world.” The subjects of Darnielle’s music and fiction are a motley crew, and they are brought to vivid life with his attention to detail and affection for the misfits among us.
The critically acclaimed Universal Harvester is Darnielle’s sophomore writing effort. Set in the late 1990s, the story unfolds in Nevada (pronounced Ne-vay-da), Iowa, back when video stores were still a thing and Netflix was just a glimmer in Silicon Valley’s eye. Nostalgia, horror, and religion intertwine in the quiet cornfields of the Midwest to create an underlying feeling of dread, while Darnielle explores themes of grief, loss and the need to break free of the inertia that can come with a rural, small-town life. It begins with 22-year-old Jeremy, a young employee of the Video Hut, who discovers that someone is tampering with certain movies and splicing in creepy homemade footage that is haunting and disturbing. It’s a mystery that envelops not just Jeremy, but all of the people close to him, and the plot takes several twists and turns along the way. Like Wolf in White Van, Universal Harvester proves that Darnielle is a master of slow-burning suspense, and his gift for tapping into the full depths of humanity is on full display in his writing, just like in his colorful songs.
The Los Angeles Times recently wrote that Darnielle is “quickly becoming one of the brightest stars in American fiction,” so this is a can’t-miss event. You can also catch his band, The Mountain Goats, on tour this summer opening for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at theaters and outdoor venues all across the country, which should make for an outstanding double bill. Whether it’s with his writing or his music, let yourself be overtaken by the souls of John Darnielle, and you’ll be a better person for it.
Catch John Darnielle at New Frequencies at McColl Center on March 30.