John Darnielle, one of the most acclaimed lyricists of our generation, is most well-known for being the singer/songwriter for the group the Mountain Goats. Also an accomplished novelist, he’s just released his third book, Universal Harvester, a small-town horror story set in the early 2000s that kicks off with a video store employee finding disturbing footage recorded over one of the films in his catalogue. I had the chance to talk to John about horror, film, and even a bit of music.
Do you think it’s important to tell horror stories?
For me, I think it’s just because it connects me to… It’s a safe place for exploring things. I think a lot of people who are into horror have some degree of trauma they want to process. I talked to [producer] John Congleton about this. It’s a safe place to experience stuff that wouldn’t be safe if you had to go through it in real life. It makes you feel a little more in control, in a sort of weird, unmoored way.
In good horror, there’s always some feeling of having become destabilized, or not knowing where you’re situated. You don’t find that anywhere else, except maybe in poetry.
So what would you say are some of your favorite horror stories?
I’ve always been more of a book guy. So Robert Aickman is great. Dennis Etchison, I feel like people haven’t given enough credit to. He wrote some really wicked short horror stories. Etchison had one called The Pitch that really just gave me the creeps forever. Another one that was called Sitting In The Corner, Whimpering Quietly. Those are really good stories. A lot of suggestion, a lot of having to put things together.
The first Hellraiser movie left big marks on me. It was so dour. That’s the thing. I like a lot of Universal horror. Karloff’s a genius, James Whale’s a genius, Todd Browning’s a genius. But all those, they’re fairly firm: The world you’re in has heroes and villains. I like ambiguity. That’s what I like, is somebody like Leatherface. That’s probably my favorite movie ever, Texas Chain Saw Massacre. How can you be angry at Leatherface? He’s outside of your ideas of a good or bad person. If you’re angry at Leatherface, you’re not understanding him. He’s somebody from a different order. My whole take on Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that it’s actually a Greek tragedy, and the people from outside the house are trying to understand it with terms that don’t apply.
People like Pinhead, who… Their values are different, to put it in a really mundane way. You can’t argue with them, because your whole alphabet is different. I like that tension. It’s like watching monsters clash, but it’s actually ideologies.
Mentioning the ambiguity of effective horror, I feel like you evoked a lot of that in Universal Harvester. Was there a conscious influence?
A little. It’s a corny thing to say, that I always want to not be saying, ‘cause you get a lot of finger-waggy people saying “Horror’s better when it suggests than when it shows too much,” but you know, I like slasher movies too. It’s fine to just show and be gory. Gory stuff is super cool. But at the same time, if you look at the masters, you look at Lovecraft-- His whole deal is that he suggests that there’s going to be some gigantic reveal and he never shows you what you’re looking at. It’s the sounds of things out of the frame. It’s just creepy. When I was writing the book, I didn’t really know where I was going until I got to the interpolated scenes on the tapes, and I thought it was scarier to describe it if it had no context. I started thinking about what’s scary to me. And the incomprehensible is what’s scary, right?
The idea that you go to a video rental store, rent a tape, and then it’s got this weird footage spliced in there, that’s more upsetting to me than if I’d just stumbled across this footage on its own. Why do you think that is?
I think it has to do with… You know the last scene in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the ‘78 one, where she runs into Donald Sutherland and she’s happy to see him. That legendary scene, she thinks “Oh we survived,” and then he points his finger and you realize he’s actually one of them, now. That scene, it’s this perversion of your expectations, right?
If you’re watching a movie, there’s a contract between you and the movie, that the movie’s going to be itself. You’ve contracted to be in the presence of this work for 90 minutes or whatever. When you’re absorbed, you’re in the dark maybe, to have something break in is sacrilegious, in a way. It’s like somebody just started to talk in church. It’s a violation.
It’s a violation of trust, for sure.
It’s a violation of narrative! The movie is telling a story, these scenes don’t tell you anything. They’re sort of like the sound of somebody crying out for attention, but they’re not able to tell you why they want the attention in the first place. Stuff that, no matter what you do with it, you can’t make sense of it.
Universal Harvester, where does that title come from?
Well, first it’s just a scary-sounding term [laughs]. But in Ames, I drove past, on the highway at some point, a Universal Harvester. Universal Harvester sounds like a Marvel comic book villain in the '70s. It’s the guy that just comes in and mows everybody down. There’s this company, they’ve got parts for these harvesters. Presumably it just means the parts are interchangeable with other people’s harvesters. But it sounds like something that’s going to come along and destroy a lot of stuff. I had the title sitting around in my head, but I didn’t know it was going to be for this book.
After a while, I remembered the sign off Highway 30, and I thought about how it sounds like something that has to refer to death. So I liked that.
Universal Harvester is a sort of period piece. It takes place in the late '90s?
Right. It’s bizarre, but even the year 2000 feels so different and so technologically dated now, having just read the book, I felt like it took place in an earlier decade.
[laughs] It’s the close of the VHS era. It’s because digital took over so completely. That’s why you think that way.
Sometimes you can’t remember a time before DVDs. That era got erased. And it was not that long an era. People started getting VCRs in ‘84, ‘85, and it was over by 2002.
Around the time that was all phased out, there was a lot of change. It’s when we started carrying cell phones, when the internet became a more day-to-day part of life.
High-speed went nationwide, and the ability to document your own existence. All of the technology of that era aged very quickly, as soon as digital became the norm. This all plays into what’s going on in the book.
Pre-internet, the world in which the scenes in the book are being interpolated, that’s a world of mystery. That all goes away, when the times shift.
If Universal Harvester was to receive, say, a film adaptation, what would that soundtrack look like? If you had to score it, being set in the early 2000s, what would you pick?
What’s a guy like Jeremy playing when he’s listening to the radio? It’s probably stuff like Mudvayne, and Sepultura.
I think when people are soundtracking books, they just want to name music they like, right? But I think a more appropriate soundtrack would be one that sounds like Iowa sounded then. So it’d be a combination of… 2001-ish, that’s the era of big rap videos. Mase, and Puff Daddy, and that stuff. A lot of Iowa kids were listening to that. Jeremy Heldt strikes me as a pretty conservative dude, so I think he’s probably more listening to modern country, like Trisha Yearwood. Garth Brooks was giant back then. You know what I would wanna put in, on Jeremy’s radio, is the Chris Gaines album.
My first thought was nu-metal, because Papa Roach was big then. But the other thing a lot of people listened to was modern country, and that strikes me as more Jeremy’s speed. The Chris Gaines record was interesting, because it was Garth Brooks doing a persona… I thought it was a really good record, to be honest. [laughs]
But I think it would be cool if it sounded like the radio sounded in Iowa then.
For being on the spot, you scored that really well.
Well, I think about music a lot. [laughs]
What do you think is the most important quality for a person to have, and for a character to have?
JD: I think a character needs to grow in some way, in the story. And obviously it’s important in life. If you’re not growing, you’re stagnating, and that becomes painful as you age. We see it in a lot of people, by generation, who just stop listening to new music. They become unable to resist the call of nostalgia. Which I totally get. When you hear the music that was important to you, or see the movies that were formative for you, when you were a teenager or something, they’re always gonna have a very special call for you, because you spent that time with them already. They’re richer text than something new. And once you learn all the tropes of something, you see them working before they had a chance to work on you. Whereas the first time you see Bride of Frankenstein and you’re ten years old, all that stuff is new. It’s shocking.
I think it’s important for a character to grow, and for a person to grow.
There’s a lot of places where characters and people diverge. A person ought to be taking stock of his past and hopefully becoming a better person all the time. But it’s kind of more interesting in a book if the character maybe doesn’t become a better person. There’s a character in Universal Harvester, there’s a point past which she can’t grow. For a person to be like that, you know, it’s not something that’s desirable. But in a character, you want someone to have these problems, these ghosts.