What if you took a dull, relatively simple job to earn some money and get yourself away from your painful home situation, and then you discovered that this dull, simple job was opening you up to a truly disturbing mystery? That’s the premise of Universal Harvester by John Darnielle.
Jeremy, our protagonist, lives in a small town in Iowa, and he’s working at the local Video Hut (remember when people watched videos? Remember when you would go to the video store to rent a video for the night?). The business is under serious threat from the nearby Blockbuster video store (remember when Blockbuster was a big deal?), but Jeremy still has his set of regular customers, and it’s mostly a quiet, relaxing job, outside of the afternoon rush, so he’s content. It gets him out of the house he shares with his father, and the memories of his mother’s death in a car accident six years before.
Things get a little strange when a customer returns a particular video and complains that there’s something wrong with it, and not the usual “it’s skipping,” or “it’s sticking” or “it won’t play right.” No, the complaint is that there’s something else on the tape besides the movie. Which would be odd enough by itself, but which becomes stranger when yet another customer, with another movie, comes in with the same complaint about something else being on the tape. This time Jeremy watches the tape, and, sure enough, there IS something else on the tape. In the middle of the movie, the screen goes blank and then there’s a black and white scene shot inside a barn, the only soundtrack the sound of someone breathing faintly. There’s nothing overtly sinister about the scene, and yet there’s something that unsettles Jeremy enough to make him watch this scene over and over. He investigates the other tape, and there’s an interruption on that tape as well, not the same scene but clearly one shot by the same person, in the same barn. And Jeremy thinks he recognizes that barn as one on the outskirts of town.
And now Jeremy can’t ignore what he’s seen, can’t forget the odd familiarity of the setting of the scenes and the strangeness of their being inserted into VHS rental tapes. Now he has to investigate more deeply, and his familiar, even boring, world turns into a strange and foreboding place filled with mysteries that might be better off left alone.