You probably know John Darnielle as the man behind The Mountain Goats, one of the most consistent and affecting songwriters of the last 20+ years. Not content with indie rock stardom, Darnielle is also an author. His first novel, Wolf In White Van, was a complexly emotional extension of his songwriting, what we described as “a story about reality and imagination and how both can be beautiful and both can be scary and both need to be treated with care”.

Now, Darnielle is back with a second novel, Universal Harvester. Set in 90s small-town Iowa, the novel centres on Jeremy Heldt, a young man who works at the counter of the local video store. His days are quiet and predictable, the gentle rhythm of counting cash in the register, of reshelving slot returns, of waiting for the 5:30 rush as people get off work and drop in to grab their night’s entertainment. But, perhaps predictably, this rhythm doesn’t last long. A customer returns a copy of the Boris Karloff movie Targets with concerns that something’s not quite right. “There’s something on this one”, she says. And so begins a strange and ominous story in which Jeremy tries to figure out the nature of the disturbing footage that has been spliced into some of the store’s VHS tapes.

Even reading that super concise summary, you might already be forming ideas on what sort of novel this might be. But it’s not quite as simple as that. In fact, Darnielle’s narrative threatens to take one of many turn-offs as it unfolds, before veering away onto a different road entirely. The opening suggests something akin to a Mountain Goats song, a coming of age story set amidst small town loneliness and the aftermath of grief, while the appearance of the sinister home movie splices seems to signal a shift to horror. Later still we have a plucky potential love interest who wants to play detective, perhaps signalling a Stranger Things-style ‘neighbourhood (still, just) kids confront creepy goings on’ adventure.

But the truth is we don’t get any of that. Or we get all of it, it’s hard to tell. The unfolding narrative remains elusive, fractured into pieces that are too slippery or malformed to fit together into something so cohesive as a genre. Shifts in both voice and time add to this effect, stories other than Jeremy’s stitched into the narrative in a manner not unlike those creepy VHS segments.

Perhaps linked to this guessing game Darnielle plays with the reader, Universal Harvester is also preoccupied with alternate futures, of how things might have turned out different if the characters had made different decisions, had been different people. All of this is backed up with some at-times breathtaking prose, the flat, open Iowa landscape captured with a sense of sadness and foreboding. Take, for example, the following description of a house fire.

“And indeed, all the way down to the present day, Jeremy will sometimes see himself replaying the payoff he’d first imagined, that vivid unrealised presentiment: of taking matters into his own hands and turning the CLOSED sign around before sundown. Driving to Collins. Heading down a gravel road, a cloud of dust rising from his back tires as he goes towards the Titanic orange beacon of Lisa Samples house, now in flames, oil-black smoke ascending into the Iowa sky in a single furious column, the sound of the fire reaching him before he was physically near enough to hear it, the rumble and the roar”.

The Iowa landscape could be considered one of the novel’s main characters. Indeed, the only one that’s present throughout each segment. It’s refreshing to read a novel not set in New York or LA, and which treats its reader with the same kind of understated modesty that’s displayed by the families. As Colin Barrett put it in his review for The Guardian, “there is no distancing smugness, no grating whimsy and no urge to mansplain to the nation”. Darnielle is happy to pose the puzzling questions and let us ruminate on them.

Universal Harvester is out now on Scribe in the UK and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in North America.

We would usually make a mixtape of songs to accompany this book review, but this time we don’t need to go through the effort. John Darnielle has recently released a new Mountain Goats album, Goths. Get it from Merge Records or the Mountain Goats Bandcamp page.