A clutch of adulterated rental cassettes pushes two video-store workers into a journey of discovery.
Nevada, Iowa, circa 2000: Jeremy is drowsing through his job at Video Hut when patrons start tipping him to VHS tapes with eerie scenes spliced in. There's just some darkness and breathing in one, but another alarmingly depicts someone painting runic figures on a hooded person. In the era of The Blair Witch Project, it’s easy to fear the worst. But instead of contacting the authorities, Jeremy and his boss, Sarah Jane, conduct a freelance investigation that draws Sarah Jane to an isolated farm that seems to match the scenes; in short order, Sarah Jane is cohabitating with its sole occupant, Lisa. Singer/songwriter Darnielle’s second novel (Wolf in White Van, 2014) opens like a dark suspense story; his descriptions of the VHS scenes are written in a deadpan style to evoke maximum dread. But he ultimately pursues a softer and more nuanced exploration of family and loss. Pointedly, both Jeremy and Lisa have lost their mothers, one to a car accident, another to a religious cult, and Darnielle is interested in the ways they fill their emotional gaps through work, art, or spiritual seeking. Darnielle’s prose is consistently graceful and empathetic, though plotwise the novel sometimes sputters: the story of Lisa’s mother, for instance, is buried in exposition that sheds little light on her motivations for abandoning her family. (And even if the point is that such things are unknowable, it takes a long time to get there.) Regardless, Darnielle is operating mainly on a metaphorical plane, and by setting his novel in the be-kind-rewind era, he makes an affecting point that so much of what we know, feel, and remember about our families disappears too easily, as if stored on media we lack the devices to play.
A smart and rangy yarn: file under suspense, horror, and domestic drama.