Jennifer “Jade” Daniels is almost eighteen, works as a custodian, and is just about to graduate from Proofrock, Idaho’s Henderson High School. She’s an outsider. That horror chick. She’ll be the first one to tell you that she has a preference in all the wide world of horror for slasher movies, has an encyclopedic memory of everything from the Golden Age to the present. Better yet, Jade has synthesized all these disparate sources into a generally cohesive mythic structure better than almost any critic (maybe except for Carol J. Clover, the critic who coined the term “Final Girl”), which appears in the novel via her communications with other characters as well as a more crystalized form in “Slasher 101” a series of papers she wrote for her History teacher Mr. Holmes (never call him Sherlock).
Jade’s one dream is to see a slasher flick in real life. Now, this is not the same as the dream of another of author Jones’ teenagers, Sawyer from Jones’ novella, The Night of the Mannequins, who happens to discover he’s caught up in a slasher flick of sorts, saving his friends from the titular dummy that might be more than the lifeless hunk of manmade material it seems. No, Jade is a bored, rebellious teen with a few social, personal, and psychological problems, and she finds solace in the flicks, but she finds hope and purpose in preparing for the time when a masked maniac will come to town and start carving up folks.
Well, when her wish is seemingly granted, we get to see how Jade will really handle it.
As in many a slasher flick, the setting is a good character all its own, a source of drama and tension. Here, we have a rural community sitting alongside Indian Lake. On the far side, where a national forest and campgrounds are located (known locally as Camp Blood, of course, though Jade alone seems to get that reference), some billionaires have decided to erect McMansions in a region dubbed Terra Nova. This lot, known as the Founders by townies, fell in love with the area and want to own a part of it. Mr. Holmes suspects they are going to behave insidiously, forcing the townsfolk to see how they’ve been settling for rusty cars, and a blue-collar life, and this will foment quite a bit of socio-economic dissatisfaction and possible dissolution to the tranquility of the area. He might not be wrong.
The lake itself is shrouded in horror tale legends, of course. It sits atop Drowned Town, a submerged town (coincidentally also a location detail in Lansdale’s recent Moon Lake), where a lunatic preacher and his flock locked themselves into their church and might be haunting the place. As well, a tragically drowned girl from the days of yore, Stacey Graves, aka The Witch of the Lake, is one of those creatures that supposedly rises and kills while endlessly searching for her mother. These are both perfect red herrings or sources of costuming for a human slasher. Then again, if this slasher tale is of the supernatural slasher variety, there might be something more to their tales, right?
And then the killings start. The opening sequence is a prologue right out of a horror film. A couple of visiting Europeans who decide to skinny dip in the Lake one night and encounter someone or something horrific. Then, Mr. Holmes reveals footage of remains from a mass elk slaughter he recorded on the far side of the lake. Then, accidents and an attempted suicide all collide, one after another, overwhelming local Sheriff Hardy. Blood calls to blood, and Jade finds herself caught up in the obviousness of what’s really happening. She sees the truth no one else does. Her dream has come true: a slasher is stalking the area. Well, if that’s the case, there is one more element that is required to make the situation complete.
Letha Mondragon is one of the first gaggle of rich kids to attend school with the locals, and she’s as perfect as you can expect. Good grades, polite as hell, stylish without being slutty, probably a virgin (or close to it). She’s as likely a candidate for the Final Girl in the slasher drama that will play out. Jade decides to school her, to be the Giles the Watcher to Letha’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Unfortunately, there is no magic girl button she can push to convince Letha of this particular destiny. So, Jade attempts to broach the topic through subtle means, means that might suggest a cry for help and wind Jade up in a very difficult position with Letha, with the Sheriff and her history teacher, as well as with her drunk assed dad and his equally drunk assed best pal Rexall. So, Jade might not be Final Girl material, but she has plenty of Incidents of her own. Run ins with the law, run ins with non-sympathetic folks as well as sympathetic ones. She manages to accidentally save a kid, only to be embarrassed by the attention. She manages to annoy a metric ton of people, too. She says the things no one wants to believe or hear. She thinks the things no one normal person would conceive of. And author Stephen Graham Jones makes it all sound so … reasonable.
Last year’s The Only Good Indians is the book that made me want to read everything I can from this author. That book is a chilling supernatural novel with a terrific cast of characters and even better writing. I got shivers reading it. I laughed sometimes with the characters (never at them), and I felt empathy. I even got enough of a broken heart to shed tears at some of the more gut punching emotional moments. In short, that book gave me everything I could want from the experience of reading a novel.
With My Heart is a Chainsaw, Jones again blends a terrific empathy with his characters, whether they are teens on the cusp of adulthood or full-on adults, with cinematic imagery and a propulsive storytelling. The narrative is third person, and it provides an intimate connection with these characters. We might not know people like them, but we come to know Jade, Letha, Theo Mondragon, Sheriff Hardy, the construction worker Jade dubs Shooting Glasses on account of his yellow lenses, and others quite well. It’s a hefty number of characters. Then again, most slasher flicks need a large cast of characters to draw potential victims and suspects from.
Of course, this is not one of those slashers with a body turning up every fifteen minutes/pages. And yet, the horror elements unfold at a regular clip. Aside from that Prologue, the first few incidents could be explained away as accidents, coincidences. However, the incidents steadily build one atop another, increasing ferocity and raising the stakes all pointing the way toward a delightfully gruesome finale on the Independence Day weekend celebrations. The story is soul numbing at times, but it’s also funny and sad and frustrating (the events, never the prose), graceful, dark as hell, and ultimately beautifully told.
My Heart is a Chainsaw is a more meditative work than many slasher stories allow themselves to be, one that employs the horror subgenre as an element in an unfolding story of one woman’s growth from outsider to . . . well, I suppose she becomes an essential outsider. Jade never quite crosses over into fully accepted townie, but in the worlds of Stephen Graham Jones, his characters are seldom content to be joiners. Jade might well become the savior of the town, but she’d still be unwanted by that burg. She might outgrow the place, and move on, but there’s a part of her that will remain trapped there, just like the soul of Alice Palmer trapped in her family house as alluded to in the haunting, final shots of Lake Mungo (2008). That’s the tragedy of being from a small town, though, but Jade is anything but a moper. Over the course of this book, she becomes her own woman, an interesting character to hang out with for the four hundred pages we have here. So much so, I’d gladly give her a thousand more.
There are some parallels between this book and Jones’ previous works. Here, as in The Only Good Indians, a mass slaughter of elk plays a role in kicking off strange events properly. Here, as in The Only Good Indians, we explore the complex relationship between a Blackfeet girl and her unreliable, untrustworthy father. Here, as in The Only Good Indians, it is ultimately an unlikely teenage girl who must stand against a surreal threat to life and limb. Here, as in The Only Good Indians, a character’s personal thoughts intrude via a different sort of medium—in that book, we got ideas expressed as newspaper headlines as well as actual journalist reports from time to time; here we get school papers expressing complex combinations of slasher film qualities into an entirely personal mythos.
Obviously, the two books are not carbon copies of one another. The entire three act structure of that previous book is not present here, and My Heart is a Chainsaw zeroes in on a single character, surrounding her with a bevvy of allies and antagonists. Neither does this book have huge overlaps with works like The Coming of Night, The Night of the Mannequins or The Last Final Girl, which also demonstrate the author’s affection for slasher flicks. Nor does it have a lot in common with Jones’ “Thirteen” or Flushboy, which shows his penchant for developing interesting teenage characters through their voices. Jones just loves telling stories, and like most authors he has certain topics that stick in his craw, that need to be worked over multiple times and from multiple angles before he can ever possibly be satisfied with them. The stories are never the same, the efforts are always individual, and the thematic similarities and motifs are a part of the author’s signature.
This is a surprisingly affectionate book, a letter going out to the slashers Stephen Graham Jones dearly loves. However, My Heart is a Chainsaw is much more than a simple recreation of such things. It is a beautifully crafted novel on its own terms, relating the story of a young woman discovering how awful getting your heart’s desire can really be. It’s also a battle cry against the problems young indigenous women face as well as an empowering statement that virginity, “purity,” and bookishness are not the requirements for a woman to attain the strength of a Final Girl that movies make them seem. Perhaps courage, character, cleverness, and will are all it takes. Although a machete or chainsaw certainly helps when the chips are down and the unstoppable killer shows up on your lake front.
Next week, we visit with another author named Stephen. No not that super famous one. I’m talking about Welsh author Stephen Gregory. Valancourt released three more of his books in lovely editions, and we’ll take a look at The Waking That Kills, a novel originally released in 2013, which continues the author’s fascination with psychological horror and avians. The Waking That Kills is available in eBook and paperback editions.
Jones, Stephen Graham. My Heart is a Chainsaw. Saga Press: 2021.
“This One Goes Out to the One I Love: Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart is a Chainsaw” is copyright © 2021 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image taken from the Saga Press hardcover edition.
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