Reviews

“Horror’s Not a Symptom, It’s a Love Affair”: My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

            Stephen Graham Jones’ 2020 novel The Only Good Indians burst onto award lists, personal favorites, and—to date—is his breakout success after what was already a compelling career. Following it with something a little different, My Heart is a Chainsaw reads like a love letter to the slasher genre (particularly of the 80s), how they can change and save a person’s life, and what it would be like to live through one.

            The key aspect is that our protagonist, Jade—not Jennifer—Daniels wants her moment in slasher gory. Her small town of Proofrock, Idaho is undergoing the swift change of gentrification across Indian Lake as titans of industry build on what should be sacred land. Life within the town itself isn’t all that great, either, since she’s a social outcast for her love of horror, her style, her half-indigenous heritage, and her family too. When Letha Mondragon moves to town, Jade instantly knows something violent is about to begin. It’s not every day a Final Girl in the making shows up. Who is behind the growing body count? Should Jade put a stop to it, or allow the slasher cycle to play out like her favorite movies?

            The novel is written in a stream of consciousness style using Jade’s voice, theories, conspiracies, and love and knowledge of horror to guide many of the scenes. This type of writing does have pros and cons. The pro is that it really allows us to get inside Jade’s head and understand her emotions, how she sees the world, and feel as paranoid as she does. For horror lovers, her constant references to slasher films will provide easy allusions or analogies to understand what’s going on. She also has a wicked sense of humor, edged with the right amount of justified bitterness. The cons are if Jade’s voice doesn’t jibe with you (by about 50 pages I’d say) then this will be a harder read to get into for its length. Stream of consciousness also weighs down the pacing, creates some confusion when clarity would work better, and doesn’t always work depending on the action. While I enjoy the horror references because I’ve seen most of the films, a person who hasn’t might feel alienated. The voice helps us understand Jade on a level, but it also chooses what information she wants to hide, to know, and to show in a given moment.

            Since I’ve already mentioned the pacing, let’s get into structure. This is a hefty horror novel at 416 pages. About 60% of that is build-up, 15% is the action-oriented climax, and 25% is pre-climax action. Many readers are turned off by the slow pacing of the book which, in tandem with Jade’s voice, boggles down what should be a slick plot. Most slashers are quick, gritty, and bloody but this book takes it time in establishing history, lore, backstories, and Jade’s theories. This could be because this is book one in a duology and some of that will later come into play in the sequel, but it doesn’t necessarily do the first too many favors. Parts of the structure include assignments and letters Jade has written on slashers to give context and understanding (from an academic perspective or for the unknowing), and I really liked this. It was another way of using her voice, helped show the relationship she had with history teacher Mr. Holmes, and gave readers information that was helpful at certain points in the novel.

            While I won’t spoil the climax here, I do want to address it. Jones deliberately uses Jade’s knowledge of slashers against her at times. Since she has such a wide knowledge she knows the killer could be so many different culprits and that creates a lot of red herrings. You may assume the killer is one person at a certain moment and then a second later that’s not true. She has good instincts. However, the reveal in the climax still struck me as sudden, even with some exposition, and I’d have to read the book again to see if there had been more foreshadowing I’d lost in that stream of consciousness. And, as with all slashers, even after the end it’s not really the end—and that’s where I kind of shook my head because it was ridiculous in a way that might work onscreen but seemed a bit off on the page. Although, the final image was captivating.

            Most of the characters are, on some level, playing with popular tropes and stereotypes of slasher films. Jade is our Randy from Scream or the Harbinger, warning people about the dangers and how to survive. She casts Letha as the Final Girl by power of the girl’s inherent beauty, virtue, and kindness (and ability to catch a machete). We have Sheriff Hardy, and you know the law is useless or untrustworthy in slashers. The people of Proofrock and Founders from Terra Nova aren’t too fleshed out beyond the stereotypical haves and have nots, but it still creates an interesting dynamic. Tab, Jade’s father, plays antagonist as she tries to avoid him unless impossible. So, on one hand, if you’re familiar with slashers, you’ll be tempted to play along and typecast these characters. Yet, on the other, none of them cleanly fit and, by the end, none of that matters. After all, how often do you see two women of color working together against a slasher?

            Jade is a complex character in some ways, and stereotypical in others. A good amount of power in the narrative comes from what makes her unlikeable and how, by the end, you gain an understanding of her reasoning and why she feels the way she does. While the dyed-hair, suicidal, angsty teen who loves horror is something we’ve seen before, this feels like a kind of extreme. Jade wants to live in a slasher and all that entails, and she’s cavalier about the causalities that come with that desire. She’s defensive and keeps her distance from others. For readers who don’t feel the same about subjecting an entire town to a slasher, her thoughts can be horrifying in their own way. Eventually, though, we see how this type of catharsis was what she found necessary.

            As for violence and horror-goodness, it delivers in satisfying ways. If you’re familiar with Jaws then the beginning will hook you. Smaller moments of tension or backstory during that 60% build create good imagery. Keen readers will be able to tell where Jones is paying homage to what and how. A few of the deaths at Camp Blood (Winnemucca) seem inspired by a montage of famous camp slashers such as The Burning or Friday the 13th. Jade often quotes horror films to herself and fantasizes moments of terror in the every day. Once we get to that last 40% of the book, the violence builds and we have some great moments of horror using a variety of weapons and tools (one death played out in my mind slow-mo Final Destination style), a claustrophobic scene filled with revulsion you can practically smell, and a dizzying climax that is a bit hard to follow but delivers on the body count. Basically, if you love slashers and all the possible and inexplicable ways people can die—naturally and unnaturally—then you’ll find something to enjoy.

            Lastly, let’s talk overall plot. I saved this for last because—in most slashers—the plot is fairly simple. Something happens in the past, something happens in the present to recall the past, death, death, death, one night of super violence (usually a party), and then the Final Girl caps the slasher. While at its most basic, My Heart is a Chainsaw still follows this plot, it develops its world and characters beyond the necessary scope of a slasher. We have more background on Proofrock, Indian Lake, and the Terra Nova development than we normally would have. We’re told local legends and lore: Camp Blood, Lake Witch, Drown Town, a fire. All of this creates a well-developed, breathing place that feels more real than most slashers. That said, at least 100 pages somewhere could have been cut to make this more streamlined. Depending on how certain elements play in the sequel, a lot of the given information might have been unnecessary and it seems as if the references, the assignments, and Jade’s unreliability as a narrator play against a lot of the book’s strengths in deconstructing the slasher genre for some readers.

            My Heart is a Chainsaw is a complicated, ambitious novel that showcases how our love of fiction can oftentimes bleed into and overcome our reality. It tackles systems of power, oppression, discrimination, abuse, and trauma. It will work best for readers who love stream of consciousness narratives and can handle a teenage protagonist with a massive chip on her shoulder. Readers who are savvy in slasher films and horror tropes will find a friend in Jade. People from Western towns afraid of gentrification can live out their revenge fantasies here. Lastly, those who can’t imagine surviving a horror film or being the Final Girl should read this to unlock Jade’s secrets to making it out alive. If you’re looking for a book with hidden depths, then save a copy today.