My Heart is a Chainsaw: Jones nails the slasher-film tone perfectly

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham JonesMy Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham JonesMy Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

There is so much to like in Stephen Graham JonesMy Heart is a Chainsaw (2021): a can’t-help-but-root-for-her main character, a prom-worthy bucketload of slasher-film references, a wry and sometimes bitingly funny narrative voice, so many red herrings the reader’s gonna need a bigger boat, deftly handled themes exploring race, gentrification, class, parenting (familial and communal), and trauma, and a climax that contains more blood than you can hold in a bank of elevators. So much to like, in fact, that my only real criticism is that there’s too much here, leading to a book that despite its many positives unfortunately begins to feel it has, like Jason or Michael, overstayed its welcome.

Jade (real name Jennifer, but don’t ever call her that) Daniels is your classic alienated, lonely, dark-minded outcast teen about to graduate — kinda sorta — high school in her stifling small town of Proofrock, Idaho, where she lives with her drunkard dad who pays her little attention and none of it positive. Jade is obsessed, and I mean obsessed, with slasher films; they color nearly her every thought, her every conversation, and all of her “extra-credit” assignments for her retiring history teacher (though given that she doesn’t really do any homework, the “extra” is a bit of a misnomer — thus the kinda sorta graduation).

Jade has been waiting and planning her whole teen life for a slasher event and things in town, which like all good slasher settings, has its own dark history, seem to be pointing that way: outsiders have arrived in the form of a cabal of millionaires who bought up national forest land across the lake to put up their mansions, a pair of international tourists have gone missing, a number of elk were killed in mysterious fashion, and the town is about to hold its annual big Independence Day celebration (a big party being a requisite element of slasher films, as she explains in one of her extra-credit pieces). The clincher is the arrival of Leta Mondragon, whom Jade sees as the incarnate form of the Final Girl: the indomitable, virginal, female survivor of every slasher film and someone whom Jade needs to prepare using all of her arcane knowledge.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones

My Heart is a Chainsaw takes the form of tight-third person point-of-view chapters (each titled by a slasher film) focused on Jade’s chronological narrative, interrupted by regular inter-chapters whereby Jade writes what amounts to a treatise on slashers films for her teacher, explaining, for instance, how revenge lies at the core of all slasher films, what a final girl is, what the required elements of slashers are, and so forth. I’m not sure we needed so many inter-chapters, but generally the structure works in several fashions: to help us see the prism through which Jade views events, to increase tension via interruption, to make us question if events are following or subverting expectations, and finally, as an insightful, concise, and engagingly written overview of the genre, even outside the context of the novel itself, though it also serves as a useful glossary for readers not so well-versed in the genre.

Jade is a fantastic main character whose voice always feels like an angst-filled teen girl, in tone, in vocabulary, in allusion. An outsider looking at people/things from the edge and unwilling as well to look too far inside herself, she’s angry, bitter, funny, and traumatized, her obsession both armor and passion. While that obsession drives the novel in content and structure, it’s also one of the pitfalls of the novel in that her unfailing, constant single-mindedness, to the exclusion of nearly all else, can become admittedly both overwhelming and wearying over the book’s length. Nothing in her demeanor, her attitude, her suicidal tendencies and attempts, her cutting, her half-Indian heritage, her hair-dying-strange-clothes-wearing-weird-stuff-dangling look says “hero,” and yet here she is, a middle-finger to the stereotypical idea of the virginal, white, compliant final girl. Though she, of course, thanks to her issues, can see herself only as the help behind the scenes, not the hero. The reader will recognize her defense mechanisms for what they are and guess at possible reasons for her focus on revenge and justice in her discussions of slasher films, all of which make one feel all the more urgently that this story ends well for her.

Other characters get far less page time, but several in particular stand out. One is the local Sheriff, Sheriff Hardy, who gives her as much rope as he can, not to hang herself with but to try and keep her tethered to society, taking on a father-figure role (though Jade, of course, would fiercely reject such a characterization), much more so than her own dad. Her history teacher plays a bit of the same role in her life, though we see far less of him, save for a pivotal few scenes. Finally, there is Leta, who comes across, as noted, as the perfect Final Girl (though, as Jade notes, one of the extremely rare Black ones). Her perfection is layered pretty thick, maybe even a tad too much so, though one needs to keep in mind it’s filtered through Jade’s not-always reliable and clearly skewed narration.

The plot begins with a bang, then moves a bit slowly as the stage is set, the characters introduced, relationships made clear, and then it gradually gains speed until exploding into fierce and bloody action. As with any slasher, the body count grows as the story progresses, becoming startlingly high by the end. Jones offers up an at times bewildering number of potential killers, motivations, and possibly relevant legends and history, along with the requisite twists and turns. Here, again, I’d argue some streamlining would have improved things. And I’d say the same with the number of endings, which while clearly meant to mirror the “oh good he’s dead, oh crap he isn’t dead” trope of slashers, still goes on a bit too long for me.

Really, my only complaint about My Heart is a Chainsaw is it’s too long/throws too much at the reader, but the impact of that issue is pretty big, which is why the rating (though I struggle between a 3.4 and a 4.0). That said, I absolutely love the final scene, which cuts like a knife/machete/chainsaw through the heart. I just wish we could have gotten there a bit earlier (which, come to think of it, is often how I feel in a slasher film, so maybe Jones nailed it perfectly).

Published in August 2021. In her quickly gentrifying rural lake town Jade sees recent events only her encyclopedic knowledge of horror films could have prepared her for in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, New York Times bestselling author Stephen Graham Jones. “Some girls just don’t know how to die…” Shirley Jackson meets Friday the 13th in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, written by the author of The Only Good Indians Stephen Graham Jones, called “a literary master” by National Book Award winner Tananarive Due and “one of our most talented living writers” by Tommy Orange. Alma Katsu calls My Heart Is a Chainsaw “a homage to slasher films that also manages to defy and transcend genre.” On the surface is a story of murder in small-town America. But beneath is its beating heart: a biting critique of American colonialism, Indigenous displacement, and gentrification, and a heartbreaking portrait of a broken young girl who uses horror movies to cope with the horror of her own life. Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold. Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges…a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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