The Horror Show: Stephen Graham Jones’s self-aware metafictional slasher The Last Final Girl

Stephen Graham Jones’s 2012 novel displays a true fan’s knowledge about the slasher subgenre

In the annals of slasher films, 1996 is a pivotal year. That was the year Dimension Films released Scream, the first pairing of iconic director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. (The two would reteam for 2005’s deconstructionist werewolf movie Cursed.) Prior to Scream, slashers had ceased being a huge draw at the box office, with staunch 1980s franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Child’s Play sequels devolving into self-parody and irrelevance.

Then, in 1994, a strange thing happened. Wes Craven released a new instalment in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise: the first written and directed by him since the original a decade earlier. The film was called Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and it took a postmodern, self-referential approach to the material, with a plot that involved the creators of the original movie – including stars Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund alongside Craven, all of them playing versions of themselves – being stalked in their dreams by a maniacal and vengeful Freddy Krueger (also played by Englund). Wes Craven’s New Nightmare surprised critics by being a smart, self-reflexive commentary on the history of the franchise, as well as being the scariest and most emotionally intense entry in the series since the first film.

What it wasn’t was a box office success. That would take Williamson, with his almost preternatural understanding of the adolescent psyche and argot who took the postmodern elements of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and applied them to a hip, of-the-moment high school story about a group of good looking, fast talking kids being stalked and slaughtered one by one by a psychotic killer in a ghost mask. It also added some much needed humour to Craven’s formula, which largely played the concept straight. The idea of a film full of characters who understood horror films and were able to comment on them as they got picked off provided a level of irony that injected new life into the subgenre and reinvigorated its financial potential.

One of the people on whom Scream made an indelible impression was Texas novelist Stephen Graham Jones, who admits to attending the film seven nights in a row, each time waiting for the murderer to utter one of the script’s iconic lines: ”Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.”

The line is so central to Jones that it actually appears as a blurb on the cover of the author’s 2012 postmodern homage, The Last Final Girl. It’s an appropriate reference, as Jones’s novel is so self-aware it almost hurts. The story, which is cast as a shooting script for a movie, begins with a massacre and the death of the killer at the hands of a final girl. In other words, Jones opens his novel where most slashers end. The rest of the book is in effect a sequel to the film we have stumbled upon just as the climax unfolds.

And as a sequel, it obeys the rules set down by Randy (played by Jamie Kennedy) in Scream 2: the body count is higher, the kills are more violent, ”and number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.” All three rules will come into play before Jones’s novel is done, with one further twist. The final girl from the initial scene is prom queen and, as such, gets to pick her court. In so doing, she names a roster of teens, each of whom has the requisite qualities of a final girl in her own right. “They’re all final girls,” thinks Izzy, who is set up as the protagonist, though Jones’s conceit assumes that no one is safe from the clutches of the deranged killer.

And about that killer: he wears a rubber Michael Jackson mask and is referred to as Billie Jean.

In addition to being a virtual encyclopedia of references to genre and genre-adjacent films – the novel name-checks everything from Halloween and Psycho to down-and-dirty ’80s grindhouse fare like The Burning and The New York Ripper – Jones’s book owes a debt to academic Carol J. Clover’s analysis of the final girl phenomenon in slasher films, though he ultimately goes Clover one better by setting up his climax as a de facto battle royale featuring a group of final girls.

Throughout, Jones peppers the narrative with self-conscious dialogue that nods to his chosen era of film history in a way that will appeal to buffs who get the references but may annoy others who aren’t in on the jokes: ”Jamie Curtis. The ‘Lee’ is silent.” “She was in Blue Steel, right?” “Best slasher that never was.” “Never was what?” “Known as a slasher.” Characters in the book sport the names of directors and stars from the era – a cop named Dante (as in Joe); a school principal named Mr. Pleasence (as in Donald). A little of this goes a long way and things do start to lag in the middle, before Jones ramps up the action and pushes the narrative past what is blithely referred to as “the calm before the massacre.”

And he doesn’t stint on the gore. While The Last Final Girl is a genre aficionado’s carnival of in-jokes and obscure references, it is also a full-throated horror story complete with decapitations, machete attacks, eyes gouged out by stiletto heels, and a school mascot set on fire. The final girls are also allowed to behave in what, by 1980s standards, would be considered death-courting ways: having sex, drinking, and doing drugs. They are also not above showing some flesh: not one, but two separate characters get the upper hand by doffing their bikini tops and displaying their breasts. This is at once an authorial nod to female agency and an acknowledgement of its opposite as practised by low-rent ’80s directors who were more than happy to draw in adolescent male audiences with the promise of female nudity. That the women then died in horrible ways was simply to underline the inherent misogyny of many such slashers. (In a coda set in a college classroom, a professor in Jones’s novel locates this kind of gratuitous nudity as an artifact of ’80s excess: “These days it’s about titillation, not … well.”)

Jones’s affection for, and knowledge of, the golden era of slasher films is evident throughout The Last Final Girl, which is an exuberant throwback full of knowing winks for fellow film buffs and moments of subversion that keep the reader guessing about the story’s ultimate trajectory. The decision to style the narrative as a shot list makes for some surface level confusion as to what is going on at certain moments (especially when the pace picks up and the edits become tighter and faster), but this does not ultimately detract from the enjoyment of this hyper-self-aware, metatextual homage.

The Horror Show: Stephen Graham Jones’s self-aware metafictional slasher The Last Final Girl