The Horror Show: Stephen Graham Jones returns to his slasher-film inspiration with the nostalgia saturated novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw

Stephen Graham Jones knows slasher films. His knowledge of the subgenre is virtually encyclopedic, from early prototypes like Psycho, Black Christmas, and Halloween to 1980s classics Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Child’s Play to ultra-disreputable grindhouse fare along the lines of The New York Ripper, The Driller Killer, and The House on Sorority Row. He can explain the difference between supernatural slashers like Pennywise or Chucky and human slashers like Billy and Stu from Scream. He can argue convincingly that Jaws and Blue Steel are slashers dressed up as, respectively, a monster movie and a cop thriller. The Texas-born author, now a resident of Boulder, where he teaches English at the University of Colorado Boulder, could easily create a course called “Slasher 101,” a feature in both his 2012 metafictional novel The Last Final Girl and, even more prominently, his latest genre outing, My Heart Is a Chainsaw.

The new novel focuses on Jade Daniels, a horror-obsessed high school senior in the small town of Proofrock, Idaho. A member of the Native American Blackfeet tribe (like her creator), Jade is a social outcast who wears black clothing when not dressing in janitor’s coveralls for her part-time job cleaning the local high school. The daughter of alcoholic ne’er-do-well Tab Daniels, the seventeen-year-old can’t wait until she graduates and turns eighteen, at which point she can flee the town of Proofrock and all its cliquish, unlikable inhabitants. First, though, she has to pass Mr. Holmes’s senior history class, which she attempts to do in part by submitting a series of extra-credit essays cumulatively titled Slasher 101. These essays, which are interspersed throughout the novel, provide Mr. Holmes, and by extension the reader, a thumbnail history of the slasher film genre, with particular reference to the 1980s era.

They also serve as a contextual bedrock for Jones’s novel, which itself follows the conventions of a classic slasher, beginning with the so-called blood sacrifice of two innocents – in this case, tourists from the Netherlands who are dispatched in the first ten pages – and continuing through a series of murders leading to the inevitable confrontation between the killer and the final girl.

The final girl convention was codified by academic Carol J. Clover in her 1992 critical monograph Men, Women, and Chain Saws. Clover identifies the final girl as the survivor, “the one who didn’t die” but “who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again.” The final girl, in Clover’s formulation, is “abject terror personified,” but also “looks death in the face” and “finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B).”

Slasher fanatic Jade sees everything through the prism of her favourite film genre, so once she establishes that the conditions for a slasher cycle have begun in her small mountain town, her first object of business is to figure out who the final girl will be. She alights on the new girl in town, Letha Mondragon. Letha is the daughter of Theo Mondragon, one of the ultra-wealthy investors in land across the water from Proofrock, an area once known as Camp Blood (a nod to the Friday the 13th film franchise) now being repurposed as Terra Nova – a new world that will be developed as property for rich investors. Jade decides that Letha has all the requisite qualities of a final girl, and attempts to educate her in the genre and what will be required of her when the time comes for her confrontation with the monster.

Jade begins this process by giving Letha a VHS copy of Mario Bava’s proto-slasher A Bay of Blood, an ill-considered move that backfires when Letha contacts Sheriff Hardy, the sympathetic head of local law enforcement who has a history of dealing with Jade and her father. Jones departs from the standard slasher template by making both Sheriff Hardy and Mr. Holmes likeable characters who appear to have Jade’s best interests at heart; most authority figures in a standard slasher are either hateful or moronic, often both.

This is not the only way in which My Heart Is a Chainsaw deviates from traditional slasher tropes. Letha, a Black girl, and Jade, a Native American, serve as a subversion of the pervasive whiteness of most final girls in traditional slashers. A good chunk of the novel is given over to Jade’s exploration of slasher history in an attempt to determine what kind of slasher she is living through and, therefore, what rules it will follow. A good amount of Jones’s technique involves laying out these rules before finding ways to subvert them.

The metafictional attention to the various clichés of slasher films is at once an asset and a drawback for the novel. Jones is too smart to simply follow the blueprint in his own narrative; as soon as the reader realizes the story will likely not go where we, or Jade, expect it to, it becomes fairly easy to predict in which directions the story will veer off. And Jade’s film knowledge is a bit too encyclopedic: her continual contextualization of events in terms of the movies she’s seen frequently reduces the novel to the equivalent of a long monologue given by a film geek at a party, with the interlocutor looking around ever more frantically for a way to escape the diatribe.

The Last Final Girl was cast in the form of a shooting script for a movie; My Heart Is a Chainsaw includes the texts of Jade’s extra-credit essays but otherwise unfolds in a more straightforward manner than its predecessor. This makes for a smoother reading experience, though at 400 pages, the novel is also twice as long as the earlier book; an argument for a more streamlined presentation could easily be made.

Paradoxically, My Heart Is a Chainsaw might appeal least to die-hard slasher or horror film aficionados, since so much of the material will appear old hat. Readers with a more cursory knowledge of the genre – those whose experience extends to a few of the Friday the 13th or Scream movies – might find more to gnaw on here and might be interested in seeking out some of the films Jade, and by extension Jones, references. A true slasher fan will already be familiar with most of these – will already know the difference between Leslie Vernon and Victor Crowley and won’t need to be told who Cropsy is or what film he appeared in.

Taken together, The Last Final Girl and My Heart Is a Chainsaw read best as love letters from a genre fan to the movies that have provided so much escapist pleasure over the years. If Jones plays his hand a bit too heavily in the context of his own fiction, there’s still evident nostalgia to be found in both books. And if he ever decides to teach a course on the history and importance of slasher films, he’s already got two comprehensive texts from which to work.

The Horror Show: Stephen Graham Jones returns to his slasher-film inspiration with the nostalgia saturated novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw