My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2021)
I finished–and immediately re-read–this novel months ago, yet never ended up reviewing it here on Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, perhaps fearing that I wouldn’t have the words to do it justice. But considering that Stephen Graham Jones’s latest effort is currently showing up on every year-end “Best of” list, I figured now is the time to speak my piece about this incredible book. My Heart is a Chainsaw is a literary Cupid’s arrow that penetrates deeply and leaves the horror lover swooning.
The narrative starts out hot, with a prologue-style opening chapter in which a pair of young tourists from the Netherlands are murdered during a late-night lake frolic. From here, the action simmers down, but a deliberate pace does not mean a dull pace. Jones takes the time to establish his large cast’s characters and backstories, the setting (the isolated mountain community of Proofrock, Idaho, which has a long, dark history including a massacre a half-century earlier at the now notoriously dubbed “Camp Blood”), and the present situation (someone seems to begrudge the conversion of forest land on the far side of Indian Lake into a luxury development for the ultra-rich). The book’s protagonist, graduating high-schooler and horror movie savant Jade Daniels, finds numerous signs that an actual slasher cycle is about to erupt in her hometown, but of course, this American teenage Cassandra is discounted even as the body count begins to rise. Dreadful suspense (stemming from the killer’s vicious deeds and concealed identity) mounts, and the narrative momentum steadily builds to an extended climax (involving a 4th of July lake-float screening of Jaws) marked by scenes of jaw-dropping violence.
Jones’s book chapters are evocatively titled and glossed by those of golden-era slasher films (e.g., Just Before Dawn, Happy Birthday to Me, Hell Night). They are also intercut by sections labeled “Slasher 101”–the texts of extra-credit papers Jade composed for her history teacher, Mr. Holmes. Jade’s mini-treatises offer a slash course on the genre’s workings, educating not only her uninitiated teacher (and later the classmate Jade identifies as a quintessential final girl), but the reader as well. One need not be a slasher buff to approach/appreciate this book, but likely will become one before the end credits roll.
No doubt, it is Jade’s voice and viewpoint (from chapter two onwards, the narrative is presented through her third-person-limited perspective) that dominates, and delightfully so. Jade is wise beyond her years and possesses a sharp wit (her snarky attitude never grows irritating, though). For all her social outcast status (resulting from her poverty, her Native American heritage, her unabashed horror fandom…) in Proofrock, she proves quite endearing and easily elicits reader sympathy. Jade is a fighter, a figure of fierce independence, but her tough exterior (as Jones gradually reveals) covers a host of emotional wounds. Simply put, Jade Daniels is destined to become a classic and much beloved character, a horror genre equivalent of Huck Finn or Scout Finch.
Hers is a story I didn’t want to draw to a close, and thankfully, it doesn’t. For sure, this novel forms Jones’s magnus opus of slasher fiction (topping previous esteemed endeavors such as Demon Theory and The Last Final Girl), but maybe not for long. In then end, the best statement I can make about My Heart is a Chainsaw is that it’s only the start of a trilogy; Jade returns to Proofrock and encounters more macabre mayhem next summer in Don’t Fear the Reaper.