Ghostface Invocation: All the Scream References in The Angel of Indian Lake

Jade Daniels’s slasher-film passion clearly saturates the narratives of the Indian Lake Trilogy. When it comes to this horror genre, her namings are legion (as attested by the Letterboxd listings [1, 2, 3] of the various films mentioned in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Don’t Fear the Reaper, and The Angel of Indian Lake). Jade’s notable cinematic go-to’s include the HalloweenNightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th series, and the films Just Before DawnJaws, and A Bay of Blood. But her (and author Stephen Graham Jones’s) favorite scary-movie franchise to cite arguably is Scream. Callbacks to the Kevin Williamson/Wes Craven creation are sounded throughout the novel trilogy, and nowhere more extensively than in The Angel of Indian Lake. Here is my Letterboxd-inspired attempt to quote (without plot spoilers) the various Scream echoes in Jones’s latest Jade Daniels book:

1. It’s Monday, not Friday, meaning no pep rally for football. nobody pulled the fire alarm. It’s not senior skip day, , and Banner hasn’t instituted some curfew to keep everyone safe–there’s no reason to. Ghostface isn’t out there slicing and dicing. (p. 26)

2. “Dwight,” I say down to this junior on his knees.
He probably thinks it’s a Dewey reference, but I’m really calling him Brad Pitt from Cutting Class. Because that’s what he’s doing.
“Um, Trent, ma’am,” he stammers, trying to peel out of the glittery Father Death robe he’s now tangled in. (p.31)

3. After taking attendance and passing back quizzes and peeling up the Post-it notes stuck to [ ___ and ___ ‘s] seats–“Casey” and Steve” respectively, fourth time in two weeks–we finally dial the lights down […]. (p. 38)

4. I was going to be that janitor working a mop in Scream, waiting for Principal Himbry to surprise me. (p. 39)

5. “Do you like scary movies?” someone behind me says, not with a voice-changer, but with that same kind of murderous chuckle that promises the game’s only beginning here. (p. 52)

6. One says Casey, one says Steve.
Casey who was gutted and hung from her childhood swing, Steve who was tied to a chair in his letterman jacket and gutted just the same. (p. 53)

7. Of note is that both Ms. Daniels and Dr. Watts have agreed to wear “Ghostface” masks (not robes) for these sessions, so as to promote “honest talk.” (p. 54-55)

8. “This isn’t public knowledge,” Banner whispers, eyes darting around Dewey-style. (p. 61)

9. Next time we see [ ___ ], he might look like Dewey from the second-to-last Scream: grey, grizzled, a sort of wince to his step. (p. 71)

10. “A Cassandra’s someone doomed to know the truth but nobody believes her. I’m like the sidekick, the Randy. Good for a little comedy breather, some out-loud exposition, but ultimately not a real factor.” (p. 75)

11. It is how slashers like to open: a Barry and Claudette going down, a Casey and Steve deader than dead. (p. 91)

12. She’s in a pale nightgown, is barefoot, and isn’t moving with the [ ___ ] crowd. Rather, everyone’s flowing around her, their eyes across the lake.
“Maureen Prescott,” I mumble.
Sidney’s mom, from the third Scream(p. 113)

13. But, on the napping couch that day, when I finally made the connection Chin wanted me to make, I looked down to my feet to see if I had tiny skulls painted on my black toenails or what–more like Ghostfaces, thanks–and kind of wiggled my toes in greeting to myself, and… (p. 131)

14. I’ve seen a Casey strung up from a tree by her guts, though. I’ve been in that cell Rod died in.
No thank you, Mr. Craven, Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Cunningham. I’m fine being on the outside for once. (p. 137)

15. “I don’t even like that movie.”
“You don’t like Scream? How can someone not like Scream?” (p. 145)

16. Like I have to, I flash on the first time seeing Principal Himbry in Scream, and how, for a moment, it was definitely him chewing through the senior class. But I guess The Faculty would cover that soon enough. (p. 148)

17. I was always meant to be Randy, a Cassandra, a Clear, never the Sidney, never the Laurie, the Nancy. And, I might worship at the shrine of Ripley, sure, but nobody gets to be her. (p. 148)

18. You were always trying to get me to buy into that one, Mr. Holmes, but I always had Sidney and Billy in my head, picking their genre. (p. 156)

19. Gale Weathers is staring right into her new camera man’s camera, she doesn’t care how beat up she looks after this Hell Night, what she looks like is a SURVIVOR, one with Friends now, and what she’s telling the world is that the Dark Night of the Scarecrow is over. (p. 182)

20. By reluctant degrees, I crank my head over, my neck popping in the process, Billy-style. (p. 187) Continue reading

Third Time a Final Girl: A Review of The Angel of Indian Lake

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2024)

“The Savage History of Proofrock, Idaho” (as aptly dubbed by a student’s video essay in the book’s opening) gets an added chapter, in this final installment of The Indian Lake Trilogy. Genre savant Stephen Graham Jones pens another novelistic love letter to horror fans, and once again proves himself a master of devising/revising the slasher narrative. Readers are guaranteed to laugh out loud, to cry (Jones is as skilled as an Ultimate Fighting Champion when it comes to hitting his audience squarely in the feels), to cheer dramatic acts of heroism, and to cringe at the bursts of graphic violence (e.g. “She folds over holding onto the axe handle but [ ___ ] pulls it back to him, Tall Boots’s intestines unspooling like a long meaty tapeworm she’s been keeping secret since second grade”).

Like its predecessors, My Heart Is a Chainsaw and Don’t Fear the ReaperAngel begins as a bit of a slow burn (the expected opening-scene slayings notwithstanding). Jones takes the time to (re-)establish his characters (the major players and the potential red herrings) and to plant his plot stakes (sketching the circumstances that furnish the requisite isolation; in this instance, it’s a raging forest fire that’s “giving these killings a cover to keep happening”). Once the dominoes are all set in place, though, and the tipping point is reached, the narrative is all hurtling momentum. Former nemeses resurface (in perfectly Gothic fashion, the past refuses to stay dead and buried in Proofrock) and new final girls rise to the violent occasion. Several levels of mystery rivet reader interest, starting with the basic question of what sort of hell has broken loose here–how to explain the series of bizarre deaths (many seeming to result from barehanded decapitation)? Who is the antagonist running around wearing Ghostface (masks)? And who constitutes the title character, the apparent apparition (sporting a “tattered white nightgown and J-horror hair”) reportedly making the town’s environs its haunt? From start to finish, Jones impressively orchestrates his novel’s plot, offering call backs galore and giving familiar story beats fresh resonance.

Angel picks up four years after the events of Reaper, with protagonist Jade Daniels (recently released from her latest prison stint) now back in Proofrock working as the history teacher at Henderson High. She bears plentiful scars from her past two runs through a “slasher cycle,” and is still dealing with the emotional/psychological toll of those prior experiences (Jade pops pills prescribed for “panic attacks,” “social anxiety,” “depression,” and “PTSD”). But she remains a font of slasher knowledge, as cinematic fantasy continues to form both an armor against the harsh realities of life and a special weapon that helps her survive the killing field into which Proofrock has once again transformed. Throughout the trilogy, Jones has experimented with narrative viewpoint, and the bulk of Angel is written in the first-person present, with the unfolding mayhem filtered through Jade’s thoughtstream. This is the closest the reader could possibly get with Jade, and her legions of fans will no doubt relish the intimacy.

Like the two earlier volumes, Angel includes inter-chapter segments. This time they are presented as “reports of investigation” by the Baker Solutions investigative firm (which is attempting to prove that Jade’s community activism has shaded off into criminal vandalism). The official nature of these reports makes them less entertaining than the “Slasher 101”-style essays in Chainsaw and Reaper, but the reports deftly spool out exposition (and have some moving surprises nested within). They also reward the astute reader by embedding key clues to the book’s mysteries.

In Angel, Jones does not shy away from pointed criticism, but never approaches preachiness (recurrent targets: the evils masked by Christianity, and America’s ignominious expansion into the West). The author also continues to interrogate the final girl figure, mining new insight into her nature and significance. Once again, Jade–older, wearier, leerier–is the last person to envision herself as a final girl, yet for the third and ultimate time she proves her metal-AF mettle. Verbally witty and amazingly resilient, brave and vulnerable, badass and tender-hearted, Jade is an unforgettable protagonist, and Angel gives her a legendary send-off.

In the book’s acknowledgment section (which reads like an ultra-informative afterword), Jones states that he felt the need to go “shriekier and gorier” in the trilogy finale. To that end, his book is a screaming success. For all its splattery chaos, the novel nicely ties up loose ends; events from previous volumes receive retroactive explanation, and the closing pages of Angel hearken all the way back to the opening chapter of Chainsaw. Jones brings his Indian Lake Trilogy to an absolutely satisfying conclusion, where the only bittersweet element lies in the realization that this is the end of Jade’s story. Some solace, though: this final girl seems destined to reappear in new form–in the hopefully-near-future adaptation (whether as film trilogy or streaming series) that Jones’s slasher narratives demand.

You wouldn’t want to live (or die) in Proofrock, but it’s a wonderful place to visit, in any shape or form. There might never be another horror locale to match its dark majesty or boast such a rousing heroine in residence.

 

Mob Scene: Thanksgiving

Yes, it’s April Fools’ Day, but tonight Dispatches from the Macabre Republic returns by celebrating Thanksgiving.

Eli Roth’s 2023 film evinces an astute awareness of slasher formula. Its extended opening sets up a genre-specific plot, one quintessentially driven by revenge (to quote slasher savant Jade Daniels, in Stephen Graham Jones’s 2022 Stoker-Award-winning novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw: “years ago there was some prank or crime that hurt someone and then the slasher comes back to dispense his violent brand of justice”). Thanksgiving takes this inciting prank/crime element, and elaborates it into a full-blown mob scene.

Getting the jump on Black Friday sales, the local RightMart in Plymouth, Massachusetts, decides to open up at 6 P.M. on Thanksgiving night. A seething crowd gathers outside in anticipation (“Let us in or you’ll be a patient–in Mass General,” one hooligan intones when a RightMart security guard begs the crowd members to remain patient). When the film’s protagonist Jessica (daughter of the store owner) sneaks her friends in through the employee entrance ten minutes early, those still waiting outside the front doors do not react kindly. A regrettable act of taunting amidst this premature shopping spree precipitates a store-storming riot. Immediate pandemonium breaks out as the crowd stampedes in, a battle royale of brawling and looting. Employees are trampled, an innocent bystander suffers a gruesome arm-mangling, and the wife of the store manager (tragically caught in the wrong place/time) is mowed down by a rogue shopping cart–then partially scalped by one of its wheels for bad measure.

Roth’s mob scene is brilliantly orchestrated, spotlighting the darkest impulses of the store crowd. The gonzo violence only accentuates the satire of human callousness and consumerist greed. In hindsight, the scene also subtly clues viewers in to the identity of the subsequent (John-Carver-masked) slasher who manifests the following Thanksgiving season and wreaks bloody, holiday-themed havoc on the RightMart wrongdoers.

A wickedly witty slasher that offers up a grisly yet satisfying course of revenge, Thanksgiving can currently be streamed on Netflix.

 

Five Faves

I won’t call this a Best Books of 2023 post, because there are too many titles (A Haunting on the Hill and Beware the Woman and The Strange and Spin a Black Yarn and…) that still top my TBR list. But of the new releases that I did read this year, here are my five favorites:

 

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Hendrix’s knack for crafting flawed characters that you can’t help but fear for and cheer for is on full display here. The narrative is at once hilarious, horripilating, and heartwarming, and combines slow-mounting dread with explosions of gonzo horror (two words: Squirrel Nativity). In the devious Pupkin, Hendrix has created the hand-puppet equivalent of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Perfectly plotted and featuring a series of staggering twists, How to Sell a Haunted House is Hendrix’s best novel–at least until his next one is published, because this writer just keeps getting better and better with each release.

 

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

The middle volume of the Indian Lake Trilogy offers the same slasher-film savviness and protagonist sassiness as My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and more. Jones is careful to account for how the survivors of the first book’s climactic massacre have been physically affected and psychologically altered by the experience. The canvas gets larger here (various viewpoint characters are presented), but the time frame (thirty-six blizzardy hours) is condensed, resulting in maximized suspense. An Indigenous serial killer (with a predilection for skinning his victims alive) runs amok in Proofrock, but his monstrosity still manages to elicit reader sympathy, as Jones invokes the horrors of American history. This outsized psycho is a formidable and unforgettable antagonist, but he doesn’t overshadow defiant final girl Jade Daniels, who solidifies her status as one of the greatest horror-novel heroines ever penned.

 

Long Past Midnight by Jonathan Maberry

As a fan of the Pine Deep Trilogy (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, Bad Moon Rising), I relished the chance to return to the Most Haunted Town in America. This collection of Tales from Pine Deep expands the literary lore of the rural Pennsylvanian community; we get prequel pieces set many years prior to the events of the Trilogy, and sequel stories that dramatize the lingering effects of the nearly cataclysmic Red Wave. The entries are all winners, demonstrating Maberry’s ability as a storyteller and his facility in crossing genres (other characters from Maberry’s prolific catalogue, such as Joe Ledger, are drawn into Pine Deep intrigue). The volume also features a wonderful Author’s Introduction, in which Maberry traces the experiences that shaped him and directly influenced his creation of Pine Deep.

 

Holly by Stephen King

The author’s beloved recurring character, Holly Gibney, finally gets the chance to headline her own novel. She doesn’t falter here, rising to the challenge presented by a disturbing missing-persons case (conducted during the Covid pandemic). Her investigations this time around might not lead her to a superhuman Brady Hartsfield or a supernatural Outsider, but the American Gothic pair of retired professors encountered prove just as harrowing in their own hyper-intellectual way. There are strong echoes of The Silence of the Lambs throughout (and especially in the climax), but the narrative is by no means derivative. This is quintessential King, an absorbing and propulsive story that takes Constant Readers on quite a thrill ride.

 

Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig

Reminiscent of the apocalyptic novels of Stephen King (The Stand, The Tommyknockers) and the dark fantasy epics of Clive Barker (The Great and Secret Show, Galilee), Wendig’s latest effort (concerning a strangely addictive variety of apple whose empowering effects are too good to be true) is an absolute masterpiece. The narrative seamlessly combines elements of murder mystery, body horror, folk horror (including some of the creepiest cultist masks ever imagined), American Gothic horror (small-town prejudices and predations abound), and supernatural horror (involving diabolical bargaining). This book truly has it all: a complex (but expertly executed) plot, unique yet relatable characters, and exquisite, sensuous prose. The only negative comment that can be made about it is that readers might never look at an apple the same way again. Any Best Horror Books of 2023 list that doesn’t laud Black River Orchard should be immediately dismissed. Easily, my favorite read of the year.

 

 

 

Halloween Screams and Chainsaw Serenades: Variations on the Slasher in the Fiction of Stephen Graham Jones

The following short essay was slated to appear in this month’s special issue of Horror Homeroom, but unfortunately I was unable to meet the deadline for a last-minute revision of the piece. This being Friday the 13th of October, I felt it was the perfect time to post the essay here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The 2500-word limit for the special issue precluded coverage of all the primary texts (or extensive analysis of any of them), but as I was composing the essay I realized that it represented a first stab at a potentially much larger project. 

 

Halloween Screams and Chainsaw Serenades: Variations on the Slasher in the Fiction of Stephen Graham Jones

By Joe Nazare

 

Paying at the box office for a slasher, it isn’t about having the conventions you know and love subverted, it’s about having them each satisfied in turn, but built into the story such that you hardly recognize them, such that they feel completely organic to the story. If the slasher can manage to surprise you with the exact same development as every slasher that’s preceded it, then that slasher’s on the way to being a success. This was the magic of the first Scream. It told us what it was doing while it was doing it, and still managed not to show any genre fatigue. Or, really, it took that sense of fatigue—by 1996, Jason and Freddy and Michael were exhausted—and turned it into exuberance.
–Stephen Graham Jones, State of the Slasher Address III (445)

Over the past two decades, no writer has worked more diligently than Stephen Graham Jones to import the slasher film into the realm of fiction. The effort is coextensive with his genre career: the inciting witch-testing-ritual-gone-awry moment in Jones’s first published horror story “Raphael” (Cemetery Dance #55, 2006) anticipates the Stacey Graves storyline of the author’s opus-in-progress, The Indian Lake Trilogy. Rather than rehearse hoary formula, though, Jones consistently produces fresh versions of the slasher narrative, on both structural and thematic levels. The following essay offers an overview of Jones’s slasher oeuvre, charting the evolution of such narratives and exploring the various ends to which Jones has employed the popular cinematic subgenre.

Jones’s initial foray into slasher territory, Demon Theory (completed late-1999, published 2006), appears as much the product of his graduate-school studies as his avowed fascination with the Scream franchise. Ostentatiously postmodern, the book frames itself as “a three-part novelization of the feature film trilogy The Devil Inside, as adapted from D, the unauthorized bestseller inspired by the case notes of Dr. Neider, as recorded in a series of interviews conducted during his residency at Owl Creek Mental Facilities and originally published in the journal P/Q as ‘Narrative, Me-dia, and Allocution: Genre as Mnemonic Device’” (3). The story is presented in film-treatment format, and appended with over 400 nesting/cross-referencing endnotes (many serving up slasher factoids; imagine a VH1 Pop-Up Video episode co-scripted by Vladimir Nabokov and Kevin Williamson). Demon Theory opens in classic slasher fashion: a group of med students are summoned from their Halloween party to a creepy, remote farmhouse. There, “all the beautiful sinners” (19) are stalked and spectacularly dispatched, by a supernatural entity or just some hulking psycho in a gargoyle mask.

Jones’s characters are as genre-conscious as any 90’s-slasher cast, but most of the referentiality is conveyed via omniscient authorial voice: “And Nona left the door open behind her, it would seem. Just past it the attic stairs are lowering m.o.s.—the jeep hatch opening on Neve [Campbell, in Scream] all over again” (87). Such allusive, screenplay-jargoned intrusiveness proves jarring, impeding the reader’s immersion in the story. Indeed, Demon Theory defies accessibility (literally, given its longtime out-of-print status). Jones’s invocation of the esoteric (Swedenborgian mysticism, Cartesian metaphysics) and sprawling range of cultural reference (Euripides’s Medea, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, The X-Files, and The Usual Suspects inform the mind-bending/reality-blurring/self-erasing narrative just as much as does Halloween or Scream) makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a minimalist by comparison. The slasher elements ultimately get lost amidst the book’s experimental form and encyclopedic excess.1

Conspicuously absent from Jones’s early slashers is the overt depiction of the Native American. Demon Theory makes only passing mention of an “albino-blond Plains Indian” (15)—a child in questionable Halloween costume.2 In Jones’s breakthrough novel, though—2020’s critically-acclaimed/award-amassing The Only Good Indians—Native American characters and culture are brought to the forefront. This time, Jones (qtd. in McRobert) decides to “take Jason up to the reservation, to see how he’d fare” (although Friday the 13th’s Pamela Voorhees arguably makes for a more accurate slasher reference). The “enabling prank or accident, misdeed or crime” (Jones, “State of the Slasher Address” 429) of slasher convention here involves four young Blackfeet men who trespass onto the elders’ section of their reservation and slaughter a herd of elk. Apprehension by the game warden is only the beginning of the hunters’ troubles; as the tenth anniversary of the ill-fated outing approaches, the then-pregnant elk who’d perished while desperately trying to save her unborn calf arises as the supernatural hybrid Elk Head Woman and proceeds to execute her “big revenge arc” (Only 78). The central section of the novel stages (in a Native variation on the victim-gathering slumber party) a “Sweat Lodge Massacre” (131). Then there’s Denorah, the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of the hunters, who has playfully dubbed her “Finals Girl, […] ever since she was his lucky charm when she was four and he was watching her in June, during the NBA finals” (173). A basketball prodigy, the final girl Denorah’s climactic showdown with Elk Head Woman (shapeshifted into human appearance) transpires on a makeshift court—an epic contest of “one-on-one, which is a game of slashing, of stopping and popping” (262). A fierce competitor (with the mindset, “you come at a reservation girl, bring a box of band-aids” [291]), Denorah eventually triumphs not due to feistiness or physical prowess, but because she chooses to break the grim cycle of violence and vengeance.3

The Only Good Indians furnishes a portrait of modern Native existence, both on the reservation and within the wider surround of a racism-tainted America. But Jones also uses this slasher narrative as a vehicle of intertextual dialogue with one of the horror genre’s most totemic figures and canonical texts: Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Both novels thematize the process/purpose of storytelling, and, tellingly, the homosocial groups (Jones’s hunting party; Straub’s Chowder Society) haunted by vengeful female shapeshifters both include characters named Lewis and Ricky. Straub’s approach, though, smacks of cultural appropriation, a plundering of indigenous culture that props up a figure of Native American spiritualism as a manifestation (in the “real world” of the novel) of sinister myth. Inherently and unremittingly evil, Eva Galli the Manitou is always the terrible Other.4 Jones’s Elk Head Woman is also fiendish and devious in her outright assaults and psychologically-tormenting attempts to get each male adversary to “tear down his own life” (98), but her maternal instincts are admirable and undying vindictiveness understandable. Akin to Pamela Voorhees’ indiscriminate killing of camp counselors (a “disproportionate response” that evokes the final girl, “the built-in governor on the slasher’s cycle of violence” [Jones, “Let’s All”]), Elk Head Woman just gets carried away in her bloody quest for justice. Throughout the narrative, Jones interpolates passages from Elk Head Woman’s perspective (written in the second-person, further aligning character and reader), including her late, sympathy-eliciting realization that protecting a beloved calf is “the only thing you’ve ever really wanted to do this whole time, ever since you found yourself suddenly back in the world. Just—your anger, your hate, it was coursing through you so hot, and you got lost in it” (303).5

Finally, The Indian Lake Trilogy (to date, My Heart is a Chainsaw and Don’t Fear the Reaper) presents character-driven narratives that embed the unabashed slasherphilia within the protagonist’s POV. Both books illustrate Jones’s determination not just to propagate but rather to interrogate the final girl figure first codified by Carol J. Clover in her study Men, Women, and Chainsaws.6 When slasher savant Jade Daniels detects a cycle of violence revving up around her in Chainsaw, she attempts to groom newcomer Letha Mondragon—whom she identifies as the supreme embodiment of final-girl goodness—as a combatant. Jade’s instructive inclinations speak to her own inability to envision herself as a final girl; wounded self-image causes her to deem herself too impure, too immoral (the “festering poison” inside her has led her to “stay up late praying to Craven and Carpenter to send one of their savage angels down” [31] onto her Idaho hometown). The narrative reveals that slashers aren’t merely the “goggles” (50) coloring Jade’s teenage worldview but a “cloak of protective armor” (102) fortifying her against her own loneliness, her alienating community, and most of all, her drunken, abusive father Tab. Just as Jones deftly juxtaposes slasher types (the Golden Age “supernatural slasher […] with Michael and Jason and Freddy and Chucky” (109); the Scream era revenge-driven murder mystery), he dramatizes how Jade is plagued by predators both familial and uncanny. Via rousing acts of heroism, Jade ultimately assumes the final girl role, standing up to the bogeyman in her homelife as well as the slasher hellbent on creating an Indian Lake bloodbath.

As perhaps best evinced by Jade (with her wonderfully sardonic remarks and penchant for horror-honoring pranks as a highschooler), humor is a key element of Jones’s various slasher narratives. Jones is not averse to poking fun at the slasher as he obviates its conventions, but the author never entrenches himself in a position of parodic distance. He demonstrates a sincere appreciation of what the final girl, the slasher figure, and the formula overall has to offer. The bloody valentines that Jones sends out year after year (further variants—the conclusion to the Indian Lake Trilogy and the standalone I Was a Teenage Slasher—are forthcoming) represent more than just personal love letters. They testify to the positive cultural values emanating from a subgenre oft-dismissed as superficial at best, misogynistic at worst. Like Jade’s, Jones’s heart is a powerful chainsaw; the author’s slasher-film affinity has enabled him to carve out a rip-roaring body of fiction that enlightens and empowers even as it entertains.

 

NOTES

[1] Jones scales back the postmodernism in his next slasher, 2012’s The Last Final Girl (featuring the Michael-Jackson-masked killer “Billie Jean”). Cinematic formatting—calling attention to camera angles and scene transitions—persists, but the copious annotations are jettisoned, and the citation of slasher-film convention comes predominantly from character dialogue. In retrospect, protagonist Izzy Stratford—a snarky, slasher-savvy, purple-haired, combat-booted, self-described “misfit” (130) who turns in school-essay “meditations on different aspects of horror movies” (136)—represents an obvious proto type of Jade Daniels in Jones’s Indian Lake Trilogy.

[2] The Blackfeet writer Jones challenges such perceived lack in his essay “Being Indian Is Not a Superpower,” asserting that “all of my characters had always been Blackfeet all along. There was never any reason to actually say it, but they always were. Just, I wasn’t hanging dreamcatchers and braids all over them, as that would be a lot like making them wriggle into loincloths so they could fit the limited expectations of…everyone, pretty much.”

[3]  Elaborating on his deliberate revision of formula, Jones (qtd. in Miller) notes: “The final girl in the slasher, in order to win the day, it usually becomes a game of who can take the most damage and give back the most damage, so it becomes a game of muscles and toughness. That, to me, always feels like the final girl’s having to cash in her characteristics, the things that have got her along in life so far. I found myself wondering with The Only Good Indians what would happen if the final girl won the day, not by swinging a machete the hardest or finding a chainsaw or whatever, but what if she won with compassion, which is what she’s had her whole life? That way, she doesn’t have to cash in her identity and be somebody else.”

[4] One of Straub’s more reprehensible (human) characters, professor Harold Sims, dismissively references the Manitou (“Myth survival, for Chrissake”), telling Stella Hawthorne “some story about an Indian who chased a deer for days up a mountain, but when he got to the top the deer turned on him and wasn’t a deer anymore” (257).

[5] In Don’t Fear the Reaper, Jones presents a non-supernatural Native American slasher figure (non-cliched, too: this is no warpainted tomahawk-wielder). The grotesquely disfigured man-mountain Dark Mill South is a walking, stalking frightfest who develops a proclivity for skinning his victims alive. But his interstate rampage is linked to an actual case of injustice—the “Dakota 38” dubiously sentenced to hang by President Lincoln in 1862, “the largest mass execution in American history” (14). Jones also traces this slasher’s sociopathy back to a warped childhood within the Morris Industrial School for Indians, a forced-conversion operation run by the allegedly Christian “Sisters of Mercy,” who likely subjected their charge to “privation, starvation, and various forms of sexual abuse” (417).

[6] Clover’s scholarly scrutiny helped launch the final girl as a pop-cultural trope, but her overthought/overwrought psychoanalytical criticism is bound to confound the average slasher fan. Clover clearly looks down her nose at the slasher, locating it at “the bottom of the horror heap” (21) and downplaying its progressiveness: applauding “the Final Girl as a feminist development” constitutes “a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking. She is simply an agreed-upon fiction and the male viewer’s use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty” (53). Jones (who excerpts Clover’s book in respective epigraphs for Chainsaw and Reaper) views the final girl much more positively. While disavowing the too-unrelatable “perfect warrior angel princess model” (qtd. in Seery), Jones touts the final girl as “our model for how to stand up to bullies” (qtd. in McRobert). “We should all fight so hard against injustice,” Jones asserts. “At some point in our struggles, we should all turn around, face down our bullies, and then, like Nancy [in A Nightmare on Elm Street], turn our back on them” (“Let’s All”).

 

WORKS CITED

Clover, Carol  J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Jones, Stephen Graham. “Being Indian Is Not a Superpower.” Electric Literature. May 27, 2019.

—. Demon Theory. San Francisco: MacAdam Cage, 2006.

—. Don’t Fear the Reaper. New York: Saga Press, 2023.

—. The Last Final Girl. E-book ed., Lazy Fascist Press, 2012.

—. “Let’s All Be Final Girls.” CrimeReads. August 31, 2021.

—. My Heart Is a Chainsaw. New York: Saga Press, 2021.

—. The Only Good Indians. E-book ed., Saga Press, 2020.

—. “The State of the Slasher Address.” Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, & Fun of the Slasher Film. Ed. Vince A Liaguno. New York: Dark Scribe Press, 2011. 429-34.

—. “The State of the Slasher Address III.” Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, & Fun of the Slasher Film. Ed. Vince A Liaguno. New York: Dark Scribe Press, 2011. 445-450.

McRobert, Neil. “How Stephen Graham Jones Is Reinventing the Slasher.” Esquire. February 7, 2023.

Miller, Max Asher. “On Being a Good Indian: An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones.” Columbia Journal. May 18, 2020.

Seery, Jenna. “Poured Over: Stephen Graham Jones on Don’t Fear the Reaper.” B&N Reads. February 7, 2023.

Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.

 

Countdown: The Top Ten in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen

Ellen Datlow’s latest addition to her superlative anthology series features twenty-four stories and one poem. There is a certain disproportion to the contents: as Datlow herself admits in her introductory “Summation 2020,” “For some reason, the overwhelming number [of contributors] this year are from the United Kingdom” (which makes this feel more like one of Stephen Jones’s annual Best New Horror compilations). A quarter of the selections come from just two anthologies: After Sundown and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles (the latter edited by Datlow). Repetition of tropes (e.g. haunted houses) and settings (e.g. harsh winter landscapes) is also noticeable here. But while the contents lack somewhat in diversity, they evince consistent high quality; overall, The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen is a very impressive collection of genre talent.

So just before the ball drops in Times Square, here’s my countdown of the ten best selections in this 2021 anthology:

10. “A Treat for Your Last Day” by Simon Bestwick. This one presents a simple yet chillingly plausible premise: a family outing devolves into tragedy. As the narrator hauntingly reminds us at tale’s end: “Life is basically a field full of hidden landmines, and nothing you can do protects you against treading on one.”

9. “In the English Rain” by Steve Duffy. A coming-of-age tale that features a compelling setting. History and horrific imagining are blurred, as a home once briefly owned by John Lennon turns out to be the haunt of a terrifying child-murderer.

8. “Come Closer” by Gemma Files. A surreal and supremely creepy narrative concerning an itinerant haunted house that appears to slide through the neighborhood and displace the existing residences.

7. “The Whisper of Stars” by Thana Niveau. A harrowing cosmic horror tale set in the frozen wilds of the Arctic Circle. Reminiscent of the best outdoors horror of Algernon Blackwood.

6. “Lords of the Matinee” by Stephen Graham Jones. A fine variation on the haunted-theater story, and yet another instance of Jones’s uncanny ability to wring horror from the most quotidian elements (in this case, a kitchen can opener).

5. “Sicko” by Stephen Volk. Think “Psycho meets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Volk crafts a moving alternative narrative of the horror genre’s most famous shower victim.

4. “A Deed Without a Name” by Jack Lothian. Speaking of riffs on classic works.,.This richly detailed story takes a different perspective onto Shakespeare’s Macbeth, turning the Weird Sisters into sympathetic protagonists.

3. “A Hotel in Germany” by Catriona Ward. A tale that proves (in exquisite prose, to boot) that there are still fresh vampire stories to tell. This was my first encounter with Ward’s work, whose much-ballyhooed The Last House on Needless Street has now shot to the top of my must-read list.

2. “Scream Queen” by Nathan Ballingrud. A writer who always seems to produce excellent short fiction, and this piece is no exception. A documentary delving into a cult-favorite horror film from 1970 transforms into a harrowing descent into the occult.

1. “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” by Maria Haskins. This impactful post-apocalyptic (and revenge) narrative about a cannibalism-inducing plague reads like an engrossing mini-movie. Much more terrifying than typical zombie fare, as the antagonists here are too recognizably human in their savage inhumanity.

 

“The Raft” Revisited

In his acknowledgements section of My Heart is a Chainsaw (which I reviewed here yesterday), Stephen Graham Jones writes: “Next I want to thank some writers who are involved with [my novel], though they don’t know it. The first is, once again, Stephen King. His story ‘The Raft’ is shot all through Chainsaw. I may hold the record for having read that story the most times.” Jones’s comments struck me as curious, since I remembered the King story as more of a cosmic horror tale (the monstrous, shimmering “black thing” lurking atop the lake like some sentient and carnivorous oil slick seems a literary descendant of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”). The avowal of influence prompted me to go back and reread “The Raft,” to gauge its slasher qualities.

Upon further review, “The Raft” (pub. 1982) does contain many of the now-familiar components of slasher narratives. The plot presents an inciting transgression: four college students venture out to Cascade Lake knowing full well the beach has been closed since Labor Day but planning to bid a frolicking farewell to Indian summer with a late-October swim out to the titular float. The students also conform to slasher character types, with roommates Deke and Randy self-aware of their status as “the Jock and the Brain.” Meanwhile, Rachel is the relatively good girl (no final girl, though), and LaVerne the mean/slutty girl (with her witch-like cackle and unabashed stealing of Deke right in front of Rachel). LaVerne’s frank sexuality is signaled by the nearly transparent state of the bra and panties she strips down to before diving into the lake.

“The Raft” also features some gruesome set-piece kills. First, the mesmerized Rachel is engulfed by the lake monster’s viscous viciousness: “Randy could see it sinking into her like acid, and when her jugular vein gave way in a dark, pumping jet, he saw the thing send out a pseudopod after the escaping blood.” Even more unforgettably graphic is the demise of Deke, sucked down through the raft after the creature catches hold of his foot by bubbling up between the wooden boards. King methodically details Deke’s crushing plunge–“the wishbone crack of his pelvis,” the “sound like strong teeth crunching up a mouthful of candy jawbreakers” as Deke’s ribs “collaps[e] into the crack,” the grotesque way “Deke’s eyes had bugged out as if on springs as hemorrhages caused by hydrostatic pressure pulped his brain.” For certain, it’s as grim a death to be found anywhere in the King canon.

Perhaps most tellingly, “The Raft” also evinces the conservative morality of the slasher film, which typically mixes raging hormones with homicidal maniacs. Here, too, premarital sex precipitates violent death. Yielding to primal urges amidst their dire entrapment, the last two survivors (LaVerne and the appropriately named Randy) lie down and lovelessly fornicate. Their horizontal boogie, though, only attracts the bogey, which interrupts the coitus when LaVerne’s hair happens to slip into the water (Randy “pulled back suddenly, trying to pull her up, but the thing moved with oily speed and tangled itself in her hair like a webbing of thick black glue and when he pulled her up she was already screaming and she was heavy with it; it came out of the water in a twisting, gruesome membrane that rolled with flaring nuclear colors–scarlet-vermillion, flaring emerald, sullen ocher”).

LaVerne’s obliteration is the last (but not least) of the story’s spectacular splatter effects. All told, “The Raft” is a macabre masterpiece, a frightful tale of reckless teen behavior and terrible predation. King scripts the darkest and bloodiest misadventure ever experienced while floating atop a lake–at least until Jones ups the ante and enlarges the carnage in the wild climax of My Heart is a Chainsaw.

 

My Heart is a Chainsaw (Book Review)

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.

 

The Only Good Indians (Book Review)

The title of Native American horror writer Stephen Graham Jones’s latest novel is an appropriate one. It alludes to the notorious quote by General Philip Sheridan back in 1869 that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” So right from the get-go, Jones raises the specter of historical injustice, but does so without being too on-the-nose. Such approach sets the stage for the subsequent narrative. The Only Good Indians tackles all the salient issues, addresses the various exigencies of Native American existence in the modern-day United States–racial discrimination, police profiling, poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse–but always in a manner that is organic to the story being told. Jones’s narrative never devolves into bitter lament; the author’s barbs are often delivered with wry humor. An influx of cash, for example, causes the character Cass to ponder: “In the old days, which means up until last month, forty dollars extra would have turned itself into a cooler of beer. Just, poof, Indian magic, don’t even need any eagle feather fans or a hawk screeching, just look away long enough for it to happen.” A few paragraphs later, Cash considers his own virility: “What he figures is that he’s shooting blanks, just like all the Indians when they’re fighting John Wayne.” Later, when told mid-ritual that a sweat lodge is the safest place in the Indian world, thee teenager Nate snickers and sardonically retorts, “Safest place in the Indian world? That means we’re only 80 percent probably going to die here, not ninety percent?”

This being a horror novel, many members of the predominantly Native American cast of characters do end up dying (the story centers on a group of young men who engage in an illegal and ill-fated elk hunt on tribal ground, and who are forced to face the consequences of their transgression a decade later). Jones is careful, though, to first build a sense of creeping unease–glimpses of a shadowy menace, disquieting creaks on a staircase–that makes the subsequent eruptions of graphic violence all the more stunning. The author is unflinching in his depiction of gruesome demise, painting mayhem in vivid imagery marked by precise yet unique detail. For instance, let’s just say that Jones is the hands-down winner of the award for Most Harrowingly Original Death-on-a-Motorcycle Scene, and leave it at splat.

The Only Good Indians is masterfully structured, with minor, seemingly throw-away items ultimately proving integral to the overall plot (this is definitely a novel that will be appreciated even more upon a second read). If I had one complaint, however, it’s that Jones’s chapter titles sometimes are a bit spoiler-ish.

Throughout his career as a fiction and nonfiction writer, Jones has established himself as an unabashed fan of slasher cinema. Such love, as many reviewers have noted, is also evident here, as Jones applies many elements of the slasher-film formula (one basketball-star character is even nicknamed, quite suggestively, “Finals Girl”). But at the same time, reviewers have universally overlooked The Only Good Indians‘ engagement with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Both novels involve a devious female shapeshifter hellbent on vengeance against a group of males (each, hardly coincidentally, including characters named Lewis and Ricky) who wronged her years earlier. While Straub utilizes (less euphemistically: “culturally appropriates”) the mythological figure of the manitou as antagonist, Jones offers more of an insider’s perspective onto a frightful (yet not merely demonized) creature from Native American lore, Elk Head Woman.

The Only Good Indians is a haunting novel, one that stays with the reader not just because of the horrific events transpiring within, but also due to the beautiful language employed throughout. It might not be Jones’s best book (for me, that remains the ingenious Demon Theory), but it is a strongly representative work by an important Native American voice, and a damn fine writer, period.

 

The Best of The Best of the Best Horror of the Year

In the recently-released The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, editor Ellen Datlow collects her choices of the top stories from the past decade of the anthology series. But what’s the best of The Best of the Best? Naturally, the competition for such title is stiffer than Mr. Olympia in rigor mortis, and lot of extraordinary stories have to get left off the list, but here’s my New Year’s Eve countdown of the top ten pieces in this wonderful volume:

 

10.”Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones

The zombie apocalypse has never featured two more unlikely survivors: an anthropology-department grad student and his dissertation director (Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon, they ain’t). Jones’s tale offers a wicked-smart contrast of the heady and the visceral.

 

9.”The Callers” by Ramsey Campbell

A hapless grandson has a disturbing encounter with a group of bingo-hall hags. Campbell is the undisputed champion of subtle, unnerving detail–nowhere more evident than in this witty and slyly sinister masterpiece.

 

8.”Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud

The typically exceptional Ballingrud scripts another winner: a werewolf story that deals with a survivor’s guilt following the massacre of his colleagues. Strong characterization here helps show that economic hardship is no less horrifying than a lycanthrope’s rampage.

 

7.”Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor

Dark times in the sun-punished Death Valley, domain of some unbelievably creepy vultures. Taylor’s terrific descriptive powers brings a beauty to the grotesquerie and brutality of the desert.

 

6.”In a Cavern, In a Canyon” by Laird Barron

Barron’s fictional hallmarks are on display: hard-boiled narration (by a female lead, in this case), an atmosphere of steadily-mounting dread. This one reads like an episode of The X-Files set in the remotes of Alaska, but that show’s Monsters of the Week seem like Sesame Street castoffs compared to the horrid carnivore preying on good Samaritans here.

 

5.”The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick

A Lake District twist on Stephen King’s “The Raft.” Bestwick’s haunting narrative furnishes a classic example of how the monsters we don’t actually see (but can hear all too well) can prove the most terrifying.

 

4.”At the Riding School” by Cody Goodfellow

A modern Gothic shocker concerning a very private school in the California hills that teaches young girls more than etiquette and equestrian skill. Goodfellow, one of the most accomplished contemporary writers of the weird tale, delves deftly (and unforgettably) here into “a Greek myth that Bulfinch left out.”

 

3.”Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski

Anyone who grouses that the zombie subgenre has lost its bite never feasted eyes on this stunningly original take (concerning the ostracizing of a since-cured flesheater who remains infamous thanks to a photo that captured her mindless chomping on a baby). Gripping throughout, the story builds to a surprising–yet highly satisfying–climax.

 

2.”Black and White Sky” by Tanith Lee

Lee’s imagery here is jaw-dropping, as is the unsettling premise she extrapolates from: Britain eclipsed by a gigantic cloud formed of mysteriously uplifted magpies. This epic apocalypse tale would make for one of the weirdest and wildest disaster films ever to hit the big screen.

 

1.”This Stagnant Breath of Change” by Brian Hodge

Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had lived long enough to write an episode of The Twilight Zone. In a quaint town whose normalcy is rooted in the paranormal, everyone is curiously hellbent on keeping a dying city father alive. The cosmic horrors of the conclusion are undeniably chilling, yet almost overshadowed by the preceding scene of angry-mob violence. Incredible on multiple levels, Hodge’s clever riff on the Cthulhu Mythos also forms one of the most harrowing works of American Gothic short fiction that I have ever read.