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” ), 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”  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.
 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.
 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.”
 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.”
 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).
 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).
 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”).
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.