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“Rejected from the city, nice to meet you,” says Jennifer “Jade” Daniels, introducing herself to the unlikely and seemingly perfect name Letha Mondragon, the daughter of wealthy parents who are building an extremely posh neighborhood across Lake Geneva. Jade’s unadorned hometown. Stephen Graham Jones’ clever new horror novel, My heart is a chainsaw, owes Stephen King enough to let you know that the name of the city of Idaho, Proofrock, is no accident. Both writers love to sprinkle their fiction with cultural references, high and low, and, like the evening in TS Eliot’s poem, the city of Jade lies like an ethereal patient on a table, awaiting gentrification, or worse.
Jade hopes for the worst, which is why she is so excited to meet Letha. The pop culture that Jade Marine, who has apparently penetrated every cell in her body, is slasher movies, and she thinks a slasher tale is about to begin in real life, right in the middle of Proofrock. She sees signs of it everywhere, starting with the discovery of the corpse of a Danish tourist found floating in the lake. She recognizes it as “the blood sacrifice that the ritual needs to unfold well”. Another sign is Letha herself. She is beautiful but reserved, strong-willed but kind, and above all she is innocent, which Jade considers an essential quality in a final girl.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the “Final Girl” is a recurring slasher movie trope first identified and named by Carol J. Clover in her influential 1992 book, Men, Women and Chainsaws: The Gender in Modern Horror Film. The Last Girl is the sole survivor of the Slasher Rampage, a character who in the end summons the grain from deep within to confront and defeat the killer. Clover’s currency hit such a popular nerve that the latest girl found her place in horror movie and book titles, while also becoming a band name. Jade never mentions Clover, but Jones, in his afterword, thanks her “forever,” and the novel is imbued with another of Clover’s key ideas about the slasher movie: that it is basically a story motivated by revenge.
Jade spends most of the novel trying to figure out who’s about to get revenge for a spectacularly bloody effect, and trying to drag the bewildered Letha into the role that Jade says will soon be imposed on her. She does not see herself as the main character but as a peripheral figure, less of a supporting role than the representative of the invisible audience of a horror film, shouting advice (“No, don’t go to the cellar!”) that the heroine can neither hear nor take into account. “There’s no camera on her, she knows that,” Jones wrote of Jade. “And there never was.” As an audience, Jade both takes root for Letha and happily anticipates the carnage to come, a disaster she thinks Proofrock deserves. She thinks it will take place at the annual meeting on July 4e projection on the lake, in which, according to tradition, the film Jaws (a proto-slasher, according to Jade) is projected onto a floating screen to an audience in boats and inner tubes. “Life is about to get really cheap in these areas,” the young girl told herself as her senior year drew to a close. “The inside of a lot of people is about to start being on the outside. Jade can hardly help but smile. Best graduation gift ever.
Jones is the author of more than two dozen books, but his fame accelerated with the publication last year of The only good Indians, a novel about four friends, members (like Jones and Jade) of the Blackfeet tribe, haunted by their role in the slaughter of a herd of elk banned long ago. A similar slaughter of wild animals takes place in My heart is a chainsaw because this novel is nothing if not a canvas of allusions to other works. My own horror fandom doesn’t usually extend to slashers, which have always felt too predictable and rigid to me, fueled by an inexperienced teenage rage too far into my own past to feel immediate. But Jones pleads for the slasher like the sestina of teenage fury; the sheer inflexibility of the form that is both strangely heartwarming and a tall order for anyone looking to make something original out of it.
Jade is a true slasher scholar. Parts of the novel consist of class papers explaining the form to her beloved history teacher, who agrees to accept them for additional credit. She explains the roots of the slasher movie in Italian giallo films of the 1970s, its golden age in the 1980s, and the “Scream Boom “from the late ’90s, films in which characters, like Jade, speak knowledgeably about genre conventions even as they fall victim to the masked murderer who respects them. Slasher movies have become a dizzying meta. in the 90s, because what else could they do? Formulations of the genre are so restrictive and obvious that the only way to come up with new variations was to get out of them and talk about them before being sucked into their bloody fatalities.
Literary novels – that’s what My heart is a chainsaw for all her delights in trash pop culture, it really is – caring as much about the character as it does the plot, so the mystery here is on equal terms “Who’s the slasher?” And “Why is Jade so angry and sad?” Again and again, just when I thought I knew what Jones was doing, he ingeniously anticipated and refuted my suspicions. Meanwhile, the novel pushes the boundaries of the horror genre, its entire first half is a slow burn that prompts the reader to invest deeply in Jade herself. It’s a whimsical and endearing creation whose insistence she lives in a movie extends to an incident in which she tries to dress up in disguise by using shoe polish to change the color of her hair. , with predictable horrific results. When an untimely death is blamed on a rogue grizzly bear, she remarks, “It wasn’t a bear, sheriff. Bears don’t have arcs of revenge.
Yes My heart is a chainsaw has a weakness, It’s that Jones is removing so many layers of guesswork and clichés that by the time the slasher plot’s bloody bill comes due, as it should, the climax feels a bit rushed. A paradox of horror stories is that the more they invite us to care about their characters, the less we welcome the terrible events that are the raison d’être of the genre. Most horror books and movies get around this by making their characters little more than helpful types whose suffering costs us nothing. In Jade’s case, and in the case of Proofrock himself, that doesn’t quite play out. Jones ends the novel with a reveal that connects its themes beautifully, but perhaps he underestimates how much readers will have invested in Jade and the people he surrounds her with, as well as the depth of the slasher’s blows when they finally arrive. “It’s not like she makes the rules,” Jade thinks at one point. “She just happens to know them all.” If only that would give him the power to break them too.
By Stephen Graham Jones. Gallery / Press Saga