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“Town reject, nice to meet you,” says Jennifer “Jade” Daniels, introducing herself to the improbably named and apparently perfect Letha Mondragon, the daughter of rich parents who are building an extremely posh neighborhood across the lake from Jade’s very unposh hometown. Stephen Graham Jones’ clever new horror novel, My Heart Is a Chainsaw, owes enough to Stephen King that you know the Idaho town’s name, Proofrock, is no accident. Both authors love studding their fiction with cultural references, high and low, and, like the evening in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Jade’s town lies like a patient etherized upon a table, awaiting gentrification, or worse.
Jade’s hoping for worse, which is why she’s so excited to meet Letha. The pop culture Jade marinates in, that has penetrated seemingly every cell in her body, is slasher movies, and she believes that a slasher narrative is about to commence in real life, right in Proofrock. She sees the signs of this everywhere, beginning with the discovery of the corpse of a Danish tourist found floating in the lake. This she recognizes as “the blood sacrifice the ritual needs to get going right.” Another sign is Letha herself. She is beautiful but demure, strong-willed yet kind, and above all she is innocent, which Jade considers to be an essential quality in a final girl.
For those not familiar 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 Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. The final girl is the sole survivor of the slasher rampage, a character who, in the end, summons the grit from deep inside herself to confront and defeat the killer. Clover’s coinage struck such a popular nerve that the final girl found her way into the titles of horror movies and books, as well as becoming a band name. Jade never mentions Clover, but Jones, in his afterword, thanks her “forevermuch,” and the novel is suffused with another of Clover’s key ideas about the slasher film: that it is at heart a story driven by revenge.
Jade spends most of the novel trying to figure out whose revenge is about to kick into spectacularly gory effect and attempting to coach the baffled Letha on the role that Jade believes will soon be thrust upon her. She sees herself not as the main character but as a peripheral figure, less a supporting role than the representative of a horror film’s invisible audience, shouting out advice (“No, don’t go in the cellar!”) that the heroine can neither hear nor heed. “There’s no camera on her, she knows,” Jones writes of Jade. “And there never was.” Like an audience, Jade both roots for Letha and gleefully anticipates the coming carnage, a catastrophe that she feels Proofrock deserves. She figures it will take place at the annual July 4th screening on the lake, in which, according to tradition, the movie Jaws (a proto-slasher, according to Jade) is projected on a floating screen to an audience in boats and inner tubes. “Life’s about to get real cheap around these parts,” the girl tells herself as her senior year draws to a close. “A lot of people’s insides are about to start being on the outside. Jade can hardly help smiling. Best graduation present 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 a long-ago massacre of a forbidden herd of elk. A similar wildlife slaughter occurs in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, because this novel is nothing if not a web of allusions to other works. My own horror fandom doesn’t typically extend to slashers, which have always seemed overly predictable and rigid to me, fueled by an inchoate teenage rage too far back in my own past to feel immediate. But Jones makes the case for the slasher as the sestina of adolescent fury; the very inflexibility of the form at once both weirdly comforting and a daunting challenge to anyone seeking to do anything original with it.
Jade is a veritable slasher scholar. Parts of the novel consist of class papers explaining the form to her beloved history teacher, who agrees to accept them for extra credit. She expounds on the slasher movie’s roots in the Italian giallo films of the 1970s, its golden age in the ’80s, and the “Scream Boom” of the late ’90s—movies in which the characters, like Jade, talk knowingly of the genre’s conventions even as they fall victim to the masked murderer who fulfills them. Slasher movies became giddily meta in the ’90s because what else could they do? The genre’s formulas are so confining and obvious that the only way to come up with fresh variations was to get outside them and talk about it before being sucked back into their bloody inevitabilities.
Literary novels—which is what My Heart Is a Chainsaw, for all its reveling in trashy pop culture, really is—care as much about character as plot, so the mystery here is equal parts “Who is the slasher?” and “Why is Jade so angry and sad?” Over and over again, just when I thought I knew what Jones was up to, he ingeniously anticipated and shot down my suspicions. Meanwhile, the novel stretches the boundaries of the horror genre, its whole first half a slow burn that tricks the reader into investing deeply in Jade herself. She’s a mercurial, endearing creation whose insistence that she’s living in a movie extends to an incident in which she tries to disguise herself by using shoe polish to change her hair color, with predictably horrid results. When an early death gets blamed on a rogue grizzly, she remarks: “It wasn’t a bear, Sheriff. Bears don’t have revenge arcs.”
If My Heart Is a Chainsaw has a weakness, it’s that Jones peels off so many layers of assumption and cliché that by the time the bloody bill of the slasher plot comes due, as it must, 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 genre’s raison d’être. Most horror books and films get around this by making their characters little more than serviceable types whose suffering costs us nothing. In the case of Jade, and in the case of Proofrock itself, that doesn’t quite play. Jones brings the novel to a close with a reveal that knits his themes together beautifully, but perhaps he underestimates how much readers will have invested in Jade and the people he’s surrounded her with, as well as how deeply the slasher’s blows cut when they finally come. “It’s not like she makes the rules,” Jade thinks at one point. “She just happens to know them all.” If only that also gave her the power to break them.