My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones (2021)

It must be the year of the ironic slasher. Twice now in 2021 I’ve read a whodunnit rooted in the lore of slasher films, both kidding and using for atmosphere that once critically detested genre. The first was Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group, a brilliant mystery novel about a cast of characters modelled on famous final girls, being stalked by a new nemesis. Now comes My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones, a more moody and Catcher in the Rye-ish story about a teenage girl who’s obsessed with slasher films and convinced that her podunk hometown is set to become the stage for one.

Jones is a Native American writer, which I mention because his heritage influences the themes of his work. Chainsaw’s heroine, Jade, is the Native daughter of an abusive alcoholic, long ago disfigured in a car accident, who constantly complains that he was born in the wrong age and would have scalped the European settlers. (In a painful early scene, she reflects that he would really have been begging for whiskey from white men.)

Isolated, mentally ill, and largely ignored by her community, she ages out of high school without graduating and spends her last months in education writing a history project about slasher films, connected to her local area via legends and old tragedies, like the Lake Witch and Camp Blood. Then she meets Letha Mondragon, a high-achieving Black girl from the wealthy new development across Indian Lake. She’s charming and saintly and privileged. Just the right mould to make a Final Girl…

This review gives me as good an excuse as any to pontificate for a bit on slasher films, one of my favourite subjects. The genre was properly codified in the ‘80s, but it has its roots in three proto-slashers, most closely Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The third is Psycho, which popularised such tropes as the vividly dressed killer, distinctive setting, Freudian motivation, sexual menace, and bladed weapon.

These films are classics, with Psycho in particular being one which even the snootiest critics revere, to a point where it feels odd to call them slashers. They’re popular entertainment, but they’re also art pieces, and let’s face it, the slashers of the Golden Age aren’t. The best of them are workmanlike and functional, produced quickly and cheaply in order to exploit popular tropes for as wide an audience as possible. The late film critic Roger Ebert told a story about when a friend of his was in town and asked if a certain new release was worth seeing. He said that it was the best film of the year. Oh no, she replied, I don’t think that’s for us…

Likewise, studios turning out slashers didn’t care about acclaim and might even have downplayed it if it came. Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and all their attendant sequels were fast food, meant to please your palate, not refine it. Nonetheless, the formula that these films created incidentally hit dramatic pay-dirt with their themes of insanity, revenge, trauma, abuse, and grief. (Mrs Voorhees went mad after losing her son to neglectful counsellors, the killers in Sleepaway and Silent Night were abused orphans, and so on.)

In the ‘90s this gave birth to the ironic slasher, which commented on and subverted the formula. Examples are still coming thick and fast today, though they’re now in the post (or maybe even post-post) ironic stage. They’ve reached a point where many of them now feel more like comedies than horror films.

Scream was the first of the ironic megahits. (Though director Wes Craven would do a sort of dry run with ‘94’s New Nightmare, a meta entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise he’d kicked off in the Golden Age.) But Scream was still a dark and menacing slasher film, with bloody murders that felt relatively real and characters with surprising motivations. A more recent slasher like Freaky, starring Vince Vaughan as a relatively arbitrary villain who switches souls with the final girl, is funny and enjoyable but not really affecting on a dramatic level.

Now, books like The Final Girl Support Group and My Heart is a Chainsaw bring us full circle, incorporating parody but still feeling “real” as stories. Of the two, Chainsaw is more grounded in a socially realistic world, addressing issues of systemic racism and classism. It’s subtly the story of America as viewed through the eyes of a Native. Main character Jade’s home town of Proofrock’s new rich settlers, though racially diverse, are nicknamed the Founders for a reason. Like the Founding Fathers, they stake their claim to a new world, filled with good or at least lofty intensions, but not altogether mindful of the divides both illuminated and intensified by their presence. The name Proofrock itself feels like a reference to the TS Eliot poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, about a man who measured out his life in coffee spoons, just as the heroine of this book measures out hers in slasher films.

Jones doesn’t harp on the social themes, but weaves them in with the grace of a novelist. He doesn’t make Jade’s racial heritage the sum total of her existence, but illustrates how it others her from her own community, and how it crops up in a hundred little micro-aggressions, like a neon bar sign depicting a dying Indian.

The title of each chapter is also that of a slasher film (Hell Night, Final Exam, etc) and this combined with the discussion of the genre throughout was very enjoyable to me. Some other slasher fans might find the plotting a little slow, however. Jones takes a couple of hundred pages to run through what a Golden Age slasher film would have in half an hour. An early chapter, for instance, covers roughly two to three minutes of story time in its entirety, just describing how Jade feels when she first meets Letha. Though I was conscious of this I didn’t mind it, since this is a psychological as well as a slasher novel, but if you’re just here for the slasher plot you might find it tedious.

What My Heart is a Chainsaw essentially does is invert the structure of a slasher. A traditional film of that genre would dedicate the larger portion of its running time to characters in immediate peril, reducing the setup to a concise prologue and build. Jones expands on the setup, using tropes from detective fiction and a great deal of both character and thematic work to make that the larger portion of the story. (It’s perhaps no surprise that among his references is Agatha Christie, queen of the Golden Age detective novel and inadvertent slasher originator with And Then There Were None…, at one time known as Ten Little Indians.)

The actual stalk ‘n’ chase stuff involving our heroine comes in the final act, which is when our Jason/Freddy/Michael stand-in finally materialises. We’ve spent so long in Jade’s mind by this point, wondering exactly how crazy she is as she connects real life to a slasher plot, that the last act comes as kind of a shock in that respect. My Heart is a Chainsaw fully commits to being a slasher in this final segment, but from beginning to end is a compelling and haunting murder mystery.

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