Winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel
In her quickly gentrifying rural lake town Jade sees recent events only her encyclopedic knowledge of horror films could have prepared her for in this latest chilling novel that “will give you nightmares. The good kind, of course” (BuzzFeed) from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.
“Some girls just don’t know how to die…”
Shirley Jackson meets Friday the 13th in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, written by the New York Times bestselling author of The Only Good Indians Stephen Graham Jones, called “a literary master” by National Book Award winner Tananarive Due and “one of our most talented living writers” by Tommy Orange.
Alma Katsu calls My Heart Is a Chainsaw “a homage to slasher films that also manages to defy and transcend genre.” On the surface is a story of murder in small-town America. But beneath is its beating heart: a biting critique of American colonialism, Indigenous displacement, and gentrification, and a heartbreaking portrait of a broken young girl who uses horror movies to cope with the horror of her own life.
Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.
Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges…a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.
Jones (The Only Good Indians) expertly mixes the frightening and the funny in this no-holds-barred homage to classic horror tropes written under the heady influence of splatter films. Its outsider heroine is Jade Daniels, an affectionately cheeky 17-year-old high schooler of Blackfoot descent, who finds escape from her dead-end life in rural Proofrock, Idaho, by gorging on a steady diet of slasher flicks. When a spate of bizarre deaths targeting the wealthy residents of Proofrock's newly developed Terra Nova community rocks the town, Jade recognizes all of the elements of her favorite films' formulae at play. Certain that the deaths presage a bloody slaughter, she tries with little credulity from authorities to warn the town of what is coming. Jones weaves an astonishing amount of slasher film lore into his novel, punctuating the text with short term papers written by Jade on the history and functions of the genre. Meanwhile, the tension builds to a graphic finale perfectly appropriate for the novel's cinematic scope. Horror fans won't need to have seen all of the films referenced to be blown away by this audacious extravaganza.)
Phenomenal, emotionally urgent writing
MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW deals in slashers: their history, their tropes, their ways of healing, their lore. But none of that would be interesting, useful, or so inextricably crucial to STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES’ story without Jade, our resident expert in the genre.
Jade is not a model student, but is a fine investigative journalist in the making. She cares about her appearance, but only in the sense of “Will my Indian hair EVER absorb hair dye the way it should?” and “I’ve decided that however angry, rebellious, and/or ‘f**ck the world’ I feel is exactly proportionate to the thickness of my eyeliner.” She desperately wants to make honest human connections, but many people would rather she pretend to be normal — or worse, try to fix her.
She knows a slasher is coming to town, but nobody will believe her. Even as the body count begins to rise.
I have a solid sleep deficit because of this book. I could not put it down until my body started to pull hard shut-downs. But what is one to do with phrases like:
"But Jefferson Stoakes. None of us knew what to make of . . . what can you even think, when a kid you know turns up dead with a wasp nest not just crammed into his mouth, but kind of in PLACE of his mouth? And one detail Alison Chambers might still know from her dad was that Jefferson he was floating on his BACK. In the WATER. And yellow jackets, they'll avoid water. It gums their wings up or something. Or maybe it's like those baggies of water Dorothy puts up in the patio? You know Dorothy? Dot's? You too young for coffee yet? Give it a year. But we were all just stupid [bleeping] kids back then too -- no insult.”
“But now it's -- Amy Brockmeir, she was EATING, I piss you not. And then she looked up to me over the Trigo girl. What was left of her, I mean. Amy's hair was matted up, her nightgown all in rags. The lower part of her face was all black with -- well, with what she'd [serious bleep] been doing to the dam keeper's daughter.”
“The corner in the wall over by the copy machine is actually a giant fold in-process, and Jade, inside that white envelope, has checkboxes for eyes. The stool she’s stuck on has a sticky surface some greater tongue has already licked. Meg is a greasy black hair that’s fallen into the works to mess everything up…“
And perfectly nailed bits of humor, like:
“If anybody calls—” Hardy starts, “Route them through Dispatch,” Meg finishes. “And then tell you who they are, of course.”
“My Girl Friday,” Hardy says, sweeping past.
Jade has no idea what kind of pornographic pet name that might be, and doesn’t think she wants to know.”
You have no choice. You keep reading.
There is one last I want to share so badly, but it would ruin an enormous side plot and rob you of the emotional impact I was able to both enjoy and mourn. You’ll find it for yourself. You’ll know.
If you’re still on the fence, know MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW has inspired me to write an essay about what counts as a slasher in today’s society, what most people think it is and what I feel strongly able to argue it ACTUALLY is — thanks, Stephen, for educating me.
The mainstays of slashers:
1. A person is transformed by significant, mainly childhood trauma that sets them up to take on a murderous future.
2. A trauma trigger (usually on a commemorative day or when seeing a person related to the original trauma) calls out to the traumatized person until they sink into a villain’s mindset, on a mission to take revenge.
3. The killings begin, often through the lens of the villain stalking and killing individuals. Each murder involves gore and/or an unusual method of murder / weapon. As the slasher ramps up, there is less and less time between kills.
4. The survivors generally find these bodies themselves and the police are useless in assisting the survivors.
5. At the climax, there is a murderous rampage stopped by divine intervention, a hero’s battle/sacrifice, a final girl who has trauma of her own but regains personal power through vanquishing the killer, etc.
6. The reader experiences displacement, a psychiatric defense mechanism that transfers the reader’s feelings or reactions to the text, where it is easier to bear; recreation, a concept of recovery, restoration, and growth; and catharsis, a purge of the negative and a cleansing / purifying process. In other words, by reading a slasher, readers take time to align their emotional baggage onto the text, taking time and space enough to allow for a recovery and growth process to take place, one that centralizes letting go of the harmful thoughts and feelings displaced onto the book and feeling purified as a result.
This being true, there is a controversial path where today’s slashers rest, waiting to become tomorrow’s classics. But wait on that for now. I’m still shopping it around.
Instead, I’ll tell you where the great slashers aren’t. They’re beyond the remakes, torture/gore p*orn, slasher comedy, and call-backs to the Golden Age, like Fear Street, It Follows, The Invisible Man, etc.
They wait in a Greek amphitheater for an audience ready to put its suffering down and be purified with the help of a Final Girl who’ll “turn around, scream into his face that she's so sick of this, that this is ENOUGH, that this is over. And then, in a move not matched in all the years since, not even by Sidney Prescott, not even by slow motion Alice when Pamela Voorhees won't stop coming at her, not even by Jamie Lee Curtis in that long dark night of Haddonfield, Constance climbs up her slasher's frontside and because she has no weapon, because she IS the weapon, she forces her hand into her slasher's mouth, down his throat, and then she reaches in deeper, and comes out with his life pulsing in her fist.
To put it in conclusion, sir, final girls are the vessel we keep all our hope in. Bad guys don't just die by themselves, I mean. Sometimes they need help in the form of a furie running at them, her mouth open in scream, her eyes white hot, her heart forever pure.”
The first chapter grabbed me for sure. I didn’t care for the main character and I am a huge horror/slasher fan myself. I thought the writing was confusing and got lost a few chapters in. I made it to page 70 and returned to my local library.
Trauma as Horror
Months after finishing this, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. The story is amazing, and told in the searing narration of the main character. But she’s not the heroine. By fixating on another girl, a newcomer to town, our not-heroine rejects even surviving her ordeal let alone triumphing over it. The whodunit pales in comparison to our not-heroine’s obsession with making sure her heroine does survive. A chainsaw for a heart is no way to live, but it does make for a raw, emotional read.