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Slasher Films Provide The Lens That Frames This Horror Story

My Heart is a Chainsaw, by Stephen Graham Jones
Gallery/Saga Press

Stephen Graham Jones' My Heart is a Chainsaw is a beautiful love letter to horror movies. However, the many classic slashers that splatter its pages are merely the top layer, and what hides beneath is just as dark, but far more real.

Jade Daniels — whose real name is Jennifer — embodies teenage angst. A lonely part-Indian outcast obsessed with slasher movies, Jade lives with her abusive, alcoholic father in the small town of Proofrock, Idaho. She doesn't speak to her mom. Jade has attempted suicide before, and she tries again on the verge of finishing high school. After a few weeks at a treatment center, she comes back to school, but something is different: Jade is convinced Proofrock has its own slasher, and when she meets Letha Mondragon, the gorgeous, smart and kindhearted daughter of a mogul who moved into the new fancy development still being built across the lake, she thinks she has found the requisite final girl.

Jade's knowledge of masked murderers makes her perfectly equipped to understand what's happening and to help Letha fulfill her role. But convincing Letha isn't easy, and the authorities aren't any better — despite the bodies that show up in the lake and the mangled rich guy they have to pick up in little sandwich bags. No one wants to listen to an outcast who loves horror, and that just accentuates Jade's loneliness and ramps up her obsession.

Jade is a memorable character who uses horror as a shield against the world. She loves watching slasher movies and even writes about them to make up her history grades (those essays are sprinkled throughout the novel and show off her encyclopedic knowledge of the genre). Slashers have a formula Jade knows well — but real life doesn't, so she spends a lot of time forcefully applying movie logic to the mayhem around her. Also, Jade's undying love for the genre (her email password is Haddonfield, the town where the Halloween movies take place, spelled backwards) helps her cope with her abusive father by imagining him into awful situations. Doing community service hours after she gets out of treatment, Jade uses her trash picker to stab a dead bird — warning, this scene is graphic:

The meaty feel and muted crunch comes up through the fiberglass pole into Jade's palm, and she makes it last as long as she can, imagines a paternal hand spread on the ground, fatherly fingers clutching at the gravel, a left work boot jerking involuntarily, blood leaking down into the whorls of an ear. Right or left, it doesn't matter.

The "right or left" is something she also says when imagining stabbing her father in the eye. While that's appalling, it also points to something Jones does very well: keeping running threads going through the novel. Recurring images and jokes — "Ding ding ding, give the man a headstone, he's dead" — make the darkness and creepiness in My Heart is a Chainsaw a little less dark and creepy and a lot more enjoyable, and that makes the worst parts hit harder.

Jones' novels are literary cakes that lure readers with their frosting of blood and chaos and then surprise them with the smart, soulful goodness lying underneath.

Jones' novels are literary cakes that lure readers with their frosting of blood and chaos and then surprise them with the smart, soulful goodness lying underneath. In My Heart is a Chainsaw, Jones does it again, and he's as brilliant as ever. Jade can't stop referencing Jaws, Halloween, A Bay of Blood, Friday the 13th, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, My Bloody Valentine and more — so it's easy to think her story is merely a celebration of horror. But as the story progresses, the real bad things emerge: Child abuse, alcoholism, discrimination, and gentrification are all as present here as masked killers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees.

My Heart is a Chainsaw is a deconstruction of slasher films that celebrates everything about them. However, its heart — the real cake under the shiny bloody frosting — is Jade, a girl whose trauma makes her a final girl dreaming of being behind a killer's mask. "Horror's not a symptom, it's a love affair," she says, while trying to prove that her father didn't molest her. Those words will have horror fans nodding their heads in understanding.

Jones' love for playing with genre tropes — and his knack for mixing them up with social commentary (while obliterating clichés about Native Americans) — has a long history that includes novels like The Last Final Girl, Mongrels, Attack of the 50 Foot Indian, and The Only Good Indians. With My Heart is a Chainsaw, he continues to pay homage to horror while creating an unforgettable heroine/final girl/horror weirdo who forces readers to rethink revenge and triumph in the shadow of trauma. Yes, Jones' heart is a chainsaw, a meat hook and a machete, but there are great intentions behind every wound it causes, and this book is proof of that.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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