My Heart is a Chainsaw, by Stephen Graham Jones

Few other genres remind me of how subjective taste in entertainment is like horror. Mystery readers are after a solution to a puzzle. Romance readers want that happily ever after. Horror, however, reminds me that what scares us is highly variable. I can’t bear jump scares and tend to gravitate toward psychological horror. My Heart is a Chainsaw, by Stephen Graham Jones, is an outlier for me. Years of reading serial killer novels as a teen really put me off of gore. These days, I can read violence but only if it’s not used for shock value and if there are good plots and characters. So why am I reading such a bloody book? Two reasons. First, I try to scare myself (or at least seriously creep myself out) for Halloween. Second, I trust Jones to give me a great read, after the magnificent The Only Good Indians.

Jade knows very well that she’s the weirdo of Proofrock, Idaho. It didn’t take her long to convince me, either. The first chapter of the book introduces Jade as she introduces herself to a group of construction workers by delivering a breakneck breakdown of slasher films. Slasher movies (a distinct subgenre of horror) seem to comprise Jade’s entire personality until her inner monologue gives us more clues about her life: an alcoholic Indigenous father who’s told Jade that she’s out on her eighteenth birthday, a mother who abandoned her, no friends, sexual harassment from her father’s friend, and something that happened to her around the age of eleven that she will not talk about. We also quickly learn that Jade has internalized all the slasher movies she’s watched to the extent that she interprets everything around her in terms of plot tropes and archetypes. This kicks into high gear when a new girl enrolls at Jade’s high school. Letha fits every criterion of a Final Girl. Letha even manages to find the first body is, from Jade’s perspective, a real-life slasher playing out in Proofrock.

In between chapters set in Jade’s present, during the summer after what was supposed to be her last semester of high school, are excerpts from Jade’s writing about local horror legends (the Lake Witch and Ezekiel of Drown Town) and her thoughts about slasher plot arcs and characters. We later learn that Jade uses these writings, along with a VHS copy of A Bay of Blood, to try and prepare Letha to be a true Final Girl. Because this is real life, however, things are a lot more complicated. Jade’s plan to train a Final Girl goes awry. The sheriff is far too good at keeping an eye on Jade as she creeps around town. Also, bear attacks are a much more plausible explanation for grisly deaths in a town on the edge of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.

The fun truly begins when other people realize that Jade was right all along. (We readers knew from the prologue that there was something awful going on in Proofrock.) Jade and Letha are tested in a galloping series of scares and fights. Reading those scenes was a brutal contrast to Jade’s inter-chapter essays, which laid out the arc from prank to revenge in semi-academic criticism. And even though Jade believes that she’s been preparing for something like what happens at the end of My Heart is a Chainsaw all her life, even she is forced to find hidden depths within herself. She’ll never be just the weird girl after what happens to Proofrock.

This book was a great scary read for Halloween. I was delighted to learn that a sequel is soon to drop and that this series is going to be a trilogy.

Caribou-Targhee National Forest west of Alpine, Wyoming, 2018. (Photo by Nate Lowe, via Wikicommons)

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