A Review of Stephen Graham Jones’ “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”
When I think of Indigenous horror, my thoughts turn to the original 1982 version of Poltergeist. That’s a movie that warns about the dangers of building your home on top of a Native American graveyard. I couldn’t help but think of Poltergeist as I read Indigenous author Stephen Graham Jones’ new novel, My Heart Is a Chainsaw. For one, it has an Indigenous protagonist, and, in its way, it is a book about what happens when you mess with the spirits of those among whom have lived on this land long before the First Contact (but I hope I’m not saying too much here). However, what My Heart Is a Chainsaw is concerned with is that subgenre of horror films known as the slasher flick. The book is one big sopping love letter to all of the Michael Myers, Jason Voorheeses, Freddy Kruegers, and Ghostfaces that populate the big screen. In fact, this book has so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to slasher movies both well-known and obscure that spotting them all is part of the fun. However, slasher films are not known for their quality, and, sadly, despite some promise, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a book that runs only on a quarter of a tank of gas.
The book — like many titles in this pandemic era — is set in the recent past of the year 2015 in the idyllic town of Proofrock, Idaho. Jade Daniels is a half-Indian (the book doesn’t cop to “political correctness” much, despite its authorship), 17-year-old girl who is infatuated with slasher movies, so much so that she writes essays about them for extra credit so she can pass her History class to graduate from high school. (These essays are interspersed between proper chapters of the read.) Proofrock is being gentrified by wealthy outsiders who have brought yachts and fancy homes to the side of the lake (called Indian Lake, natch) directly opposite the town, a new quasi-gated community that has been dubbed “Terra Nova” (which, of course, means “New World”). This new housing development encroaches on a National Forrest, meaning that conservation and nature preservation are being pushed aside in the pursuit of building mansions for the enjoyment of these rich out-of-towners. Anyhow, one day, some young tourists from the Netherlands wind up dead in the lake, and Jade is convinced that a horror movie cycle is starting up in her town as a result. She even has a “final girl” (a virginal girl who winds up killing the killer in slashers) pegged: Letha Mondragon, who happens to live on that “other” side of the lake and who is, incidentally, Black. (Not very many Black final girls are out there, after all.) Can Jade coach Letha into becoming all that she was meant to be so that the horrors of what’s happening around Indian Lake can be stopped?
To say a few good words about the book, Jade Daniels is an appealing protagonist, and Graham Jones writes a convincing female character for much of the book’s reading time. Seeing the world of the slasher movie through an Indigenous lens is fascinating, and Jade is a compelling outsider who is at odds with everybody in town. And seeing how the novel plays out against slasher tropes — the police are incompetent, for starters — is deeply satisfying. In some ways, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a revisionist horror novel that has fun with the genre’s conventions in the same way the Scream franchise did in the movies.
However, that’s where one’s enjoyment of the read might end. For one thing, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is overlong. It takes a long time for the body count to start piling up, which is antithetical to slasher movies, and when it does, the novel starts to fizzle out rather than fire on all cylinders. This is because, for as much as the author is invested in slashers, he doesn’t paint a convincing portrait of the town or most of its supporting characters. It’s really hard for those pictures to form inside your head of the action that’s supposed to be going on when it turns out that most of the drama is internal — this is Jade’s story, and the book is really about what turned her into the slasher-loving misfit that she is. There’s an element of Jade’s life that is noticed by other characters, and Graham Jones spends way too much time here in the midsection of the novel for a reveal that comes in the climax that you can pretty much see coming a mile away.
The other main issue is that Jade isn’t the real hero of the story (that would be, perhaps, Letha Mondragon). We see the action through Jade’s point-of-view as a more passive character, and, while I think I get the author’s decision to treat her as such (as a political comment, perhaps), this doesn’t make for a very exciting book. This means we get pages and pages of Jade tromping through the woods, spying on people as they, say, discover bodies, which is about as riveting as watching paint dry. And for someone who is part Randy Meeks from Scream and part Crazy Ralph from Friday the 13th, Jade doesn’t do much in the way of convincing Letha of her true destiny — Jade simply drops off a horror movie Letha should watch as prep at her home, but then insinuates things to Letha rather than spell it all out for her. The latter would have made for a much more thrilling narrative. Finally, Jade does things without explanation — such as, when things start really cooking in terms of dead people popping out of the woodwork, she cuts off all of her hair a la Tommy Jarvis from Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. There is no explanation for why she does this, and the only reason for doing this is that — minor spoiler here — it saves her goose from being cooked later on.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw then is a squandered opportunity. It aims to be of a higher quality than the slasher genre than it is based on, but the novel is perhaps so enamoured by the concept of slashers to begin with that it doesn’t quite rise above. The novel is written in long, run-on sentences — in an attempt to parlay how an outsider teenaged girl might talk and think — and is sometimes extremely hard to read. This is a determent to the book because, again, Graham Jones was trying to elevate the slasher into something of value worthy of critical examination. The attempt is appreciated — surely, there are good slashers out there such as the original Halloween and the first Scream movie (the book even makes the case for Jaws being a slasher flick) that make the genre worthy of being celebrated. Alas, the writing isn’t quite there. This is unfortunate because Graham Jones relays in his acknowledgments at the novel’s end that he spent 10 years and multiple attempts to get the story right. I’d hate to see those earlier drafts. In the end, My Heart Is a Chainsaw doesn’t rev as it should. Certainly, the research was there for an interesting read and, if you’re a horror buff, this could be a lot of fun with the pop culture references and essays about slashers that pepper the book. My heart, alas, just wasn’t into this one due to the slipshod writing that cuts like a dull chainsaw blade. Unless you want a read a book for its winks and nods, you should probably take a pass on this.
Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw will be published by Gallery / Saga Press / Simon & Schuster on August 31, 2021.
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