Typically the term “unflinching” is used when talking about works of Very Serious Fiction or Nonfiction (an even more serious genre than Very Serious Fiction), of which genre fiction like horror is not typically a part. But the more I read of Stephen Graham Jones’ work, the more I can’t get past that word as a way of describing just how he delivers terror so precisely. My Heart is a Chainsaw is no exception. Yet within the horror-story format (and sometimes it becomes quite a meta format indeed), the story is less about all becoming equal in their respective bloody deaths and more about the assumptions we place upon others, and ourselves, in life.
His latest novel follows Jade, a high school senior in small-town Idaho whose life is essentially devoid of value except for her utter devotion to slasher movies. She’s seen ’em all, knows every one by heart, and she’ll talk about them to anyone who will listen (and several people who won’t). She gets a captive audience, of a sort, in her history teacher, for whom she is writing a series of extra-credit papers to make up for the two months of school she missed after a suicide attempt. In those papers, Jade revisits plots and archetypes of various movies, eras, or the genre as a whole. When two people are killed in fairly quick succession through bizarre “accidents” around the town lake and the ritzy new subdivision being built beside it, though, Jade sees the beats of any number of slashers happening in real life.
Luckily, she knows just what to do. She starts by sending a video tape and an explanatory letter to Leitha, one of the new move-ins whom Jade considers to be just pretty, confident, and damaged enough to be the “final girl” of this particular story. Jade warns the sheriff, too, but her early preparations backfire when her history teacher, the sheriff, and the “final girl” stage an intervention of sorts about trouble at home—an absent mother, an abusive alcoholic father and his abusive alcoholic friends frequenting Jade’s house—that could be Jade’s motivation for liking slashers. Against this stubborn refusal of these three people (arguably the only three people in Jade’s life that care about her) to see the danger coming for them, Jade sets off to prove it on her own. But the most violent part of this budding slasher film is coming even sooner than she expects, and she finds she might be in a different sort of horror film altogether.
When I initially read the back-cover description of My Heart is a Chainsaw, I assumed our heroine would be thrilled at the knowledge that she holds and deftly use it to escape danger, to outwit the slasher, to emerge victorious at the end of the bloody day. But Jade is resigned; she does not fit the mold of the “final girl”—the pretty, popular girl who would face the killer time and time again and only just walk away. Jade is so far beyond not popular she’s nearly the town pariah; she’s Blackfoot and subject to subject to all kinds of careless assumptions about her family and heritage; and possibly worst of all, she cannot get her black hair to dye the vibrant colors she so wants it to, so she’s left with a muddled, color-damaged mess. She knows what the slasher genre demands as its hero and she is not it. As things start to go down, Leitha hands Jade a machete Jade had previously given her as part of her “preparation,” but Jade refuses. If I take that, she tells Leitha, I’ll die. Leitha is the heroine of this story and all Jade can do is share her knowledge and hope she’s enough on the fringes to stay out of the crosshairs.
Jade is certainly not a passive character—at turns she cuts a wrist (CW for suicide on this book, by the way), sneaks confidential information out of the sheriff’s office, throws a garbage can through the doors of her high school, breaks out of jail, and…well, all the stuff she does to not get murdered as we race to a conclusion. Often in stories, we see the main character as the most active character, probably because creative writing teachers and writing groups rightly insist that it’s difficult (and boring) to read about a passive character to whom things simply happen, so it’s interesting to have such an active character and such a main character of this book very specifically not considering herself to be the main character of the most compelling story happening around her.
As I said, “unflinching” comes to mind a lot when reading Jones. Gore and other stomach-clenching elements are common fare in horror, but there’s a fine line between showing plot events and voyeurism. Jones manages to stay on the side of the former, though uses the attention a lesser writer might give voyeuristically to lay out the things in Jade’s life that are horrific on their own without a single drop of blood being shed: her pervy boss, the emotional minefield between her and her respective parents, the terrible balancing act she’s forced to do with her father when the sheriff tries to tug her away from the path of self-destruction she’s speeding down. It’s there; we see it, a little more clearly than perhaps we wanted, but that’s sort of the point. In his author’s note, Jones writes about the power an influential teacher can have on a troubled student—how one person, be it that teacher, or a peer, or a community leader can step in and actually see someone for who they are and who they can be. It’s a magical concept, one far more optimistic than the plot eventually leads you to believe is possible (which I don’t think is a spoiler—this is a horror novel). I suppose there’s something unflinching about that, too, in showing what could be but ultimately, frequently, isn’t.
While the genre usually encourages page-turning action, and the content in My Heart is a Chainsaw is absolutely tense enough to make us want to race to the end to find out what happens to our intrepid heroine(s), Jones’ writing demands careful reading, which is probably another reason that word “unflinching” comes to mind so much. I wouldn’t call his writing spare, exactly, but it is concise in that there isn’t the kind of narrative gristle that can help imply details certain uncareful readers might have missed as they were, again, racing to the end. At the beginning of one not-long paragraph, a character might be alive; by the end, they are dead and the action has shifted. Jones requires you read every word. He requires that you sit with every bit of movement. There is no looking away. You can learn patience, a little bit, in reading how things are going horribly wrong for someone else.
My Heart is a Chainsaw is solidly a horror novel, and it’s unquestionably a love letter to the slasher genre. But it’s also about the assumptions we make about people, especially living in a small ecosystem such as a high school or a tiny town. It’s about the expectations we place upon others and ourselves, and how those can be self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s about so many other things that will linger with me long after the stench of decay is forgotten. And as those kinds of things sear themselves into your memory, you won’t want to look away.