A year and a half ago, I wrote that Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart is a Chainsaw was, among other things, a love letter to the slasher genre. If that’s the case, then its sequel, Don’t Fear the Reaper, is like an increasingly passionate correspondence with a long-distance lover. Also, the ink is blood and the paper is made from crushed-up bones.
Some spoilers to the end of My Heart is a Chainsaw are unavoidable. You’ve been warned. Also, before reading about Don’t Fear the Reaper, please take a moment to listen to the song, which has been stuck in my head since page one.
A little over four years after the disastrous Fourth of July celebration that turned into a bloodbath for the tiny Idaho town of Proofrock, Jade Daniels is a free woman again, after having been the scapegoat for some of said bloodbath. She returns to Proofrock changed, a GED and college correspondence classes under her belt, her brightly colored hair grown out to its natural jet black, going by her birth name of Jennifer—and has all but given up her old obsession of the slasher movie genre. Her few friends in Proofrock have changed, too. Letha Mondragon, the promised final girl of Chainsaw, has a baby, a new plastic jaw, and a shockingly healthy romantic relationship. Sheriff Hardy has retired and started using a walker as age, injury, and ailment rapidly catch up with him.
But Jennifer has little time to settle in before the deaths start. Two teenagers are brutally killed at a motel, and a third escapes with her life. Although the murders seem senseless and random, a convicted serial killer, Dark Mill South, who escaped from his prison transport along a nearby highway seems like a pretty good bet—especially when he kills again. With a hook for a hand and a penchant for killing people in increasingly clever and horrific ways, Dark Mill South is a slasher who can compete with the best of them. Taking him down will require a real final girl. As a blizzard shuts Proofrock away from the outside world and the body count keeps rising, it’s all Jennifer can do to stay one step ahead of the killer—and hope there’s only one murderer out in the snow.
Previously, Jade was the one trying to warn others of danger. Since the massacre that summer, though, she’s become far from the only one who has devoured slasher films. In Chainsaw, her devotion to the genre was one of survival and escape. In Reaper, the reasons why others find resonance in the genre vary: some as part of a way to work through their trauma, some to feed a sick fascination with the bloodbath they’ve only heard stories of, some to use as a training manual for next time. It’s an exploration of why people are drawn to movies centered on violence and death and fear. It’s the kind of thing Jade would love, but all Jennifer wants to talk about is anything but slashers, while the people around her, and the events surrounding her, refuse.
A lot of the emotional force of the book circles around that issue. When our heroine was Jade, she was forcefully trying to define herself contrary to what her father and community saw her as. As Jennifer, she wants peace and quiet, but doing so means ignoring all she once was. It’s a fascinating parallel to the push and pull of identity when you grow from teenager to adult, albeit pumped full of steroids and steeped in buckets of blood. Who is she? Who does she want to be? Who would she have been if she were not fighting all the time against the assumptions of others?
In my review of Chainsaw, I called Jones’ writing “unflinching,” which is consistently true across his work. Chainsaw was violent, for sure, but in Reaper, Jones ups the horror. He might not blink from the deaths in this book—spilled innards or people impaled on antlers or a killer musing about what it would take to skin a victim alive, and then trying it out—but there were moments when I needed to take a moment. Collect myself. Think of daisies. Make sure my skin was all where it was supposed to be. I get most of my reading done before bed, but there were nights reading Reaper when I wished I’d gotten my reading done earlier. Maybe morning. Whether this is a criticism or an endorsement depends on the reader, but don’t every say I didn’t warn you. I do recommend reading or re-reading My Heart is a Chainsaw immediately before reading Don’t Fear the Reaper, since so many of the events and people from the last book are crucial to this one.
Still, I can’t stop thinking about the world Jones has built, as violent as it is. Somehow, beneath all the gore, there’s a heart beating with as much substance as there is blood (and there’s a lot of blood). I can only imagine how much the violence and body count will escalate when Jones wraps up this trilogy, and where—and who—Jade/Jennifer will find herself at the end of it all.
Keep it coming, Jones.