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Stephen Graham Jones Slashes Deep in My Heart Is a Chainsaw

Stephen Graham Jones Slashes Deep in My Heart Is a Chainsaw
Gary Issacs
Although Stephen Graham Jones has been writing terrifying stories for the past two decades, he gained enormous attention for his 2020 book, The Only Good Indians. Now the University of Colorado Boulder professor has released his next novel, his most ambitious work to date: My Heart Is a Chainsaw.

Jones usually takes six weeks to write the first draft of one of his novels, then another few months to finalize it. But My Heart Is a Chainsaw took ten times as long. “I’ve never lived with a novel for eight years,” he says. “This is absolutely the longest it’s ever taken me to get a novel complete. If a novel isn’t working in two or three months, I throw it away and say it must not be working at some level I can’t access.”

Jones started writing My Heart Is a Chainsaw, which chronicles the story of a small lakeside town in Idaho where a string of mass murders is taking place, back in 2013. The original narrative was told through the first-person perspective of multiple characters, influenced by Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides, and there was no singular protagonist. Jones didn’t find his main character until 2016, at the urging of beta readers, and then he honed the novel for a few more years.

“I believed in this community and this dynamic enough that I kept pushing and kept playing with it and finally figured it out,” he says.

His time was well spent. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is so much more than just a lock-yourself-in-your-room, pull-up-the-covers-and-shred-your-cuticles first-rate horror novel. It doubles as a hefty volume of feminist slasher-film criticism, inspired by theorist Carol Clover's final-girl theory, from the perspective of main character Jade Daniels. This troubled teen, on the verge of a bleak adulthood, struggles with her own domestic trauma and disgust with her depressing home of Proofrock, Idaho. There she’s treated as the “horror girl,” a weirdo with a morbid sense of humor and a nagging death drive that gets her into trouble with teachers and the law.

Proofrock is still haunted by its legacy of settler violence against Indigenous people, and more recently by nearby gentrification across Indian Lake. There, a group of wealthy outsiders known as the Founders have begun building their own community, Terra Nova, away from the frantic pace of the East Coast. The community is the sort of neo-colonial real estate conquest that’s overrunning so much of the West these days and making it unaffordable to longtime residents — and it also stands as a symbol for the European genocide against Native Americans.

Indian Lake, which sits between Proofrock and Terra Nova, is haunted by a creature known as the Lake Witch. The site the Founders are building on is troubled land, the epicenter of the haunting. Murders start happening in the community, and the killer is masked and voiceless — in the tradition of Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th — dressed as the fabled witch. Or is it possible the witch herself has actually surfaced?

Horror is Jade’s religion, she confesses in one of many diary entries about the slasher genre that she writes for her history teacher. Those first-person journals, in an otherwise third-person novel, were among Jones’s later embellishments. The structure of the slasher film is how Jade understands the world, her town’s history and her own personal abuse. And that religion begins to come in handy — sort of — after a couple of European tourists are brutally killed at the lake, more murders ensue, and life begins mirroring the slasher genre she’s devoted her life to studying.

Will her knowledge of the genre and her obsession with the “final girl,” the last character to survive a slasher by killing the monster, help save her or doom her? Will the real world actually operate according to the rules of her slasher religion established in her bibles like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, the Scream series and dozens of other movies cited in the book? Or is what Jade is facing less predictable, more horrible than Hollywood depicts? Something from which no amount of knowledge of the genre can protect her?

While there is plenty of commentary in the book about the despicable gentrifiers ruining Jade’s town and the role of wealth in uprooting historic and Native communities, Graham is hesitant to describe his book as activist fiction. And it isn’t, any more than Candyman is anti-racist advocacy or Jaws is anti-capitalist propaganda about the evils of putting profit over public health. Those films offer social commentary, of course — but they're viewed first and foremost as entertainment. My Heart Is a Chainsaw works the same way.

Jones acknowledges that his identity as a member of the Blackfeet Nation comes with certain expectations about the kind of work he does and the sort of praise he receives.

“I think just me being Blackfeet, being American Indian, writing in horror is itself an activist statement,” Jones says. “It’s telling the world that I don’t have to tell stories steeped in the oral tradition. I don’t have to tell stories that are ringing all the bells you expect a story from someone like me to write.”

He has been dubbed the Jordan Peele of horror literature by Entertainment Weekly — a comparison he’s proud of. “I never actually think of myself as doing social commentary,” he says. “I think of myself as having certain chips on my shoulder. And I can't help but get those on the page when I write. Yeah, I have my little petty grievances and everything. I'm sure all my jealousies and stuff get on the page as well. People don’t call me out on that. They just compliment me on social commentary.”

Yet it’s his obsession with horror and personal turmoil that fuels My Heart Is a Chainsaw. It’s also what’s taking his career mainstream. In addition to becoming a popular author, Jones is seeing his books optioned for films, he’s collaborating on another project that he’s not ready to talk about, and he’s collaborating on comic books, too.

For those introduced to Jones through The Only Good Indians, a revenge novel that somehow manages to make elk scary (a theme echoed in My Heart Is a Chainsaw in gory detail), he might seem an overnight success — which isn’t exactly how things have worked out for him.

“I’ve been publishing since 2000 and doing books. Nobody’s listening, and I keep doing books,” he says. “I was listening to an interview the other day with Boris Karloff’s daughter, and they asked her, ‘What was it like when your father was an overnight sensation?’ She said, ‘Well, he was an overnight sensation after 41 movies.’ That’s kind of how I feel....

“I think it’s largely a game of luck,” he continues. “My philosophy was always: It’s just like throwing darts. I’m not just going to throw one dart. I’m going to put as many darts in the air as I can, and eventually, I’ll hit a bullseye.”

Jones has definitely hit the target with My Heart Is a Chainsaw, whether it's in creating a perfect mix of classic horror, delving into the psychology of a troubled character, exploring race and class in a town caught up in social conflict, or simply scaring the bejeezus out of readers. He doesn't need to rely on ghosts and vampires and monsters to do any of that; he’s more afraid of humans and what they can do to each other.

“People are really what scare me the most,” he admits. “I mean, you never know if your neighbor is wearing a mask or not, you know? If the person you see across a barbecue grill is really the person who is there."

For more about Stephen Graham Jones, visit his website,
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris