[Review] Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart is A Chainsaw
Horror has always been a more complex genre than most people give it credit for. Any given day on the Internet will show the ever-going debate of horror’s political commentary abilities. As it has always done, the genre has become the hot spot for confrontation with the things we do not wish to face out loud, only now more artists are letting the mask slip a little to reveal the undead and undying monster beneath — and his resemblance to humanity is shaking even those who never bothered to look. Horror’s greatest strength is its ability to tackle complex themes most other genres shy away from with deceptive simplicity, and nowhere is this tool of the trade more effectively used than the slasher.
Even among genre fans slashers are, on the whole, accepted as something on the lighter side. When you don’t want to think too deeply or be faced with something too upsetting, throw on any of the big three. The worlds of Jason, Michael, and Freddy are comforting to most of us in one way or another. Later franchise entries aside, the establishing films in each of these and most other slashers are strong stories that do something no other area of film or art is willing or even necessarily equipped to do. Part of the comfort of this subgenre is its formulaic predictability; its mask, weapon, and motive are one and the same, designed to lure you into a sense of security while creating some tension. You know going in that the Final Girl (or guy, in some cases) will ultimately defeat the Big Bad, and that most of her friends are destined to be fodder for the killer to wade through before the ultimate face off. But what sets a slasher apart is its ability to align audiences with each piece of its grimy little puzzle.
Yes, we all ultimately want to be the Final Girl, the survivor who faced the worst evil of their lives and made it to the other side. But the slasher has no shame in placing us into the role of the killer or victim either. The genre paradox is that its strict formula allows for the morality and roles to be less clear cut. We cheer for both Jason and Alice, we mourn for Annie.
Playing in the slasher sandbox effectively requires an understanding and devotion to the things that make it unique, and few show their love with more passion and urgency than Stephen Graham Jones in his latest novel, My Heart Is A Chainsaw. Horror fan extraordinaire Jade wants nothing more than for a slasher to come up from the dead and wreak havoc on the town that sees her as little more than the socially ostracized “horror girl”. But when it seems like her wish is being granted, she feels compelled to prepare the perfect final girl for survival armed with nothing but her encyclopedic knowledge of slashers and their conventions. As the stakes rise and the situation becomes more life-or-death than even she is ready for, Jade must confront some truths and face some demons she has long kept buried even from herself.
Jones has always kept his slasher love on his sleeve, but My Heart Is A Chainsaw feels constructed of the blood and sinew that keeps the genre pushing forward. While the seeds of tropes are planted, what thrives from them is a complex narrative about issues not even Jade’s own community wishes to face directly. Jade herself is a mosaic reflection of her beloved genre. Part villain, part victim, part heroine, Jade is a true composite of all of us, unabashedly herself and unafraid to keep her passions alive in the face of a community who seeks to cast her aside because of them. She is given the space to be imperfect and to mess up and misread, to both love and hate the place that has made her believe she is worth more as a story bleeding out in a lake than as a living person. She is allowed to reckon with her own angst and issues the way most horror fans do: by examining them sidelong through the genre that gives us the fantasy of justice.
Most importantly, perhaps, she is allowed to be angry and messy and complicated without being made into someone less-than in our eyes. It is no coincidence that the center of the story is someone who has confined herself to nothing more than a fringe audience role. Beaten down by a community that repeatedly casts her as either an outright freak and potential threat or someone dancing the line of becoming another statistic, the idea of being a hero is, to Jade, so uncomfortable as to be almost repulsive. The spotlight is never somewhere she wanted to nor thought she would be, yet she quietly performs small acts of heroism throughout the story.
Her violent streak of thinking that fuels her wish for a real-life-slasher scenario never makes her bad, nor any less sympathetic. Rather, if you see yourself in her the way I did you can recognize it for what it is fairly early on — a response to trauma that boils down to nothing more than the desire to be free from demons that press so hard on your shoulders you both forget and are hypervigilant to their presence. Jade’s position in and journey through the slasher of her life goes beyond paying homage to a beloved genre and instead deconstructs it in subtle yet necessary ways.
On more than one occasion Jade grapples with the idea that she is nothing more than a sideline cheerleader for the true Final Girl of her homegrown slasher scenario, Letha Mondragon. Jade shoulders the responsibility of educating the beyond-perfect trope embodiment that is the new girl in school who lives on the rich side of the lake, but never truly considers herself on par with her, or even necessarily good enough to be friends. As the story progresses and Jade’s position shifts, we recognize her for what she is and watch as she flounders to understand her place in the world through the lens of her favorite genre. Is she the villain everyone says she is? The victim she never wanted to be? Why couldn’t she be worthy of being a Final Girl after all? She flouts every one of the conventions on the Final Girl Checklist that Letha embodies, so surely she cannot fill the role, but what is a Final Girl but a survivor with a scream to pierce the night and a heart to protect the things she cares about?
Stephen Graham Jones’ love for the genre that seems to have built him grows sharper with every new release, and My Heart Is A Chainsaw does the very thing slashers are so deeply skilled at doing right under our noses: gives a voice to the otherwise silenced areas of life, and carves a space for complexity by weaponizing the world’s — and the genre’s — simplistic tools in unexpected and powerful ways.