Books

{Book Review} My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

I have a feeling that most people who come to My Heart is a Chainsaw will be coming to Stephen Graham Jones by way of some of his more recent titles, like The Only Good Indians, also out from Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint. Or maybe they’ll be here for the first time – every slasher has to be someone’s first, right?

Me, though? I’ve been here since Demon Theory. Since The Last Final Girl. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read anything like all of his extremely prolific output – not even close – but I’ve been reading Jones’ work for years, hanging out with him at cons, chatting with him online. Which means that, in some ways, My Heart is a Chainsaw is no surprise to me. I already know that Stephen’s own heart beats with slasher movie minutiae and a love for everything the genre has to offer, from the best to the “worst” and all that’s in-between.

And I know something else, too. That the love of horror serves to illuminate further a deep humanism. A love of people and their foibles and fumbles, their fears and eccentricities, their hopes and dreams and the ways they sabotage themselves along the way. Horror fans often get tarred with an unfair reputation for misanthropy, just as Jade, our protagonist and narrator in My Heart is a Chainsaw, is seen – or believes she is seen – by everyone in her small Idaho town. If anyone actually believed that about horror fans, Jones would be the proof that they were deeply mistaken.

Which is all a long way of saying that characters don’t come much more human, in all their shades and complexities, imperfections and incongruities, than they are in a Stephen Graham Jones story. All that has been true since Demon Theory, just as it has always been the case that Stephen’s use of horror movie tropes and trappings, trivia and ephemera is more than just a gimmick to hook readers in. It’s a vital part of how the story is built – the beating, bloody center of every story’s chainsaw heart.

What does come as a surprise, though, is how different Stephen always manages to make the proceedings. It would be easy enough to look at the logline – a horror-obsessed teen is convinced that a real-life slasher movie is about to start in her isolated town, and that she’s the only one with the encyclopedic knowledge that may be key to stopping it – and assume that Jones was walking back over ground he’d already covered in The Last Final Girl. Yet, in many ways, the two books could not be more different.

What crackles, what pulses, what revs up the chainsaw heart of My Heart is a Chainsaw is that we, the readers, spend so much of the book not knowing what is happening. Jade may be convinced that a slasher has come to Proofrock, and her own logic, her own knowledge of the way slasher cycles work, means that no one can believe her until it is too late. Yet even as we’re pulled along the horror-spangled interior of Jade’s point-of-view, we also find ourselves doubting her. We also see things as they must look from outside, and we have to wonder, always wonder: is everyone else right, and Jade is an unreliable narrator, spinning complicated conspiracies out of isolated events.

The narration is so intimate, so personal, that it’s easy to forget that, just as Jade sees herself as an outsider looking in at the events in town, we’re outsiders tagging along with her mental state – kept at arm’s length, even when we feel like we’re being pulled in close, past the armor she keeps up against everyone else. My Heart is a Chainsaw is a book about that armor, why it exists and what it makes us do, every bit as much as it’s about any slasher.

Which is not to say that there’s not horror racing through My Heart is a Chainsaw. When violence occurs, as it does from the book’s cold open – because this is a slasher, after all, Mr. Holmes, so of course it has a cold open – it is grisly and visceral in a way that so many splatterpunk authors would have killed to accomplish, and Jones makes look so effortless that you wonder why anyone has ever written gore any other way.

This tightrope act – what’s really happening in Proofrock, and what’s just Jade’s slasher-tinged fantasies? – is one that can leave you feeling dizzy and delirious, if you look down too often. In less sure hands, it would be far too easy to put a foot down wrong and go tumbling into the open air without a net.

By the time Stephen lets us fall off that tightrope, though, as we know we must, sooner or later, it’s through a chaos of confusion and staccato rhythm as assured as anything that has come before, to a landing that is among the most imminently satisfying in the annals of recent horror.

Even while, like any good slasher, it leaves plenty of threads untied. For the sequel, after all…

My Heart is a Chainsaw comes out August 31st from Saga an imprint of Simon and Schuster.

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