Book Review: My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

While the term was first coined in Carol J. Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the “final girl” trope itself dates back to at least 1974 with Sally from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Jess from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. After the release of Wes Craven’s metatextual hit Scream in 1996, the term, along with many other of the slasher subgenre’s tropes, made its way more firmly into the public consciousness and has become so well known that there are now several books and films that take it on pretty directly, two such books of which have come out this year alone. The first was Grady Hendrix’s action-heavy homage The Final Girl Support Group, the second is Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw, which hews more closely to the slasher formula, though with a bit of a Ready Player One twist, for better or worse.

As with most slasher movies, the book begins with the death of some unsuspecting victims. After that brief but suspenseful opening chapter, things shift from the third person to first person narration by our main character, Jade Daniels. The high school senior is a social pariah among her classmates, and even among her community at large. She lives with her volatile, alcoholic father and only occasionally sees her checked-out mother. With no real friends to speak of, she spends her time obsessing over horror movies, slashers in particular, and as such her narration is filled with references to major and minor works of the genre. Horror fans will find their nostalgia receptors lighting up whenever one of their favorites is mentioned, but the near constant stream of them can sometimes feel wearying.

Jade’s small hometown of Proofrock has recently seen the arrival of a group of wealthy families, who have begun constructing massive mansions in their own private enclave across the lake from the town itself. The daughter of one, Letha Mondragon, expresses kindness towards her, and that combined with Jade’s growing evidence that there may be a slasher at work in the area causes her to fixate on the idea that the beautiful Letha might be the story’s “final girl”, and she sets about trying to help her understand her role so that she can succeed at fulfilling it.

As in his previous hit The Only Good Indians, the author uses his story to reveal some of the darker aspects of life as a Native American, though far more tangentially than he did in that book. Instead, this time around he seems more interested in how people can use scary stories to cope with, or even hide from, the many traumas inflicted upon them, as the interesting Jade does to a perhaps unhealthy degree here. It’s also refreshing to see the slasher’s heavy bias towards straight white characters both eviscerated and subverted. Still, since Jade is obviously not omniscient, once things switch to her perspective, we don’t get to experience any of the terror that the majority of the victims might have gone through, instead showing up at crime scenes after the fact. This robs a large portion of the book of any real sense of suspense, and it isn’t until the last third that things really pick up, although once they do pick up, they REALLY pick up. While not perfect, it’s a fun read with a good amount of actual depth, and will be well-appreciated by genre fans or those looking for a decent Halloween thrill. ★★★★

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★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor

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