Jade Daniels, the protagonist of horror writer Stephen Graham Jones’ latest novel My Heart is a Chainsaw, doesn’t fit in with her quiet (until it’s not) town of Proofrock, Idaho.
The high school student is a Blackfeet Indian in a mostly white community. Her home life is messy, and Jade is obsessed with slasher movies. She carries an encyclopedic knowledge of films like Friday the 13th and Halloween and writes school essays on the genre’s “final girl” trope.
Above: The cover of My Heart is a Chainsaw. Below: Author and CU Boulder professor of distinction Stephen Graham Jones (Photo credit: Gary Isaacs)
“Can’t I just like horror because it’s great? Does there have to be some big explanation?” Jane yells at a concerned stranger at the start of the book.
It’s a sentiment that Jones, professor of distinction in the Department of English at CU Boulder, can relate to. His latest book, published by Simon & Schuster, was released on Aug. 31.
“When people ask you, ‘Why do like horror?’ or ‘Why do you like slashers?’ they phrase that really carefully,” he said. “What they really mean is, ‘Why are you such a weirdo?’”
If Jones is a weirdo, then he’s a proud one. He’s the author of the 2020 award-winning novel The Only Good Indians, plus more than 20 other books, a host of short stories and more. He also teaches creative writing, pop culture and post-colonial literature among other topics at CU Boulder.
My Heart is a Chainsaw picks up with Jade as a real-life slasher hits her mountain community, revolving around the construction of a housing development for the wealthy. Like Jade herself, Jones believes that slasher flicks are about more than just gore. They also examine how society views ideas like justice and revenge. Jones, who is also a member of the Blackfeet Nation, relishes the chance to push back on what the literary establishment expects of writers like him. Indigenous authors, he said, should have the chance to write genre fiction that is fun, playful and, yes, even drenched in blood.
“If you think of literature as a tree, the trunk is realism,” Jones said. “The market and critical establishment tell people of color that you have to stay close to the trunk where it’s safe. You have to be sad and depressing. I think it’s a political statement to run out onto the branches and go to Mars or go to a haunted house.”
Scales of justice
Jones, who was born in Midland, Texas, wrote his first short story, “The Gift,” when he was 19. It follows a woman in the hospital after a car crash as she is visited by the ghost of her dead boyfriend.
“Back then I was really into X Files and reading a lot of comics books,” Jones said. “That just sparked my imagination so completely that it felt like my fingers were on fire.”
And he has one piece of advice that he shares with his students who want to become writers themselves: “I tell them: choose writing over everything but health and family.”
It’s advice that he heeds himself. Jones finishes the first drafts of most of his novels in four to six weeks. But he worked on My Heart is a Chainsaw off and on for eight years, in part because he connected so much to Jade—and her passion for horror. In the book, she points out that Jason Voorhees, the slasher at the heart of the Friday the 13th series, initially targets camp counselors because a group of them let him drown as a child.
Jones is similarly taken by the power of slasher stories to push the notion of fairness to its extremes.
“What slashers do is they carve into the world and balance the scales of justice,” he said. “If there has been some prank or crime against a person who couldn’t fight back, and the police or the parents didn’t punish the guilty parties, that will often kickstart a slasher cycle.”
Still, he said, those scales have historically tilted in favor of some people more than others. Slasher flicks are infamous, for example, for killing off people of color first. Jones said that he wanted to avoid that trap in My Heart is a Chainsaw. And, in troubled and unapologetic Jade, he also reimagined what the character of the “final girl” can be. That’s the nickname that horror buffs give to the traditional heroines of slasher films, young women who almost always have impeccable morals.
“To me, final girls are about pushing back against bullies, insisting on your own life and your own safety,” Jones said. “If we can empower people to be final girls, I think that’s doing good work.”