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Some Thoughts on "My Heart is a Chainsaw"
Stephen Graham Jones's new novel is a love letter to slasher movies, but its postmodern pastiche barely conceals a nonsensical story.
I probably would have finished Stephen Graham Jones’s new novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw a lot sooner if I had been more invested in it. It took me a long time to crawl through it, mostly because I had difficulty feeling much emotion while reading a paint-by-numbers slasher that expects postmodernism and a nontraditional Native protagonist to carry what is otherwise, frankly, an overlong and somewhat ridiculous mishmash of slasher movie clichés.
Jones’s novel suffers a bit as the second major postmodern slasher movie fan-service pastiche of the year, after Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group, a book that I wasn’t enthusiastic about but found much more engaging and exciting than Chainsaw. Nevertheless, Chainsaw has garnered enthusiastic reviews, most of which praise is Native protagonist, its postmodernism, its laundry list of liberal social issues—and almost never its actual plot.
Chainsaw tells the story of Jade Daniels, a Native teen in rural Idaho obsessed with slasher movies—to the point that she only accepts the purest version of 1980s slashers as legitimate, all others being imperfect bastardizations—and finds herself stuck in a slasher movie when her town’s Fourth of July celebration becomes the scene of mounting horror. Bits of Halloween and Friday the 13th mix in with some more obscure 1970s and 1980s slashers, larded over with a heavy layer of Scream, but very little from after the 49-year-old author’s own adolescence. The mechanics of the plot escalate into a Grand Guignol that leaps between genres and takes a supernatural turn that I found dispiriting, undercutting the realism of the story overall.
Given that the plot is ludicrous, a pastiche of movies arranged around a social statement about the trouble with rich white people gentrifying depressed areas, how much you enjoy the book will depend on how much you like its protagonist. Many critics found her to be refreshing and exciting, a traumatized, self-doubting member of multiple oppressed groups who self-actualizes by externalizing her trauma through a love of slasher movies. I found her mostly insufferable. I’m not really one for reveling in misery, so wading through a claustrophobic story told from the self-pitying perspective of an angry, bitter teen with suicidal ideation and a lot of thoughts on social justice became exhausting.
I couldn’t help but compare this to the current run of the USA/Syfy series Chucky, which has set up a gay teenage boy as its protagonist and apparent “final girl” character. Like Jade, Jake is also an outcast and a bit creepy, but depicted in a way to elicit warmth and affection rather. Chucky is playing by the conventions of episodic TV, but it remixes many of the same conventions, with the same desire to expand the old clichés to marginalized groups. But at least Chucky moves along at a faster clip and isn’t so relentlessly preachy about policing genre boundaries. Ambrose Bierce once said that a novel is a short story padded, and it’s a truism that the slasher movie is at its best when it is short, lean, and efficient. Halloween (1978) is 91 minutes long. Chainsaw runs 416 pages.
Much of the reason for that length is Jones’s own teenage love of 1970s and 1980s slasher movies, which he puts into Jade’s mouth in the form of lengthy essays on the history of the horror genre alternating with chapters of narration. These essays are, to put it nicely, bad. Not just bad because they are written in the voice of a teenage girl gushing about the fine details of Italian giallo murder movies vs. supernatural dead teenager movies vs. “true” slashers, but because they are predicated on a fundamental error that suffuses the whole of My Heart Is a Chainsaw.
In the afterword to the book, Jones explains how deeply invested he’s been in his favorite adolescent horror movies, obtained clandestinely from a video store, and he thanks Carol Clover for laying out in Men, Women, and Chainsaws the pattern of the “true” slasher movie that leaves a Final Girl, virginal and ordained with the superhuman power to defeat the slasher. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is suffused with Final Girl mythology as it works to expand the definition of Final Girl to the nonwhite and nonvirginal.
The Final Girl myth Clover created as much as identified has become an albatross around the neck of horror, a cliché born of a historical accident that has calcified into a nearly unbreakable law. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween both ended with one girl who survives the rampage (though Jones doesn’t count the former as a slasher for genre policing reasons beyond our scope) and the success of these films led later filmmakers to follow the template. Even though early films in the slasher genre were not doctrinaire about it, a plurality of slashers, and the most successful of them, followed the pattern, and Clover’s book became not an explanation of why these films succeeded but rather a Bible for a new generation of screenwriters to imitate past classics.
Jones doesn’t deal with this complicated history, and for all the erudition he displays about the technical facets of the slasher genre and his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure horror movies, he is remarkably incurious about reasons behind the clichés and, to judge by his afterward, hasn’t really thought critically about the Final Girl mythology, accepting it as natural, inevitable, and apparently eternal. I don’t have the energy to lay out all the problems with the concept as somehow psychologically predestined, but I expected someone who is so obviously in love with the horror genre to have a more original take than to subvert convention only to reestablish it with a different skin color and slightly less prudery.