REVIEW: My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

A bridge between the decaying institutions of childhood and the scary but ultimately more rewarding realities of adult life

In the past, I have predicted that horror literature is due a return to prominence. This prediction is based on a number of different factors but the most obvious ones are that a) horror has been out of the spotlight for long enough that people no longer remember how shit it was when the market collapsed and b) the market for YA continues to collapse and while the long term decline of the fantasy and science-fiction genres appears to have slowed, there are still a lot of potential readers out there who have not been brought into the marketplace.

In order for horror to return to prominence, it will need not only a couple of big success stories, but also to start sucking in the people who have been quite happily reading other genres. The most obvious hunting ground for future horror readers is crime as the boundary between non-supernatural horror and blood-soaked serial killer stories has always been pretty permeable. The bigger problem is how to reach the people who have moved from YA to adult genre.

While people who write about genre fiction are prone to telling stories that centre the role of the author, another way of talking about genre fiction is to look at the market. Indeed, the current narrative surrounding SF/F is that the genre is going through something of a golden age born of embracing diversity. While this may or may not be true, another way of looking at the recent history of SF/F is to say that it has gone through a period of audience rationalisation whereby the publishers have doubled down on the segments of the audience who already tend to buy the most books, namely middle-class white women.

This process of market rationalisation has resulted in the emergence of a dominant aesthetic paradigm. Referred to in some corners as ‘Squeecore’, the dominant paradigm in SF/F storytelling uses genre tropes primarily as a way of exploring a sense of interiority. For example, people seem less interested in reading and writing about the scientific realities of space exploration or the political realities of magical autocracy than they are in questions like the emotional dynamics of long-term space exploration or how one might redeem oneself after participating in an act of inter-species genocide. It’s not that these types of stories are new, or that the old kinds of stories have completely disappeared, it’s more that these types of stories have now come to dominate the marketplace to the point where they have ceased being a kind of genre story and simply become what genre stories seem to be like.

The use of genre tropes to describe emotional states might date back at least as far as the New Wave of the 1960s, current genre fiction is also shaped by the influence of YA and Romance. The influence is particularly obvious when considering which emotional states are deemed worthy of genre encoding: There is always more room in the marketplace for stories of forbidden love or stories about people deciding to embrace marginalised identities but nobody seems to be falling over themselves to write about regret, shame, or any of the darker emotions that one might find in literary scenes devoted explicitly to the work of marginalised people. Indeed, the decision of SF/F luminaries to dog-pile a story written by a transwoman stemmed less from overt transphobia than it did from an instinctual desire for emotional hygiene and to control the kinds of emotions that make it into print in SF/F magazines. Stories about marginalised people finding themselves through participation in interstellar wars do not raise eyebrows, but stories expressing scepticism about the way that oppressive institutions are happy to recognise and exploit certain kinds of LGBT experiences evidently merits a level of bullying that sends a transwoman first to the hospital and then back into the closet.

Every now and then, you hear talk about people trying to launch uplifting sub-genres with names like ‘Noble Bright’ or ‘Hope Punk’ but these never seem to catch on. In truth, those styles of story are already so dominant that the discourse seems less about sparking new forms of creativity and more about reminding people of the styles and aesthetics that are perceived as being products of the genre’s supposedly problematic past. This also explains why any attempt to criticise the mainstream of genre publishing results in accusations that the people doing the criticising must be older white men with far-right politics.

Given that SF/F has been re-invented as a pair of twinned genres that are primarily in the business of using old tropes to explore a narrow range of morally righteous and spiritually uplifting emotions, the institutions of SF/F culture are not the most obvious match for the kind of stories that horror writers want to tell. Indeed, it is really interesting to note that while the American publishers TOR have a very visible and successful website devoted to genre fiction, their horror-related material tends to appear on a completely different site.

Q: How does a horror writer reach a market dominated by Squeecore?

A: Meet them halfway.

Survey a list of horror novels written in the last five years and you’ll find a number of titles referencing ‘Final Girls’ and echoing Wes Craven’s Scream franchise in treating genre tropes as a set of rules that one can learn rather than a set of techniques that one deploys as part of the process of creating a horrific affect. These kinds of novels are all about meeting the rest of the genre marketplace half-way in that talk of Final Girls intersects quite nicely with uplifting liberal feminism while the tendency to treat genre tropes as a set of learnable rules is similar to the postmodern distancing involved in using genre tropes to construct a language of emotional interiority. Indeed, while Stephen Graham Jones’s My Heart is a Chainsaw may be undeniably a work of horror, it feels like a work of horror that has been written for people who don’t necessarily enjoy reading horror.

The story is set in a small working-class mountain town by a lake. Said town entered the early phases of gentrification when a bunch of rich people decided to buy some land on the far side of the lake and cover it in mansions. While this process of colonisation did result in some harrumphing and protesting, construction jobs, money in the local economy, and a very slick PR campaign were more than enough to bury all dissent. The wealthy are here… they walk among us, but they are better than us.

Faced with emotional turmoil born of significant economic and social change, Jade tries to make sense of what is happening to her town by writing about slashers for her history class. Interspersed throughout the narrative, these ‘Slasher 101’ interludes combine discussions of cinematic history with investigations into local myth as Jade tries to argue that the town is poised for the start of a ‘slasher cycle’.

As in a lot of Jones’ work, the book’s protagonist is a super fucked-up working class Native American who is just about as alienated from her own cultural heritage as she is from the society that surrounds her. Disgusted with the town and the ‘Indian’ identity embodied by her beer-swilling abusive father, Jade re-invents herself as ‘the horror chick’ who drones on and on about Halloween in between disastrous attempts at hair-dying.

Jade’s voice completely dominates this novel but it remains a joy throughout. At first, Jade comes across as a fairly typical teenaged outsider but the more she talks about slashers, the more obvious it becomes that she is talking about films as a way of escaping from reality. This use of genre as a form of emotional displacement really comes through in a powerful scene in which Jade starts talking about Giallos only to grow ever-more upset and ever-more incoherent as the evening progresses.

As the chapters flow past, it becomes ever more obvious that Jade is trying to use her knowledge of slasher films as a means of interpreting the world. At first, we see her trying to use slashers to make sense of local legends about a lake witch, then we see her trying to use slashers as a means of solving murders. The more Jones leans into this dynamic, the more obvious it becomes that Jade is talking about slashers in order to prevent herself from talking about other things. However, when things start getting dark and weird, the slasher talk starts to hit home. There’s a lovely scene in which Jade is wandering around trying to map everything she knows about a local murder onto her knowledge of slasher films. At the exact moment when she starts talking about final girls, she is confronted by the daughter of one of the rich people from over the lake. Jade immediately starts talking about this girl as a likely final girl for the looming slasher cycle but Jones’ descriptions of the girl make it clear that Jade’s talk of final girls is just a way of concealing her own love at first sight.

The structure underlying this novel is that of a YA coming-of-age story: Girl is poised on the brink of adulthood but is unprepared for the emotional hardships, Girl falls in love, Girl is compelled to confront the things that were holding her back in childhood, Girl grows up. This movement from childhood to adulthood is mediated by the language of genre and the ‘Slasher 101’ chapters are there to provide us with the appropriate emotional vocabulary. This is a novel that is as much about genre as it is about interiority and while it does have a few scary and unsettling moments, most of those moments are there to amplify the emotional beats of Jade’s story. This is a horror novel, but it’s mostly about an unhappy teenaged girl trying to grow up.

Much like The Only Good Indians, My Heart is a Chainsaw ends with a confrontation that is as much about empowerment as it is about the genre tropes that are woven around that emotional journey. However, while the final confrontation of The Only Good Indians was about using basketball to define oneself, My Heart is a Chainsaw is all about knowing the rules to slashers.

I have seen some people online expressing a certain amount of discontent with the novel’s conclusion and I must admit that I share their shortcomings. Line by line, the writing is excellent as Jade battles a slasher through a crowd of locals who were sat in boats watching Jaws until the killing started. The scene is scary, exciting, and perfectly paced. It is full of brilliant images and moments that wield real emotional impact because of the way they are paying off earlier moments in the book. However, while each element works brilliantly in and of itself, the scene as a whole feels somewhat deflationary because it’s unclear which exact emotional note Jones wanted to hit.

Are we supposed to be sad because of the things that went wrong? Happy because of the things that went right? Both? Neither? The book even comes with an additional chapter set a little while after the conclusion but while the scene is well-written and buzzing with ideas, it proves no more emotionally satisfying than the chapter set on the lake. In truth, I suspect that the somewhat unsatisfactory nature of the book’s conclusion may be down to the emotional register that Jones adopted for the writing of the novel. This is a very YA and SF/F friendly novel that deals in big primary coloured teenage emotions and yet the conclusion is an elegant smear of grey. Maybe this is deliberate and part of some deeper point about the unsatisfactory nature of adult life and the way that the world starts seeming a lot more complicated the second you stop looking at it through the lens of stories but I’m not sure that the rest of the novel did enough to merit that kind of ambiguous ending.

…Alternately, one could argue that this book only spawned a sequel after it was handed in to Jones’ editors. Thus, rather than ending the book on an ambiguous but primary-coloured climax, Jones went back and wrote another chapter to set up the next book in the series and what is adulthood if not economics bullying us into a series of artistic, moral and psychological compromises?  

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