My Heart Is a Chainsaw (book review)

”Brutal, beautiful, and unforgettable, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a visceral ride from start to finish. A bloody love letter to slasher fans, it’s everything I never knew I needed in a horror novel.”
-Gwendolyn Kiste, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens


Rating: 4/5 stars

Now, in many ways and for many reasons, Stephen Graham Jones is quickly becoming one of my go-to storytellers. That might or might not surprise you, given my review and subsequent low rating of The Only Good Indians, but that’s because, in my opinion, the two are polar opposites. They shouldn’t be compared, and I’ll try my best not to. While it’s true that both are technically slashers and they were published sequentially, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a much better, well-thought-out and stronger effort. In typical SGJ fashion, both shed light on the Indigenous culture and the impact that has on the Blackfeet, and I love that. I admire his passion. It’s an element that I’ve come to expect in his work.

I could go on and on about the different ways in which My Heart Is a Chainsaw impressed the world out of me thematically. The gentrification of smalltown America was one of them. There were also elements of progress versus tradition (paying special attention to the impact that has on the Blackfeet,) and how the lines separating virtue from immorality often become blurry. The novel, as a whole, was much more alluring and made more clear. I could also wax eloquent about the character development. Jade Daniels especially was easily some of the best character development I’ve read in quite some time. I connected with her profoundly and for many reasons, not just once or twice or even sporadically, but throughout the novel’s four hundred- plus pages. To maintain that continuity and depth really says a lot and, in my experience, you just don’t often find that in fiction. It’s almost a lost art, and in this instance, Jones nailed it.

Also, it was never once boring or dull, whereas The Only Good Indians bored me to death, more often than not.

But before I go any further, I must admit something else that might surprise you: the slasher subgenre isn’t really my thing. Yes, I love horror, but not all dark fiction is equal. Not by a long shot. I don’t get excited about indiscriminate and senseless body drops. I need more substance and intellect. I guess that’s why I’ve only seen bits and scraps of Friday the 13th, or why I only very recently saw the original Halloween. Back in the day, I did, however, find myself enamored with the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise, but that stemmed less from the content and had everything to do with Wes Craven’s brilliant vision. Seriously, the dreamscape concepts were the coolest things I’d ever seen.

So, to clarify, I wouldn’t consider myself a slasher fan. That, in itself, speaks volumes, given how much I enjoyed this book. Reading it, particularly in conjunction with The Only Good Indians, helped me that much more appreciate the author’s enchanting prose, as well as his unique take on the slasher.

Shooting Glasses just sits there. Which is to say, he’s not leaving, not sloping off to whisper to his buds how weird this girl is with her throwback references, all the horror, all the gore. Jade’s face heats up, and, praying her voice won’t crack, and only saying it after she’s gone over it and over it in her head, she says, “I could like you, I think.” When Shooting Glasses looks over for more, the Dr Pepper can to his lower lip, she adds in quick, “As someone to talk to, I mean.”
“Where was I your last four years?” he sort of quotes.

Conveniently sprinkled throughout the novel were a dozen brief essay sections, written by Jade, which delved deep into the slasher genre and essentially dissected it, analyzing the very fabric of its many ins and outs; the things which make it tick, the things that work and don’t work. She took it further than that by giving insight into the actual Rules of the Slasher. That was done in such a way that it never came across as being didactic or pompous or any other negative adjective. On the contrary, I couldn’t get enough of Jade’s contributions. They were wholly fascinating and I left each one with the sense that I’d learned something. I learned a LOT. I say that fully knowing that Jones most likely wrote them with an audience of horror aficionados in mind. I also realize that a fair number of reviewers found Jade’s sections somewhat off-putting, and that’s clearly their right. The point is, I loved them. I’d read an entire book containing her essays, if I could. Even if the slasher gave me more enjoyment and if I’d considered myself fairly knowledgeable of the films, Jones is such an encyclopedia of horror that I’m sure this would’ve, at the very least, given me something more to consider, on an intellectual as well as an artistic level. He’s just that dang good.

The most exceptional yet was Jones’s full utilization of red herrings. They were more impressive than plot, setting or historical context; more exquisite than the breathtaking prose, which comfortably straddled the line separating a frenetic, almost manic prose, with that of an incredibly controlled one. And although the unrelenting suspense and built up tension between various characters was rather unprecedented (on par with nothing I’ve read in a long time,) the aforementioned red herrings were virtually everywhere. They were so masterfully executed and rendered beautifully that I never knew the identity of the killer. I never wanted to stop reading. None of that is hyperbole, either. In a world where predicting certain details of a fictional story has become increasingly easy and predictable, being completely clueless until the denouement’s Big Reveal was no small feat. Not knowing made My Heart Is a Chainsaw that much more rewarding and mysterious and fun. I cannot adequately express just how refreshing that was.
That’s precisely how it should be, too. After all, this wasn’t Stephen Graham Jones’s debut or even his second foray into the slasher. Over the years, he’s diligently honed his craft, intentionally experimenting well within—and pushing the envelope of—the deceptively simplistic slasher narrative, starting with Demon Theory in 2006, followed by The Last Final Girl,Night of the Mannequins, and the Bram-Stoker Award-winning The Only Good Indians. In fact, it would seem that his “black heart” knows no bounds, for his forthcoming novel is called Don’t Fear the Reaper and on July 26th, 2022, Jade’s journey is set to continue in a direct sequel. I’m excited about that.

”Town reject, nice to meet you.”

Needless to say, the good far outweighed its flaws. In fact, there were only a handful of constructive criticisms to give. The most significant or damaging was Jones’s tendency to ramble, which made this slow burn a little slower paced. Neither are necessarily bad or even a criticism and here’s why: this is my second Stephen Graham Jones book, and both are what some might call agonizingly slow, so in conclusion, they aren’t really flaws or even poor executions. That’s just his style. He’s not the first author to do this, nor is he the last. Concerning said rambling, which had certain stream-of-consciousness vibes, they almost always revolved around the protagonist’s obsession with the string of murders, and that could feel somewhat daunting and repetitive at times. It was undoubtedly disturbing, given her already precarious mentality. But at the same time, it was utterly fascinating to be locked inside her head, to learn about her various thought processes, defense mechanisms, and knowing there were shades of gray within her made me admire and adore her that much more. I love Jade Daniels so, so much. I can’t overstate that. She’s the endearing spirit and lifeline of the book. Being that close to her lent it a palpable sense of the uncanny and of claustrophobia. That’s not a criticism, either. More to the point, that intimacy was a great method of further developing her character, and I can’t imagine a less developed protagonist, even though sacrificing some of her ramblings would’ve resulted in a significantly trimmed down book; a tighter constructed story. Oftentimes, I question whether or not he could’ve told the same story with a more economy of words, and earnestly, I’m not sure. I’d like to think the depth and strength of Jade could remain intact, but where do you draw the line? What do you keep and what would you omit? Because as lengthy as some of them were, every thought and theory and cinematic insight felt relevant and interesting. I oscillate whether any words were wasted at all.

As impactful as the overall work was, My Heart Is a Chainsaw had the potential to really GUT ME, to leave me speechless, if the supporting cast had been developed. Instead, most of them were one note characters, and that bothered me. It bothered me because with the obvious exception of Jade, the easily likeable Mr. Holmes (the primary recipient of Jade’s essays,) and the charming Letha Mondragon, I felt nothing for them, and I wanted to feel something, anything about them. Something that mattered. I longed to get to know them deeper than the surface level. And trust me, I get. I really do. The slasher is typically devoid of emotion and depth. Just take a cursory glance at Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Billy Black from 1974’s underrated Black Christmas, which served as the blueprints for John Carpenter’s Halloween, in addition to countless imitations that followed. It bugged me even more, considering how fully realized Jade’s character was. If nothing else, there was a part of me expecting to have a decent sense of who the others were. They were basically lobotomized, intent only on personal gain, and perhaps that was the point. It unequivocally communicated a lot about greed in America and how depraved humanity has become.

I did, however, feel something for the killer. The backstory was compelling, the motivation felt authentic and was given ample consideration by the author. I actually sympathized with the slasher.

This is always her favorite part of any slasher. It’s already been established, thanks to the bodies stacking up, that somebody thinks they’ve got a good reason to be doing this, however it is they’re doing it. Now the push is to figure out what the dead might have in common, where their paths might cross. After that it’s just a matter of thinking back to who was where when a prank or accident went down. Who had stepped out to powder their nose, see a man about a horse, make a call?

Or, before
 Scream, that’s how you used to be able to figure a slasher out.

Which brings me to that ending. That wholly diabolical, seemingly out-of-nowhere, brutal ending. And I mean BRUTAL. Without going into spoiler territory, it was very fast paced, intense, and aesthetically pleasing. It was, in fact, beautiful, with just enough details and gore to render it classy. In other words, the opposite of gratuitous violence present merely for shock value. I found none of that here. On the contrary, it harkened to the classic slasher’s of the 1970s and 80s, where less was more, where visual stimuli wasn’t usually necessary, and was the source of Jones’s primary inspiration. (Another highlight was the author’s note, where he detailed a plethora of said influences and an anecdote of Chainsaw’s origin.)

In the midst of such insanity came a scene which was earned, but which could’ve been so much more impactful if a certain character had been granted that which was due, instead of receiving only half the opportunity. I think that character was kind of cheated, possibly in a big way. Having said that, I’d been anticipating the other antagonist (technically, there are two, but they couldn’t be more different,) to finally, finally reach a comeuppance and boy did Jones deliver. I just wish the payoff was larger, with a broader emphasis on inner turmoil and injustice.

Now, approaching the last chapter, which was aptly entitled The Final Chapter, I had no idea what to expect. The final girl was revealed, the killer’s identity was laid bare, and where Jones took the reader was unlike any culmination that I can recall ever reading. In two words: sheer brilliance. Yet, there was another chapter left. What else did Jones have in store for his audience? How could he hope to exceed the previous chapter? I had my doubts. I also had a myriad of questions, and yes, he answered them. Or most of them, I suppose. But the content given was such a disappointment and for the life of me, I cannot decipher why it was included. Which isn’t to say it was bad or in poor taste. It just felt unneeded and there was a big disconnect between it and everything that preceded it. Those parting pages, which was the shortest chapter (I don’t consider Jade’s essays as actual chapters,) felt forced and like an afterthought, as though Jones simply wanted to write a longer book. I do see what he was trying to achieve, but the execution was a feeble attempt to, on the one hand, justify her past actions. On the other, and this is my biggest complaint, I had the impression that it was a means of redeeming her, as well as a means of bringing her journey full circle. And I’m not sure he pulled it off. Not believably, anyway.

Some girls just don’t know how to die..

In summation, I still wouldn’t consider myself a fan of slasher stories. What I am a fan of, however, is the author’s interpretation of what the modern-day slasher can, and perhaps should, convey. In light of his inarguably unique and imaginative storytelling, in conjunction with Jade’s mountainous insights, what I knew (or presumed to know,) about the subgenre was so much more than the emotionless death knell and high body counts. Stephen Graham Jones suppled that often absence of substance and intellect, and fueled it with an abundance of heart and soul. Highly recommended.

In exchange for an honest review, I received an advanced e-copy from NetGalley, the publisher, Gallery/Saga Press, and the author. I’m eternally thankful. The opinions thein are my own.

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