What makes a good Halloween story?
It goes without saying it’s got to be horror. But there are certain stories that evoke that whimsical October chill better than others.
Stephen Graham Jones’ novel My Heart is a Chainsaw is a bloody feast
for horror fans.
The book is essentially Jones’ version of Scream, a mystery slasher about
people who know they’re in one. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to
watch all the movies it celebrates, then re-read just so you can catch all the
references. Not only is every chapter named after a different slasher, they’re
also bookended by chatty essays about the genre.
These are ostensibly written by Jade, a horror-obsessed high school senior who
is the first to suspect a serial killer may be loose in her small town of
Jade is a fantastic character: a disgruntled goth who moves through life
with empathy despite never catching a break herself. (Early on, she’s rescued
from a watery suicide attempt only to be sentenced to community service for
“misusing the town canoe.”) It’s no wonder she doesn’t object when bodies start
piling up. At least when you’re living in a horror movie, the rules are clear.
This girl lives and breathes slashers, and she knows all the rules. She even
identifies Proofrock’s perfect final girl – the lovely Letha Mondragon – and
sets out to convince her that she’s the town’s only hope. Jade’s the latest in
a string of Jones protagonists who jump to outlandish conclusions and then
recklessly act on them – but unlike Sawyer in Night of the Mannequins
and the unfortunate men of The Only Good Indians, Jade turns out to be
right. About most things, anyway.
Jones serves up red herrings by the jarful, with no character (living or
dead) above suspicion. Proofrock’s history includes not only a mass murder at a
campground (classic!), but also a mysterious fire, a puritan pastor whose entire
congregation drowned, and an undead witch. Not to mention a cabal of
multi-millionaires building mansions along the lake, several with dark secrets
of their own.
The solution to the mystery is outlandish and chaotic, yet totally
consistent with Jones’ brand of meta nightmare logic. (Truth be told, it’ll
probably take a re-read to make sense of everything).
Along the way, Jade’s forced to reckon with personal traumas that make movie
murders seem tame by comparison. Jones handles her backstory respectfully, with
a matter-of-factness that avoids the usual exploitative cliches; Jade’s
experiences shape her personality, but they’re never used cheaply as motivations
or sources of “inner strength.”
The book ends on a note of dangerous beauty and subtle revelation – hope
without false closure.