My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

My Heart is a Chainsaw book cover

Not that long ago, if you had asked me if I was a horror fan, I’d have said no.  Then recently I realized that I kept starting sentences with “I’m not much of a horror fan, but…” and proceeded to gush about the latest book I picked up from the horror section. Plain Bad Heroines.  The Twisted Ones and The Hollow Places.  Books by Alma Katsu.  And then a friend of mine recommended The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones.  It was fantastic.  I’m not great at visualizing things, but there were plenty of moments that became crystal clear in my mind (for better or worse – better).  So as soon as I saw My Heart is a Chainsaw, I knew I had to have it.

It did not disappoint.  My Heart is a Chainsaw opens with two European young tourists clambering into a small boat on a large, deep lake in Idaho in the dark of night.  Even a horror novice like me could tell you that’s a bad idea. There has to be something bad lurking out there, right?

Well, if there is, Jade Daniels will figure it out.  Jade is about to – hopefully – graduate from high school and she is ready to leave this small town that doesn’t understand her and never has. She makes sure she stands out and stands apart, though it’s clear she also desperately wants someone to reach out. Preferably someone who shares her adoration of slasher horror films or at least is willing to listen to her preach from the gospel of gore. 

Because no one knows slasher films like Jade Daniels.  In her attempt to bump up her history grade and actually graduate, Jade writes a series of papers on slashers. They’re sprinkled in throughout the book, giving us all a crash course in Slasher 101.  

Jade is sure her little town is on the cusp of a slasher cycle – there’s even an old campground known as Camp Blood where kids died fifty years previously.  As more bodies are discovered in town, Jade excitedly uses her knowledge to try to figure out who the killer is and, most importantly, help prepare the Final Girl to unlock her powers and be ready to defeat the slasher.

Jade is very clear that she is not Final Girl material, but she has zeroed in on who is.  And as wonderful as it is to see her reach out to a new girl and start taking (somewhat hesitant) steps towards friendship, listening to her enumerate the reasons why she can’t possibly be the final girl is heartbreaking.  Hiding under her tough, sarcastic exterior is a child who has suffered a lot.  Abandoned by her mother.  Stuck in a house with her abusive father.  Dealing with a pervy school employee.  Horror gives her a way to cope, a way to imagine revenge and justice for a life that sees precious little of either. 

As always, Jones does an incredible job of immersing us into this world, specifically into Jade’s perspective of the world.  At times, we’re unsure what’s really going on, where we should really be focused, because Jade isn’t sure or she is focused on the wrong thing.  We know that she’s hiding things from herself, trying not to let everything in – she misses seven weeks of school right in the beginning as a result of a suicide attempt. 

But even as we might be tempted to think that what we’re reading is simply Jade’s wishful thinking or dreams of justice, there’s a brutal murder that reminds us the violence and death is very much real.  As the town prepares for its annual 4th of July celebration, including an after-dark showing of Jaws with everyone floating on the lake, we’re on the edge of our seats wondering if Jade and her Final Girl will save them – or if Jade even wants to. 

This book is so good that even before I finished it, I was recommending it to people. That can be dangerous, since I’m sure we’ve all experienced a book or movie or TV series that started out amazing and then failed to stick the landing. Not a problem with My Heart is a Chainsaw – it’s thrilling from start to finish. Of course, as I read late into the night, it took a lot of courage to let the dogs out when they started whining…

Also, if you aren’t a slasher movie fan yourself, this book is still well worth the read! I’m definitely not a horror movie person.  I remember watching a few at sleepovers in junior high/high school (Halloween and Candyman, specifically), but most of my knowledge of horror movies come from early Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes. It didn’t hinder my understanding or enjoyment of this book in the slightest. I’m sure if you do know your slashers, it’ll be an extra level of delight, but I hope no one decides to pass on this because they don’t know the foundational texts.  Besides, Jade does a great job with her essays. She definitely deserves an A just for that. And so does My Heart is a Chainsaw.

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