Stephen Graham Jones (SGJ) is a prolific writer, delving deep into the horror genre. His 2021 entry to the canon is My Heart is a Chainsaw. (Anticipated publication on August 31.) In it, 17-year-old Jade Daniels is a rabid fan of slasher films. She’s watched them all multiple times, and her conversation is peppered with lines of dialogue. Slashers are how she fills the time between school and bedtime, when she’s not working as one of the town custodians.
Jade also lives in a place with its own legends. These aren’t just ghost stories from around the campfire, but real events. As high school graduation approaches, Jade sees patterns emerge. A slasher is in town—for real.
Jade’s family is broken mess. Her dad is a Native American dude, injured many years ago, who mostly lazes about and drinks beer. Mom is absent, having left the family and moved to a nearby town. So despite having two living parents, Jade mostly raises herself. Her life also includes father figures, who serve as a point of authority with more caring than her biological dad.
Life in this little Idaho town is turned sideways by the arrival of the super-rich. A mogul finds their lakeside spot and decides it’s a paradise he wants. He convinces a few similar families to join him, and voila, McMansion and yacht pier construction begins.
Soon after, events go awry and no one pays attention to the portended doom except our teenage town slasher expert. Unfortunately, she’s the kid who cried wolf too many times, and now none of the adults will listen.
I struggled to connect with Jade for the entire first half of this book. I don’t usually experience this with SGJ, so it surprised me. But the writing style is pure teenager. It’s a wandering stream of thoughts, worries, and everyday moments.
SGJ uses a storytelling device that clogged up my connection to Jade. In this device, he creates a series of extra credit papers that Jade gives to Mr. Holmes, her history teacher. Combined, they’re Jade’s history and analysis of slasher movies. She discusses how the genre came to be, and also how the typical slasher story arc works. She also spends considerable time addressing the “final girl” aspect of most slashers. I understand there was a method to SGJ’s madness here. It just didn’t work for me.
On the other hand, the regular chapters are excellent. SGJ clearly portrays Jade as the outsider, struggling to find her identity. She changes her name from Jennifer to Jade. And about every 30 pages, she changes the color of her hair. We all know that kid.
And in Chainsaw, that kid decides that where she fits is slasher movies and lore. It may not the most logical choice, but teenagers aren’t logical. Especially one who knows she fits nowhere—not in a family, or a friends clique, or her town in general. Instead, it’s through the lens of slashers that Jade makes sense of the changing world. She tries to put things in some kind of order, no matter how strange it is.
If there is such a thing as a slasher, coming-of-age book this is what SGJ creates in Chainsaw.
I recommend My Heart is a Chainsaw if you’re an SGJ, horror book, or slasher movie fan. Be prepared for an extended exposition followed by plenty of gruesome action sequences. In the end the payoff is worth the slow build.
Pair with My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris because SGJ name checks it in his acknowledgements.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Gallery Books, Gallery / Saga Press, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.