Set in small-town Idaho, Stephen Graham Jones’ newest tale, My Heart Is A Chainsaw, unfolds through the eyes of an Indigenous teenager obsessed with the world of slasher films. Jones, the Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder, is known for recasting the horror genre through Native characters and contemporary political twists. In this novel, for example, gentrification is the gore; the affluent are the preferred victims. And the final girl—i.e., the last woman left to confront the killer, typically an innocent cheerleader type—is nonwhite and aware of herself as a sexual being. Ahead of the book’s August 31 release, we spoke with the author about his impact on the slasher genre and upending the virgin-as-heroine trope.
5280: How do your characters reimagine the politics of who lives and who dies?
Stephen Graham Jones: I wanted to push back against the notion of the final girl being a supermodel, valedictorian, or babysitter. Since the 1970s, they’ve all been Jennifer Love Hewitt types. For many girls and women, that’s an impossible ideal. The book’s main character, Jade, has dealt with feelings of inadequacy her whole life. Also, most of the victims are rich and entitled white guys, not 17-year-old cheerleaders.
Which film characters helped inspire the novel’s final girl?
I’d have to say Constance from the 1981 film Just Before Dawn, because at the end, she was so tough and so insistent on winning. But I think one of the best models for the final girl I had was Nancy Thompson from (Wes Craven’s) A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. She used her brain. She read books on ambush tactics and how to build traps that she used to get Freddy Krueger back on his heels. Wes Craven was so good at building women who were real and not just vehicles for the story.
What brought you to the theme of gentrification?
I wanted to play with the idea of people moving in and displacing others. It’s similar to the way that mystery writer C.J. Box writes about the history of Jackson, Wyoming, and how super elite it is now. Same for Boulder. When I was moving here, I asked a friend to tell me about Boulder, and he said, “Everybody has a ‘Free Tibet’ bumper sticker on their $80,000 Lexus.” But I’ve heard stories from locals of when it was just a cow town.
People often refer to you as the Jordan Peele of slasher novels. How do you feel about that comparison?
It’s an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as Jordan Peele, of course. He does what some have called “horror with social critique.” I just create characters who are real to me, and those characters must be in dialogue with the world they live in.
The horror genre is full of books and movies that make a political statement, like the films Dawn of the Dead and The Purge. Which is scarier: real-life terrors or fictional ones?
I think for the last four or five years, we’ve seen people doing reprehensible things and then not being punished for them. The slasher genre is basically a justice fantasy. But the bad thing about living in a slasher world where wrongs are punished is that they’re punished brutally. You might catch a machete to the head.