Map of Blue Book Balloon

5 October 2021

#Review - My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Cover by Julia Lloyd

My Heart is a Chainsaw
Stephen Graham Jones
Titan Books, 7 September 2021
Available as: PB, 448pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789098099

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of My Heart is a Chainsaw to consider for review.

My Heart is a Chainsaw is so strange. Also, so sad. Stephen Graham Jones uses the language of the horror movie to animate and illustrate Jade's story. Jade, the lonely goth geek, who lives and breathes the horror movie. The deliberate loner with an unhappy family background. The misfit, half Indian and daughter of the town drunk.

But My Heart is more than that. It's also a portrait of Proofrock, a small town in the US midwest, a warm community facing up to wealthy outsiders who want things their own way.

Of the two, it is I think in the end Jade's story that is deeper and more interesting and indeed heartbreaking. Yet we can't understand her without understanding how she sees the world, and that means engaging with her horror film obsession and understanding its depths and roots. 

Jade is, simply, obsessed with horror movies and the slasher genre in particular. Each section of this book is opened by an essays she's written for her English teacher, Mr Holmes, analysing and explaining the influences, history, themes and meaning of those films. Jade's knowledge is vast, with reference points far beyong the usual suspects, and she's bright enough to go far beyond the surface - yet this takes her into a kind of twilight world where these gory slash-fests seem to be given a degree of reality and internal coherence beyond that of mere fictional creations. When Jade speculates on the mechanics and workings of the films, she writes as though she is discussing a natural phenomena, something like natural history or anthropology, rather that the story and commerce-driven productions of filmmakers.

Conversely, as events in Proofrock begin to echo the genre, Jade feels free to speculate on what may come as though that internal logic also applies to the real world. She fixates in particular on one young woman as the putative "Final Girl". Letha Mondragon is an incomer to the town, daughter of one of the group of ultra-rich "Founders" who are building their own gated community across the lake. She's therefore an outsider, just as Jade is peripheral. 

One of the things I found affecting about this story was the way in which, while Jade seems isolated (certainly by herself) she does have people on her side - Mr Holmes.  The town Sheriff, even Letha. The tragedy of it is that when they try to help her they always seem to misstep and make things worse than before. Jade comes over as angry, vulnerable and opinionated. She's spiky, independent-minded and awkward. A fascinating personality with all sorts of deeps and quirks - and with some secrets of her own, which she curls round protectively. Her whole mythology of Horror, the slasher and the Final Girl may - consciously or not - be constructed to hide those secrets, or to protect her from them. 

As you move through this book, you will have plenty of opportunity to wonder how far Jade is imposing her own logic on the town, and how far the typically horror-y elements deployed here have some objective reality to them. Stephen Graham Jones takes his time setting things up, allowing Jade to give us the tools, as it were, we will need to understand what's going on - but also marking out the deeper secrets and currents that are swirling about.

I won't spoil the story by hinting at how it all turns out, but I will say that I found the conclusion moving, shocking and, in the best possible way, genre transcending. I've seldom read a book where the conventions of a genre, the actual grammar and beats of an apparently familiar story, were used so well both to mislead and then to deliver a wrenching, stunning climax.

You have to read this book!

For more information about My Heart is a Chainsaw, see the publisher's website here.


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