Maybe every final girl in the history of final girls has had a horror chick whispering to her from just off-screen. Maybe this isn’t a deviation but the usual build. Just one nobody ever knows about until they’re smack-dab in the beating heart of it.
Jade looks at him with just her eyes.
Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart is a Chainsaw is an uneven horror story that follows Jade, an alienated teenager who is obsessed with slasher films. Happenings in her town indicate a slasher is afoot, but no one will believe Jade when she tries to warn them.
This is a hard book to review. There is a stark difference between the first three-quarters of the book and the last quarter. The beginning and middle drag, while the last part finally picks up the pacing and tension and goes for broke. The characterizations are annoying or shallow until the end, where the protagonist in particular stops being a caricature of alienated youth and steps into her own. I’ll step through what I didn’t like, since there is quite a bit that didn’t work for me.
One of the book’s major problems is how much filler there is and how it drags down the story. No gesture is too small for Jones to record it in excruciating detail, and sometimes that detail is nonsensical, like Jade staring with “just her eyes.” There is so much filler that I was half-way through the book and nothing meaningful had happened. We just follow Jade as she stomps around the town being enraged and eager for the bloodletting to come. Jones spends way too much time on Jade wandering around. It reminds me of some other books I’ve read where I think, “Get to the meat of the story, man!” It takes far too long to get to the real action.
Jade is a significant part of what’s frustrating about this book. For much of the book, she is a collection of alienated teen cliches, from her brooding rebellion, to her heavy black eyeliner, to her Not Like Other Girls posturing, to her punk/goth style. In the beginning I thought, Spare me another rebellious dark punk teenage girl protagonist written by some dude who thinks wardrobe is a character trait. Much later in the book Jade becomes fully fleshed out, her past clearer, her motivations deeper. But it takes way, way too long to get there.
There is also a problem with the book’s characterizations of others. There are many names (some without actual ones, just given monikers by Jade like “Cowboy Boots”) and very little about them. It’s hard to keep track of everyone, so when someone died I would inevitably have to flip back in the book to remember who they were. I know we don’t need character depth to enjoy a horror novel, but when so much time is spent on sketching out Jade’s personality, it’s weird to know so little about everyone else. That also means any investment in their loss is pretty superficial. Jones was probably trying to emulate standard horror movie tropes by using slasher film archetypes rather than sketching out real people, but it’s to the detriment of the book, I think.
My disappointment with the book is it has a fascinating premise that’s pretty much squandered until the very end. A protagonist who sees what’s coming and can’t get anyone to believe her isn’t enough. Horror is about dread and fear as much as it is about the action, and there is little to be had until about three-quarters through the book, by which time I had become indifferent. It does pick up, though, and finally becomes a decent slasher story with some emotional weight. The superficial characterizations didn’t leave me terribly invested in the final chaos, but I concede the pace picked way up, which added much-needed tension. While I found the revelation of who the slasher was to be absurd, Jade’s fight against them is compelling.
Narfna and I mentioned in a comment thread that we were both going to read this book. I’m very interested in her take!