Content warning: Self-harm, suicide, and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. I’d say MHIAC it’s made for teenagers sixteen years old and older.
My Heart is a Chainsaw feels like it was made for me, and me personally, which is always a wonderful thing to feel when you open a book. The volume begins with an atmospheric, gory, bloody murder and never backs off of its breakneck pace from there. With a heavy nod toward the slasher genre and a rootable heroine who is breathtakingly, excitingly unforgettable, the book wraps itself around the reader and squeezes until they forget to breathe. And yet it’s also a near-perfect character study of a high school senior trying to cope with a less-than-idea life and severe trauma and managing to come out the other end better.
My Heart is a Chainsaw
Stephan Graham Jones
August 3, 2021
Teenager Jade Daniels is in understandable rebellion. Her father is an abusive alcoholic (and we later learn, molested her sexually at the age of eleven) who allows his inappropriate friends around her. Her mother is long gone. At school, she’s a credit short from graduating. Her physical presence at graduation is only a formality, and she is forced to write an extra-credit assignment for her history teacher to gain the credits she needs to pass.
Half-Indian and half-white, living in slowly gentrifying Proofrock, Idaho, is a sort of purgatory for her as she stands in limbo — too poor to be part of the crowd, too odd to be anything but herself. She self-harms to cope with her trauma. Her salvation is horror; she knows these movies backwards and forwards, and they provide a kind of holy bible for her that makes her life brighter and is what her history class essay is about.
She attempts suicide after a particularly ugly incident with her dad, and survives. When she later learns that two Dutch tourists have been murdered at Indian Lake near the site of a development that marks the steady encroachment of the rich people from across the lake into her community, she realizes something nasty is afoot thanks to her genre experience. More people die — only rich ones. She’s on the scene graduation night at the lake, where popular rich girl Letha Moondragon stumbles on the desiccated corpse of another victim. Jade knows her tropes — she’s found her final girl. She knows she must offer a hand to Letha — and she must prepare herself for the final battle. Jade might not believe she’s final girl material, but she’s definitely up to the task of trying to prepare Letha for the final battle.
My Heart is a Chainsaw is dizzyingly good. Impressively, intensely good, with a clear-eyed protagonist who jumps out from the page just as immediately as the gore. Smart without being smarmy, touching without being sappy, and gory without being over-the-top, it tantalizes and will likely greatly appeal to older teens.
This is about Jade’s slow evolution from horror movie buff to final girl in her own story. She has to defeat the specter of her father to gain her own victory, and to do that she must realize that she is the person she’s always been waiting for. She’s as strong as Laurie Strode and the other final girls who came before her. Jones has a solid grasp on horror history and manages to make the entire concept shine admirably.
Jones fearlessly critiques colonialism and gentrification. The subject shows up in the form of a development being put in place by the rich people who live across Indian Lake, and in a million tiny microaggressions from the white characters toward the indigenous characters. The architect of this misery is Letha’s father, and he’s set to displace hundreds of Indian residents with the project and is depriving residents of what was once public land.
Honest, vibrant, and incredible are all words that should be applied to this book. I will never forget Jade, and I’m confident young readers will enjoy her too.