The Cemetery Dance Interview: Stephen Graham Jones

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When we opened the first pages of Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw back in 2021, we fell in love with Jade Daniels, Graham’s perfect vision of teenage imperfection. She was scrappy and self-deprecating yet willfully too smart for her own good; her encyclopedic brain for horror trivia featured an artist’s instinct to hyper-relate the genre to the world at large. But growing up in a small doomtown like Proofrock, Idaho, is not a large world. Rather, it’s a suffocating microcosm of our crumbling society where the walls are closing in, largely to the fault of her own imagination and the occult boundaries her mind crosses to materialize various personifications of said doom.

Stephen Graham Jones
(Photo by Gary Isaacs)

Then through 2022’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, we grew up with Jade, only to realize the more things change, the more they stay the same, even while the body count of Proofrock’s finite population rose with the tide of that cursed lake. All the while there’s a serial killer named Dark Mill South who seemed only a red herring, where even after his capture, he kept escaping; all the while paling in comparison to something untouchable under the surface of everything.

And when we commit to surviving something like Graham’s brilliant trilogy, even in the beginning, you’re already dreading the ending. And because of the inherent gravity of heartbreak, we knew there would have to be a finale for the finest final girl, Jade Daniels. In The Angel of Indian Lake, the third and last installment of the Indian Lake Trilogy, Graham successfully ties up every loose end, like serpents slithering down our neck, shedding from multiple real time eternities from the condensed Savage History of Proofrock. 

And now it’s all history, just like that?

I had to ask the man.

(Interview conducted by Gabriel Hart)

CEMETERY DANCE: You’ve spent so much time with Jade Daniels throughout these three large books. It’s one thing for the reader to say goodbye, but how does it feel for you to have to say goodbye to a character so immersive? You recently mentioned how great it was to have “worked” with Jade, as if she was an actress and you the director, yet you’ve also had to become her in this trilogy.  Is there a wistfulness from you towards her final exit, like a part of you has died?

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: Yeah, I’ve seen Jade at five years old, hugging her mom’s leg, and I’ve seen her smoking a thousand cigarettes on the bench by the lake. I’ve seen her slathered in blood, chest rising and falling, eyes and teeth flashing white, and I’ve seen her stumbling through the dark and cold, cutting her own leg to try to let the pain out, or give it a reason, anyway. I’m not sure I’ve ever known a character of mine this well. It’s what happens when you spend 1,500 pages with them, maybe? I miss her in a physical way, yeah. A way that hurts. 

It’s often said that our worldview affects our destiny, yet Jade’s nerve endings seem fused to the lives blood and infrastructure of Proofrock; her hellbent cynicism extraordinary enough for the 100+ body count she initially prayed for, before spending the rest her life trying to stop more bloodshed and escape the burden of psychic responsibility. Could Proofrock be as cursed as it is without Jade Daniels, or is it so cursed it would have created her no matter what?

I think the events of Chainsaw happen with or without Jade, yeah. She hoped and prayed for a slasher to come, sure, but she didn’t actually make what happened happen. In Reaper, though, it was all kind of “meant” for her, so . . . she’s not responsible, someone else is. But her coming home is the trigger that starts it all. Then, in The Angel of Indian Lake — I best not say, right? Don’t want to spoil anyone’s read. But, yes, Proofrock is in some sense cursed. How I see Jade in all of that is . . . she’s the counterweight, the antidote, the one “nature” or “fairness” or whatever you want to call it kicks up to resist the bad happening. In slashers, it’s always the killer who shows up first, and only then does that killer’s opposite, the final girl, rise to stand against that killer. That’s what Jade is, to me: the one who pushes back, the one who doesn’t know how to give up. The one willing to trade parts of herself, even all of herself, to protect the ones she loves — that she’s surprised she loves, I think.

The Indian Lake Trilogy is largely constructed of cycles. There’s the most obvious slasher-cycle, but also the cycles of trauma and the cycles of revenge, both of which can be insidious and repellent bedfellows. Some of these characters end up with further trauma due to indulging their wrath. Was Jade just another statistic of this spinning wheel, or what wisdom was she trying to impart to us?

Violence begets violence, definitely, and bloodfeuds only fuel more bloodfeuding. Jade doesn’t start these cycles — cyclones, really — but she is pulled into them time and again. And then she has to carve her way out, pulling along whoever she can find in the darkness. If Jade’s trying to impart anything to us, by example, I think it’s that these stories, this genre, it isn’t about a lone champion, a sole fighter, a single survivor. Standing alone at the top of a mountain of dead, having won the day . . . what does that matter, if you don’t have anyone? For me, over the course of these three books, Jade has taught us how to push back against the bad, yes. But she’s also, hopefully, taught us to hold onto those who are important to us. To make your own family, and then fight tooth and nail for them.

You’ve just completed the Indian Lake Trilogy, which could be considered an epic 1,300-page work. We’d think you’d have taken a breath, but you’re about to release I Was a Teenage Slasher this spring, and soon enough you’ll be releasing two more novels The Buffalo Hunter Hunter and Last Stand at Saber Ridge. You also teach, which is consuming in itself. How do you find the time to write so prolifically?

cover of The Angel of Indian LakeWish I could say it was that I just type fast, but . . . I think it’s two things, really. Okay, three, the first of them being simply luck: I’ve lucked into a life that leaves me an extra twenty minutes here and there, which I can fill with words. Second, I try to always choose writing above everything but health and family. I used to have a third thing there, but I’ve forgotten what it was. But, without health, you can’t get to the keyboard to write, and if you don’t always put family first, as a certain Mr. Toretto would say, then . . . then you don’t have all the kinds of support you need just to be and stay human.

Years back, when I was first starting writing, I asked Janet Burroway for her best advice, embarking on a life-long thing like writing fiction. Her answer is one I’ve lived by, and am so thankful for: always leave the door of your study open, so your people can come in. Who cares if they interrupt a sentence, a scene. Sentences and scenes are great, but they’re not as great as seeing your kids grow up. Nothing compares to that. Finally, third, the way I kick a lot of pages out is that writing is recess, to me. I get to sit here at this keyboard and play with dragons, right? Why wouldn’t I want to do that every single chance I get? Too, these stories, they’re finally the only place I can make things make sense. The world, to me, is impossible to comprehend. I can’t figure out why things happen as they do. There’s kids going to bed hungry, I mean. Teachers aren’t paid enough. We seem to be willfully destroying the environment. None of this tracks, to me, and a lot of it hurts. But, when I’m here on the page — when I’m here, I can make the bad things that happen make sense, at least for a little bit. If I believe hard enough in the reality under my fingertips, then I can sort of get a sense that things might work out. And, yeah, saying it like this, I can see that I’m sort hiding in made-up worlds. Guilty as charged, twice over. But, I learned that at the figurative feet of Robert E. Howard, who would so rather be in Hyperborea than Cross Plains, Texas. So, at least I’m not the only one?

The Indian Lake Trilogy was heavily steeped in horror trivia, the way Jade’s mind would relate everything she encountered to a classic or obscure horror film. Your fandom for the genre was obviously a huge influence on this trilogy, but what kind of influences do you have outside of horror? I’ve always sensed a Pynchon-esque quality of your work, the way it challenges the reader’s sensibilities, almost psychedelic in the blurring of POVs and voice.  

Oh, wow, my skull must be made of glass — you’re seeing right to the core of me. For years in my twenties, I was on every Pynchon discussion board, and I was driving eight or ten hours to pawn shops and the like, to lay down grocery money for an issue of this or that magazine that Pynchon was supposed to have written something in, maybe under his own name, maybe not. There’s that bit in Gravity’s Rainbow where Tyrone Slothrop goes on his big, not-very-willing journey through the toilets? I feel like that’s me — that I leaned over too far into Pynchon’s pages and got sucked in, am still cycling through the plumbing. For my money, the ending of The Crying of Lot 49 is one of the best endings a book’s ever pulled off. My first novel, even, The Fast Red Road, that’s me at my most naked, trying to write my own V. Years back, I got Demon Theory onto His desk, even. Since then, I’ve spoken with someone who actually had dinner with Him. All of which is to say, yeah, I still worship at this particular altar. Maybe it’s why my knees hurt so much, these days. But it’s also why my eyes are so wide open.

It’s reassuring that your style is so challenging yet well-received; it says a lot for the typical assumption that American readers have been dumbed down. I recently read that I Was a Teenage Slasher will be your most accessible book to date. Was this a conscious effort? How does the voice or style differ from the Indian Lake Trilogy

cover of I Was a Teenage SlasherYeah, I Was a Teenage Slasher is more accessible than the Indian Lake trilogy. Wish I could say that was strategic or intentional. Really, it’s just that the narrator for Teen Slasher, this guy Tolly Driver, he’s not Jade. Jade’s thinking, listening to her, man, it’s like drinking from a firehose, right? She’s always on her back foot, fighting this or that. That’s not how it is for Tolly. Tolly’s narration, it comes from a different place. Maybe just because he’s in West Texas, where you never say anything direct. In West Texas, you’re always coming in way around the side — if you say something direct, like you actually mean it, then you’re likely to get punched, stabbed, shot, or catch a tire iron to the back of the head later that night. So, being indirect, it’s a survival thing. Another way to say all this is that Teen Slasher is the most Mongrels book I’ve done since, well, Mongrels. But, as for anything intentional, I did, in Teen Slasher, make the rule for myself that I couldn’t drop the title of a single slasher or slasher film. I wanted Teen Slasher to pivot not on trivia, like I’ve done in Demon Theory, The Last Final Girl, and the Indian Lake trilogy, but . . . something different. I had a sort of sense that, if I tried really hard, and got really lucky, I could find a different pivot point, I could find the handle on a different hatch, and creak it open, look at the slasher a new way.

Teen Slasher is a book where I feel like I got really lucky. But, any of my books that maybe halfway work, that’s always why: luck. Wish I could claim skill or technique, craft or experience, but . . . it’s always just luck. It’s me dropping a lot of pieces on the floor, and they sort of fall into a pattern that’s really a picture. I can’t always get that lucky. But sometimes I do.

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