The Cemetery Dance Interview: Stephen Graham Jones’s Heart is a Chainsaw

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Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is to slashers what peanut butter is to jelly. Separately they are still awesome, but together they are perfection. With the popularity of the genre on the rise again due to movies such as Fear Street and the new Halloween Kills, and books from powerhouses such as Grady Hendrix, I got to sit down to chat with Stephen about his own latest release, My Heart is a Chainsaw.

(Interview conducted by Janine Pipe)

My Heart is a Chainsaw has been described by some as “The Horror Novel of the Year” but also a Slasher History 101. So, getting back to the very basics, why a slasher story and why in this particular format? 

cover of My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham JonesThe slasher never goes out of style. Just, like in the late eighties, sometimes it gets kind of tired, has to lie down for a while, let someone like Hannibal Lecter wear the mask for a few years. But it always comes back. That’s kind of why we love them. And, right now, 2021, the slasher is showing zero signs of fatigue. Halloween and Candyman are back, Fear Street and Freaky are lighting the world up, we’ve got Chucky coming to television, and Slasher’s already there . . . it’s a good time to be a slasher fan. And not just at the cineplex, or streaming. The bookshelf is hopping, too. From Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group, Gina Wohlsdorf’s Security, and Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield from the big five to, at the indie end, Ivy Tholen’s Tastes Like Candy and Hailey Piper’s Benny Rose the Cannibal King, there’s so many slashers to page through, many of them taking big, necessary chances — Paul Michael Anderson’s Standalone, say, or Jessica Guess’s Cirque Berserk. And don’t forget comic books: Hack/Slash, Nailbiter. We’ve come a long way since Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, and there’s still a lot more future to carve through, too. And we’ve got just the machete, just the right — ahem — chainsaw.

As for why I did a slasher, with My Heart is a Chainsaw, the easy answer is that you write what you want to read, right? Slashers are my happy place. They warm my heart. I’m really drawn to their brutally fair world, where every wrong is punished, with interest. And, really, I think that’s why this is kind of a slasher moment we’re in. For a few years now, we’ve been seeing people on the news and out in the world doing terrible stuff and then just shrugging, staring us down about it, and walking away, unpunished. Seeing that day after day on the twenty-four hours news cycle we’re all swirling in, it’s only natural that we might start to have certain justice fantasies of our own. Just for a couple hours, please, or a few hundred pages. It feels good to move through a world where wrongs are righted, and on the end of a machete. I mean, in My Heart is a Chainsaw, I guess it’s no accident that it’s some of those entitled, Teflon people who are moving into Proofrock, Idaho, and maybe starting a whole new slasher cycle. It’s been quiet there for fifty years now. But, it’ll soon be quiet no more. 

As for the format of My Heart is a Chainsaw — those “Slasher 101” extra-credit papers Jade, the main character, writes to try to pass her high school history class . . . I felt like we needed to look inside her head, see her thinking, hear her voice uninflected by conversational pressure and norms. We needed Jade, undiluted. Not that she’s ever that diluted, don’t get me wrong. Jade’s the kind of pure that we all maybe wish we were. Except, of course, that purity is maybe more a response — if she keeps looking straight ahead and only ahead, tightly focused on the slasher and all its wonderful trivia, then she doesn’t have to look to either side. Where she might catch a reflection of herself.

Your writing has been labeled as “conversational,” with some people finding this puts them at ease, whilst others, used to a more traditional voice, claim to struggle. Was this style planned or does it just come naturally? 

Yeah, I hear people say this a lot, and I guess that I don’t understand it, that must mean that it just comes naturally to me? It’s the only way I know to write. And, it’s not intentional, either. I just . . . I mean — it’s a trick to explain, right? So, to me, writing fiction isn’t about moving chess pieces around a storyboard. I’m not above it like that. I’m in it. I hear about actors employing method-acting techniques to get their character right, and I’m pretty sure that’s how I write, too. When I’m writing Jade in My Heart is a Chainsaw, I’m not saying “What should she do next?”, I’m in her actual combat boots in my head, and what I’m asking is, “What will I do next?” This is different from “What would I do, if I were her?” That subjunctive isn’t there, for me. Which isn’t comfortable, or convenient. Inhabiting a character burns you up. Or, it burns me up, anyway. I lose the line between story and not-story. People always ask why I write fast, and my best answer to that is that I’m racing to get back to a place I know is real. Maybe if I wrote romance, then I could enjoy being in that story space more, right? But I write horror. I go to the dark places, where the rules don’t hold, where the darkness is clacking with teeth. And, man, I do not want to have to fall asleep there. So I race, race, race, always running for that light at the end of that story.

Too, though, with the “conversational” tone, voice, delivery . . . maybe it has something to do with coordinating conjunctions? I suspect that’s a part of it. There’s a rhythm to them that you can employ, or lean on, that can make the prose kind of like a slip ’n slide, which is great fun if you run and jump and give yourself to it, but can throw you if you try to walk it.

But, whatever or however, I’m of course thrilled that people call it “conversational.” Because, I mean, that’s what I’m doing — I’m speaking to them, I’m sitting across the campfire just mumbling on and on, and probably quieter and quieter, so they have to draw closer and closer to hear. And, when you draw close, that’s when I can maybe do a proper scare. Or, we can be scared together, anyway — that’s usually how it goes, I think. The same way I can’t tell jokes, because I always start laughing, I also get fundamentally scared each time I’m writing horror.

Slashers for me, in both book and movie form, are riddled with nostalgia whether set/made in the ’80s or brand new. There is something just comfortable and cozy about their blatant use of tropes and formulaic structure. But you didn’t do that with Chainsaw — why?

The trick with the slasher audience is that it’s extremely savvy. A die-hard slasher fan can pick the surprise-killer out in the first few beats. Watching so many slashers has turned us all into Vladimir Propp, who broke the Russian folktale — and sort of all fairy tales — down such that, if X and Y are present in the opening, then . . . it must be this kind of story, where Y is going to happen at the end. It’s really elegant stuff. But, with the slasher, it’s not about delivering the audience the comfortable story they already know and love, it’s about delivering that known and loved story in a way that’s surprising, a way the audience not only wasn’t expecting, but kind of couldn’t have expected — and all without breaking any story rules, all without losing the audience’s trust. Which is a tall, tall order. 

So, with My Heart is a Chainsaw, the order I gave myself was the same as I get from Scream: do it, but do it slant. Surprise the audience, break no rules, but still deliver the goods. Which, again: this is not easy. The slasher audience is smart. And, what you’ve always got to be remembering while writing a slasher is that they’re smarter than you. What this means is that you’ve got to pull some three-card monte action, and show them the “truth,” but then slide it all around until they lose track, invest in another shell . . . and that’s when you’ve got them, at least momentarily. Or, that’s what I tried to do, at least. 

But, too, in kind of a larger sense, what people are expecting from a slasher story is the blood and guts, right? The jumpscares, the skinny-dipping. What this means is that they’re not expecting a character-driven story. They’re maybe not expecting some real emotional content.

Really, now that you’ve got me thinking about it, in the slasher there’s the big reveal, yes, the big unmasking. But what if that mask is just the outer layer of the onion? What if you just keep peeling mask after mask off? That’s kind of what I want, with My Heart is a Chainsaw.

The next generation of slasher fans have hopefully been created after the recent Fear Street series on Netflix and the books’ rerelease. Do you think Chainsaw will appeal to these newer converts to the genre or more so to those of us who grew up on the original Halloween franchise and Scream

I hope so, yeah. Slashers are coming at us from all sides, lately — videogames and board games, too. Whatever your medium, there’s a slasher for you. Talking Fear Street on Netflix, I guess what I want is for the audience who was there for that to be into it enough that they go back to see Wes Craven in Leigh Janiek’s opening sequence of 1994, and then from “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in Scream, they go back to Laurie Strode and her friends listening to that in Halloween — 1978, the year of the second Fear Street — and, via Jamie Lee Curtis, they go back to her mom in Psycho, and see Norman Bates wielding that knife, scarring a generation. We all live in that scar tissue. 

Or? Maybe that audience doesn’t want that deep dive. You can be a slasher fan starting now, with only the new stuff. You don’t have to be a slasher historian to enjoy the genre, I mean. There’s nothing worse than, say, somebody first discovering comic books, and being so excited about them . . . until they run into someone who disillusions them, who tells them they’re not a real fan unless they’ve been there since the Silver Age. You don’t have to go verse and chapter in a genre just to enjoy it. Yeah, Jade does, that’s where she lives and breathes, slashers are both her insulation against the cold of her loneliness and the goggles she uses to make sense of the world, but I truly believe that she would sit in the back of a garage while a gaggle of junior high kids are piled on a couch watching Jason and Freddy for the first time, and she wouldn’t say a word. She would just press her lips together in a sort of grin, and hold her hand over heart, which is revving so high.

Who would ultimately win in a battle — Michael or Jason?

I guess I’d come down on Jason’s side. He’s taken more damage than Michael, and gotten up each time. Or, after the sixth installment, when the lightning Frankensteins him back to life, then . . . all bets are off, right? I feel like with Michael, as Loomis says, there’s a big emptiness inside him, driving him, or maybe it’s an evil — or a cult — but Jason, finally, is more justified in all he does. So he’s got that powering him. Jason’s got a legitimate beef with all camp counselors. And that hockey mask obscures his vision enough that, to him, anyone young and at Crystal Lake, they’re either camp counselors, or they’re future camp counselors. Or, they’re close enough. Jason doesn’t want to take any chances, right? You never know when one of those kids might reach into their bag, come out with a yellow camp counselor shirt . . . 

Who is your favorite Final Girl? (Mine is Sidney Prescott)

Kind of depends if we’re locking the Final Girl into the slasher or not. Me, I think the Final Girl is the silver bullet to the slasher-as-werewolf, if that makes sense. She’s the antidote, the cap on this cycle of violence. She’s the slasher’s natural opposite. If the slasher is a cobra, she’s the mongoose — scrappy, overmatched, but, man, if she gets her teeth in you . . .

So, if the Final Girl can exist outside of the slasher? Then Ellen Ripley, she’s bad-ass enough for six Final Girls. And Erin from You’re Next, man. She’s Slim in Jim Croce’s “Don’t Mess Around with Jim” song. She’ll cut every part of you up except the soles of your feet. And she’ll maybe use a blender to do it.

But, keeping it strictly to slashers — which is what I kind of prefer — yeah, the Scream franchise’s Sidney Prescott is where I usually land. But, man, Jess Bradford, from Black Christmas? Her and Laurie Strode are the model for all the Final Girls to come, including Connie from Just Before Dawn — Jade’s favorite. And Connie is so, so bad, so cool. Connie becomes the weapon. It’s the most magical transformation. But, finally? I think my vote goes to Nancy from A Nightmare in Elm Street. What I like about Nancy is how vigilant she is, how resourceful, and how she uses her mind to beat Freddy, not her muscles. And that’s how you really beat a slasher. It’s all about fighting through the nightmare, insisting on your own life, and then, like Jade, reaching up for the light.

You are now getting blurbs from major publications, such as TIME Magazine, and big-time players like Brian Keene, Christopher Golden and Alma Katsu. How does that feel and who would be the ultimate name to see on the front of one of your books?

Oh, man. Yeah, it’s so amazing, getting support from all my heroes. Don’t know how I’ve gotten so lucky. It’s like I’m falling through a dream. One more hero, for me — which would feel like a circle, closing — would be Kevin Williamson. He doesn’t even have to say anything nice. Really, it could just be a screenshot of the email confirmation he got from ordering My Heart is a Chainsaw. With his address and particulars fuzzed out, of course. Because he needs his own time. How else are we going to get more slashers from him, right?

Can you tell us what’s next for you? Any news, planned releases etc.? 

cover of Memorial RideNot sure what I can say, but . . . I’m in edits for the sequel to My Heart is a Chainsaw, out next summer. Or, this summer. “Summer 2022” — I never know how to navigate the next/this thing. And I think I’ve got a haunted house novel out before then, maybe? And — not sure when this interview is coming out — nine days from when I’m writing this, my graphic novel Memorial Ride is out. (Editor’s Note: Per, Memorial Ride comes out on October 15.)

Where can people find you?

Search up my whole name, the engine’ll spit me back up. But, my site: Over on Twitter, I’m @SGJ72. Or, the best place to find me? Your local bookstore. Thanks.

Great talking with you, and Cemetery Dance. This is where my first horror story was published, did you know? 2006, I think it was. And, that horror story, “Raphael,” is right at the center of My Heart is a Chainsaw. Without that story, there’s never any Chainsaw. So, thanks Cemetery Dance. You’ve been here since my beginning. And? You’ve been here since a lot of our beginnings, really.

Trading in a police badge and then classroom, Janine Pipe is a full-time Splatterpunk Award-nominated writer, whilst also being an awesome mum, wife and Disney addict. Influenced by the works of King from a young age, she likes to shock readers with violence and scare them with monsters — both mythical and man-made. When she’s not killing people off, she likes to chew the fat with other authors, reviewing books for Scream Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Horror DNA, and conducting interviews on booktube. You’ll likely find her devouring work by Glenn Rolfe, Hunter Shea and Tim Meyer. Her biggest fan, beta reader, editor and financier is her loving husband.

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