Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones
Gallery/Saga Press (February 2023)
464 pages; $23.99 hardcover; $14.99 e-book
Reviewed by Gabriel Hart
The slasher flick genre, and perhaps horror literature in general, isn’t likely to be the same after Stephen Graham Jones concludes his Indian Lake Trilogy; the way he’s blown it apart and reassembled it, using its well-worn tropes as trap doors to cavernous and kaleidoscopic subplots, rubbing its masked face in its own fake blood without disrespecting its vital primitive idiocy we’re unabashedly attracted to. In fact, Jones has intellectualized a genre many attempt to dismiss as trash, begging the question why so many of us intelligent, inquisitive people can’t stay away from it? The answer is simple: we cannot survive unless we go through something.
As the sequel to last year’s My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Don’t Fear the Reaper is Jones’ second installment where we feel we’ve lived a hundred lifetimes — likely due to the high body count that left Proofrock, Idaho a new state capital for terror. Everything is different now: Jade, the obsessive slasher fangirl who couldn’t stop relating every calamity to a title in her mental horror rolodex, is not only older, but after surviving the mysterious mass murder at Indian Lake on Independence Day, she’s quieter, more reserved. Traumatized, she now goes by her real name, Jennifer Daniels, always correcting people from her past; normalcy as her new armor. She must play it straight now; since she’s one of the sole survivors, she’s suspect. And even though she knows she’s innocent, we can tell part of her feels responsible — she wasn’t orchestrating it, but her commentary affirmed all the pieces would fall into place, in order for Proofrock to become victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy of her ultimate fantasy.
As we acclimate Jade’s reserved demeanor, Don’t Fear the Reaper is colder; opting for a more hardboiled true-crime style than MHIAC’s balls to the wall slasher celebration. Replacing Jade’s hyperactive horror dissertations to her history teacher — like candy to an aficionado — is a more brooding, journalistic account of an oddly-named serial killer Dark Mill South. The serial killer — oops, sorry, Jade — slasher, since he uses a machete and hook hand, embarked on what social media named his “Reunion Tour,” where in mobile captivity, he agreed to show authorities where he left his 38 bodies, until an avalanche interrupts its trajectory. The cavalcade buried, it left just enough chance for Dark Mill South to escape to — you guessed it — Proofrock.
Letha Mondragon is another miraculous survivor of Proofrock’s massacre. Once stunning, she is now her own walking horror show with a mangled face, her jaw wired shut.
“So it’s really happening again?” she asks Jennifer “Jade” Daniels when they’re reunited at “The Skank Station” of the abandoned high school girls room. “Last time I was the girl who cried slasher,” Jennifer says. “I’m gonna let someone else ring that alarm this time.” Jennifer has gained too much perspective on her past. “I just — I hide behind movie quotes and shit when I’m nervous.”
There’s a commentary on the commodification of tragedy, suggesting Dark Mill South’s likeness could be the next Dollar Store Halloween Mask; his threat so tangible it straddles the unreal. “All these episodes of violence eventually become cartoons. Time mollifies, multiple tellings codify, and then history repackages.”
In horror, often half the fun is covering your eyes. But Jones has re-written the rules of the genre so elaborately he demands you pay attention to every detail or else you’ll be lost in the woods. A masterful storyteller of the highest order, Jones also deploys decisively clunky jive full of arcane references one might have to re-read multiple times before they grasp it. That said, Don’t Fear the Reaper is best read in immersive marathon sittings rather than short attention deficit sprints; akin to Pynchon putting the Scream franchise in a woodchipper for the pulp that deconstructs the very book you’re reading — and it’s up to the guts of your intellect if you’re gonna hold it all together.