The Night SHE Came Home
Stephen Graham Jones’ ‘Dont Fear the Reaper’ is a new slasher classic
If there’s one thing horror author Stephen Graham Jones knows, it’s slasher films. Some of his most famous novels, like The Only Good Indians and The Last Final Girl, play in that subgenre. He even has a column in Fangoria examining the slasher’s significance and resurgence in film history.
So it’s no surprise, then, that Jones is right at home carving up and subverting slasher films in his planned trilogy of Indian Lake novels. The first, My Heart Is A Chainsaw, was published in 2021. The second, Don’t Fear the Reaper, came out earlier this month.
Reaper picks up four years after the bloody concluding events of Chainsaw, where teenage Native American Final Girl Jade Daniels stopped the Lake Witch killer in her hometown of Proofrock, Idaho, but not before a Fourth of July massacre resulted in several deaths, the severe injury of Jade’s friend Letha Mondragon, and a prison sentence for Jade for stabbing and killing her abusive father.
Now, Jade is returning home to start anew after the courts overturn her conviction. She goes by her birth name Jennifer now. She’s given up her almost obsessive fascination with slasher flicks and passed that fascination on to Letha after training her to be the Final Girl in ‘Chainsaw’.
But, on the heels of a hundred-year Christmas storm, a new killer comes out of the shadows to wreak havoc on Proofrock. Convicted Indigenous serial killer Dark Mill South is big, he’s bad, he has a hook for a hand, and he’s on a mission to avenge the deaths of 38 Dakota men who President Lincoln ordered to hang in 1862. And this time, he’s seen all the same slasher movies Jade has. As the body count starts to rack up, Jade has to embrace her encyclopedic horror movie knowledge and again believe that she has what it takes to be the Final Girl.
“Most horror stories, especially slashers, it’s about the rise of the underdog,” Jones said in a 2021 interview with Fangoria promoting Chainsaw. “It’s me versus Cthulhu or me versus Jason Voorhees, and both of those can take me out without even breaking a sweat, so I should not be able to survive this, yet against all odds, against a whole world trying to smush me down, if I push through hard enough, I can make it to daylight. And I think that’s a wonderful model for us to all follow.”
In crafting this sequel, Jones follows that model and also takes the words of Scream’s movie geek Randy Meeks to heart: The body count is always bigger. The death scenes are always much more elaborate. Carnage candy. And never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead. He gleefully mixes and matches references to the classic slashers and new ones alike; he continues Chainsaw’s tradition of naming chapters after films like Scream or Happy Death Day or It Follows. Jones also employs names as verbs, making characters “Kane Hodder” their way over to one another or “Shining”s their way through a snowdrift.
He even dedicates Reaper to the late Wes Craven, director of the Scream franchise. Appropriately, he dedicated Chainsaw to producer Debra Hill, the unsung hero of the Halloween films.
If all that sounds like too much of an inside baseball reference fest, rest assured those references are organic to the story, and Jade’s story comes first. Reaper, like Chainsaw before it, is like reading a jump scare in book form. But it’s also empathetic and soulful and gives voice to the characters that often have no agency in these types of stories. Jade loves horror films because they helped her deal with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, but Jones never dwells on that and instead focuses on all the ways Jade takes those experiences and love of the genre and uses them to save the people she loves. There’s a lot of trauma in these books, but they’re not trauma porn. This is simply a straightforward slasher that knows how to meditate on loss — loss of family, loss of innocence, loss of a town, loss of a culture.
What’s more, Jones goes to great lengths to impart to the reader that the monsters in Reaper are real, because what’s real is often scarier than anything we can imagine. “Elevated horror,” this ain’t.
Reaper is both a loving homage to slashers and a middle finger to conventional horror tropes. Jade is the buzzing chainsaw heart of this series, a story told from the point of view of someone who is Final Girl-adjacent and must believe in herself enough to become the Final Girl.
I can’t wait to see how her story concludes.
(Gallery/Saga Press, Feb. 7, 2023)
One thought on “The Night SHE Came Home”
Nice review. This sounds a little bit like The Cabin in the Woods–a knowing love letter to a genre–though maybe not quite as meta as that film.