An interview with the best horror writer you may have never heard of
Since the year 2000, the best horror writer you’d never heard of has been Stephen Graham Jones, a prolific author of the strange and gruesome and terrifying. He also happens to be a multi-award-winning writer, college professor, and receiver of a National Endowment for the Arts.
A constant creator of output and bonified legend in the niche world of horror readers (with more than 20 books to date), Jones finally broke into the mainstream with his standout 2020 novel of supernatural revenge, The Only Good Indians, which became a New York Times Bestseller.
With his newest release, My Heart is A Chainsaw (Saga Press), Jones is more than happy to bring his brutal truths to a larger audience, focusing on a topic he’s touched on many times in his past work: the slasher.
Unlike serial killers or demons or trope monsters, a slasher embodies specific traits: Among other things, a villain with a unique, colorful way of dicing and slicing up his victims; a “final girl” to bring the creature to heel; and a smorgasbord of prey (usually teenagers) to feed the killer’s innate sense of vengeance. Think A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, even Jaws, and you’re in the right place.
In Chainsaw, Jones goes full-tilt into the world of the slasher via his teenage avatar, Jade, the protagonist of his novel and a walking, talking slasher encyclopedia. Jade espouses slasher movies and books and constantly lists the rules of a slasher story to anyone who will listen, all while running for her life, dealing with her sad excuse for a father, and trying to convince all the dumb adults that the danger is real.
Following is my discussion with Stephen Graham Jones, in which we discuss the novel, his past and upcoming work, and what makes a great slasher.
In the last 20+ years, you’ve published a tremendous amount of work. In your view, how has your work changed over that time?
When I started out, I was scared. I mean, nervy and brash, of course—you have to be, I think—but also, fundamentally, scared. So, I kept my feet safely on my side of that chasm, kind of telling the reader that they were going to have to balance across to me. Over the years, and all these books, I’ve realized more and more that that’s not how it’s supposed to work. It’s me who’s supposed to step gingerly out over that void, and meet the reader somewhere out over all that open space, and hand them my story there.
Were there periods over the last 20 years where your tastes leaned one way versus another? Are there more zombie sharks in your future?
I never can tell. Next few books are horror, anyway, but I’ve written a science fiction one too that’s the most brutal thing I’ve ever done, even harsher than The Least of My Scars, and I have a crime book and an anthropological thriller in the drawer as well. Just got to find the right window. And, yeah, I always live in the space all those stories from Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth are in. Really, I think there’s a story in there, “The Many Stages of Grief,” that’s the most honest story I’ve ever done. And what I consider my scariest story is there as well, “Deathtrap Whirlpool.”
But the one I think about the most, easy, is “Parents,” or at least I think that’s what I remember it’s called. It’s about going to see the in-laws, which is fraught enough, but, you know, what if they were either muppets, or are pretending to be muppets? That’s how I feel in most social situations. Maybe that’s my most honest story, really. Except the guy in it wears khakis, which I thought was just a color, but I’ve been told otherwise, that it’s a style. That was the big thing I was trying to sneak past the reader with that one: that I could dress someone up like that, and then, amazingly, inhabit that space! It’s the same every time one of my characters drinks coffee, or beer. Or, really, does anything with food that’s not chicken strips, which I consider the main and only real food. Unless there’s steak fingers in the area. Then all bets are off.
Over the last several years your books have reached a wider audience. Do you see this as a natural progression of building readership over time, or is the stuff you’re writing now more accessible?
Man, if only I knew. And the publisher’s marketing push is in that mix as well. Maybe it is the mix, even. And, you know? When I started out writing, I had this fantasy, this dream that good stuff rises, that if I just kept writing as best I could, it would someday get noticed. I mean, that’s nice to believe in, but it’s junk, too. Doing this for twenty years now, I’ve seen very talented writers never get noticed, and kind of just slip away into other fields. Seems to me that the ones who make it are the ones who have a thick skull, like Rocky, and just don’t know when they’re beat, refuse to lie down and give up. Or, after each rejection—and those of course never stop, nor should they—those writers clamber back up, are at the keyboard the next morning, trying to do it better this time. Because they’re not waiting for the world to give them permission to write. They’re writing with or without permission.
It’s the only way to be, so far as I can tell. And, sometimes? Sometimes it works out. But not always. I know Mitch Hedberg advocated comedians not have a day job, so that their groceries depend on them being funny on stage every night. That’s noble and all, but, man, when you’re not the only one depending on those groceries, then . . . maybe take the Raymond Carver approach, and work a job you can buy groceries with, but then also get up well before dawn each morning, and crank out some words? Or stay up late, either way. Or burn up your lunch hour and all your breaks, writing fiction. The trick is always choosing writing, I think. What I advocate is choosing writing over everything but family and health.
My Heart Is A Chainsaw feels like an ode to slashers, with references from films, books, and real life heavily prevalent throughout the story. Would you consider this your magnum opus on the subject? Or is it a well you’ll continue to dip into for future work?
Yeah…I’ve done more on slashers—The Last Final Girl, Demon Theory, The Only Good Indians. I see My Heart is a Chainsaw as in keeping with them. It’s just me digging around in that genre, studying the final girl dynamic, and having fun with it all.
If you could suggest one movie, one novel, and one non-fiction book about serial killers and/or slashers, what would they be?
I always go back to Thomas Harris for serial killer stuff. Probably The Silence of the Lambs for the movie and Red Dragon for the novel, and then . . . Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City for non-fic, say. Though? Years back I went to the public library, checked out Schecter’s big Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, I think it’s called, and when I got it home, sat down to read it, each page was packed with these cut black hairs. Felt like I was being framed. So, I read it through as flat as I could, then closed it tight, dropped it back through the slot.
For slashers, however, though Scream is my favorite, I’d probably go with Halloween, could I only pick one to instruct someone with. For a novel, man, that’s tricky. I’d probably cheat, and smuggle in both Hailey Piper’s Benny Rose the Cannibal King and Jonathan Raab’s Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI. For non-fic, of course it’s got to be Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws.
If you could have one serial killer or slasher movie remade with the director of your choice at the helm, what would be the movie and who would you want in charge?
A Blade in the Dark. Nothing wrong with it as-is, just, a remake might let it go wider. It’s got some good tension, and I like how it all takes place in a single space, pretty much.
But, if we’re talking which slasher would I love to see remade, that’s easy: Intruder. Which, again: not a thing wrong with that one. It’s got great performances, solid production, and a tight script. But I’d like to see it updated, so it could get more eyes, and more hands clutching the armrests.
In My Heart Is A Chainsaw, the gruesome events of the novel gravitate around the relationships between your teenage heroine, Jade, and the adults who surround her. Why was exploring those relationships important?
The trick with horror is that you can’t just feed cardboard cut-outs into the meatgrinder—it’s got to be real people. We need to identify with them, engage with their situation, their struggles. So, Jade, she had to be real, and, being in high school, still living with a parent, being the town problem child . . . all those relationships and connections had to find their way onto the page. Or, really, I look at as the difference between Skid Row’s first album, Skid Row, and their second, Slave to the Grind. Slave to the Grind is amazing, is so heavy you need a dolly to get it from the record store to your car, but . . . there was no “18 and Life,” there was no “I Remember You.” Which is to say, there wasn’t the same heart that had been there before.
And anything good’s got to have heart, for my money. And you don’t get heart from just cutting up carving dummies. You get heart from making emotional connections with real people. So, that’s what I always tell myself, that’s the coals I always rake my fiction over: Does it have an “I Remember You?” An “18 and Life?” If not, start over, do it right this time, dude, c’mon.
Tropes you seem to enjoy tinkering with in past work include zombies, werewolves, and serial killers, among other subjects. Are there other tropes you’d like to explore going forward?
Probably, yeah. Been keeping the same kind of list that I ended up using for the werewolves in Mongrels. And I seem to have done a whole lot of vampire stories, too. I never mean to, I just must like them, I don’t know. And, of course there’ll be more slashers. I can never not do slashers.
You recently wrote an essay about Native American writers not wanting to be used as poster fodder for conventions to show off their diversity. What’s the balance between promoting and, as you put it in your essay, herding writers of certain ethnicities onto a “postage stamp”?
It’s just about not being tokenized, and treated differently. And, yeah, it’s a balancing act, for sure. Both for us and for cons.
Being a professor and a creative writing instructor, what is the one thing you always want a new writer to take away?
That direct-address commas aren’t optional. That if the aliens come to Planet Earth in eighty or a hundred years and just find smoking craters and burning cars, then the Columbo among them is going to eventually discover that it all started with us letting the direct-address comma go. So, in my workshop, you lose points each time you skip one of them. I’m trying to save the world, here. I believe the children are our future, yes, but that future depends upon them having direct-address commas drilled into their psyches such that they never even consider not doing them. That way, when the aliens touch down, it’s going to be all rainbows and unicorns.
And, when we speak to them, and are using their names, or whatever they use to distinguish one from the other, they’ll hear the almost imperceptible, distinctly honorific little pauses we put after their names, and sometimes before, depending. Otherwise, they might pull out their phasers, smoke us, leaving a comma-shaped curl of smoke hanging in the air for a few moments before it dissipates, along with any memory that humans ever existed.
Lastly, what’s coming up for you in the near future? Any new books on the horizon? Novels, comic books, short stories or novellas? And film / tv adaptions in the works?
All of the above. Memorial Ride, a graphic novel, is in October, and got all kinds of stories coming out in all kinds of places, and there’s film and television stuff percolating behind that big Hollywood sign, and there’s, let me see, three new horror novels already written, just waiting their turn through the gate. Two slashers, one haunted house. And there’ll be a novella as well, and a story collection, and probably more, always more. Second start to the right and on ’til morning, right? Only way to fly.