Slashing the slasher

Boulder author Stephen Graham Jones hits a vicious stride in second part of his Indian Lake Trilogy


Celebrated horror author Stephen Graham Jones is known for transcending the trappings of genre writing to elevate the form into the realm of literary fiction. He says the broader community has come to realize that just because he and his fellow horror writers are using genre tropes for storytelling purposes, that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say about the world.

“We’re not just a nightmare carnival out here at the edge of the light, impressing ourselves with blood gags and scares,” he says. “We’re actually in dialogue with a world where we’re processing the issues of the day — be it climate collapse, political stuff, financial things, or the pandemic. Horror fiction is like a fun house mirror reflecting those things back to us.”

Jones, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation and the Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder, is a famously prolific writer who published 24 books before turning 50. His newest novel, Don’t Fear the Reaper, out now from Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, operates within his trademark slasher style and takes the reader through that proverbial fun house with the mirrors caked in blood. 

As the second part of the Indian Lake Trilogy, Reaper follows its 2021 predecessor My Heart is a Chainsaw. Four years have passed in this new story as protagonist Jade Daniels, a slasher-film obsessive fresh off a recent jail stint, finds herself back in the fictional mountain town of Proofrock, Idaho.

Without giving too much away, there’s an Indigenous serial killer out there on a revenge quest. Dark Mill South is on a mission to get justice for 38 Dakota men hanged in 1862, and a lot of people end up dead in 36 hours. True to form for Jones, there are themes and symbols related to various tribal traditions throughout, including one murderous white elk.

Like most of Jones’ work, Don’t Fear the Reaper is set in the American West, and his feelings about the history of this region are not romantic.

“In the West, each footstep you leave behind, blood is welling up between the treads of those footprints, because America is born in blood,” Jones says. “It tries to whitewash it, so that it was just progress or whatever. But it came at a steep price.”

Justice fantasy

“Slasher” stories, where a  blade-wielding killer quickly runs up the body count, are on the rise within the horror genre. Jones sees the recent uptick in popularity as a result of fundamental problems in our country stemming from the 2016 presidential election.

“For the next few years, we saw people on the 24-hour news cycle just doing terrible stuff and walking away with no punishment,” he says. “You see that enough times and I think that instills in you a need for justice or fairness in the world.”

That in turn leads people to seek out justice fantasies such as slasher stories, according to Jones.

“A slasher world is not an easy world to live in because you can get decapitated for littering. Anybody who is a bully, or is dismissive about this or that, they get punished,” he says. “And as an audience who has time and again over the past years seen people not being punished for the wrong they do, it’s really wonderful to engage in a story where wrong is punished.”

But Jones doesn’t just write a typical slasher story. There are layers of meaning and references here that give weight to the narrative beyond popcorn fare of films like Friday the 13th or Halloween. The average slasher fan knows the conventions of the genre so intimately that Jones says he has to underscore those tropes before he undercuts or subverts them, “while still satisfying the audience, which is quite a balancing act.”

In this way, Jones sees what he’s doing as a parody of the genre. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious example of the form. 

“The way parody works on a genre is, as I see it, it kind of burns the excess off and leaves the genre more muscular and more vital and more able to survive for a few more years,” he says. “So when I am subverting the slasher genre, as I’ve been doing for a few books, I’m really trying to prop the slasher up and let it live longer and go wider to reach more people.”

Jones does that by highlighting some of the long-running problems with the form, including misogyny and violence for violence’s sake.

“The slasher audience expects the gore scenes and that kind of stuff,” he says. “So I’ve got to supply it, but I always want to supply it in a way that the audience has possibly not seen before, or if they’ve seen it before, then I want to put it into a context they’re not familiar with. Writing novels is so much about keeping the reader off balance, or wrong-footed just a little bit, while at the same time holding their hand to keep them standing.” 

ON THE SHELF: Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones is available now in hardback via Simon and Schuster.