Stephen Graham Jones Talks Final Girls, Middle Books, and Don’t Fear the ReaperBooks Features Stephen Graham Jones
Horror fiction is certainly having a moment right now, a fact that may seem surprising in a world where real life is certainly more frightening than ever, thanks to a global pandemic, the ongoing threat of war, and rising civil unrest around the world, and the looming specter of climate change. Perhaps these nebulous real-world problems mean it’s more likely that the thought of facing an easily identifiable villain appeals to us as readers, but whatever the reason, there are more great horror books heading our way than seemingly ever before this year.
Though author Stephen Graham has written dozens of books, most people are probably familiar with him thanks to his 2020 breakout novel The Only Good Indians, in which four Blackfeet men are pursued by a vengeful elk spirit. But it’s his follow-up Indian Lake trilogy that has firmly established him as one of horror’s most exciting voices of the moment, a series that’s not just a love letter to the slasher genre, but also part history lesson, part meditation on classism in America, and a feminist exploration of what the age-old concept of a Final Girl really means.
We got the chance to chat with Jones himself about the series’ upcoming second installment Don’t Fear the Reaper, how Lonesome Dove helped inspire this sequel and the next stage of Jade Daniels’s journey
Paste Magazine: So, the title Don’t Fear The Reaper —which is one of my favorite songs, by the way—I’m assuming that must come from Blue Oyster Cult.
Stephen Graham Jones: Well, it does come from Blue Oyster Cult, but really it’s that—in Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis and her friend are riding in her friend’s Monte Carlo, and they’re listening to (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, and then in 1996 with Scream, a cover of Don’t Fear) The Reaper is playing over Billy and Sid, and so it seemed like that was a kind of momentum. I had no choice but to call it Don’t Fear The Reaper, I was going to honor my heroes.
Paste: This is the second book in a trilogy, and I know it’s always got to be hard to write the Empire Strikes Back book, the one that comes in the middle of it all. How does this book sit in your trilogy’s larger story? How do you feel like it’s a progression from My Heart Is a Chainsaw?
Jones: You totally right to cite Empire Strikes Back. When I was ramping up to write Don’t Fear The Reaper, I decided to study really closely two texts, and both of those were movies just because of time constraints, but one of them was Empire Strikes Back and the other was The Two Towers.
I really watched those really closely and I read some critical books on The Empire Strikes Back just to understand—are there any nuances of this second book that I’m missing? A trilogy works differently, it’s almost like the first book is Act One, the second book is Act Two and the third book is Act Three. So I had to think of Don’t Fear the Reaper like that, but at the same time it also has to be a complete dramatic unit on its own. It was really tricky. And it’s also—as Randy says in Scream 2, it’s got to be like, bigger, louder…
Paste: There are rules.
Jones: There are rules. But what was really nice about it, which I had never done before, was, I no longer had to build the world. Because Prufrock, Indian Lake, Terra Nova, Camp Blood, it was all there already, and all the characters who survived the first time, they had already been established, so I didn’t have to dig into them and open them up.
I do want the book to be, I don’t know, gettable by someone who has not read My Heart Is a Chainsaw, but I think it’s more gettable by someone who has read My Heart Is a Chainsaw, if that makes sense.
Paste: The first book [in this series] was entirely about Jade—we’re in her head for the whole thing, even the interlude pieces are her history papers, and it’s fully her story. But one of the things that I enjoyed the most about this sequel is the inclusion of other characters’ voices. Talk to me a little bit about this narrative expansion.
Jones: Two reasons. One, you’re right, My Heart is a Chainsaw had the spotlight, the narrative focused on Jade, 100% of the time, and nothing happened that she wasn’t involved with. What I wanted to do was force the reader to put on Jade’s slasher goggles, and the only way to do that was to make it almost claustrophobically tight with her, but in this one, I was able to widen it out.
In the second book, it felt to me like if I kept that spotlight trained on Jade the whole time, that either people were going to push back against her because she can be overbearing or…
Paste: Kind of extra?
Jones: Yes! Or it would just burn Jade out [as a character}. Also, in the case of Don’t Fear the Reaper, the story is happening all over town and all over the lake and everything. With something that’s told only over one character’s shoulder or in one character’s voice, you have to choreograph things such that the character happens to be here where this happens and just happens to be there where that happens.
I wanted to let the story unfold in a more natural shape and the only way I could do that was to jump heads: Boom, boom, boom. And while I say I didn’t have to do a lot of world-building this time, I think each time we drop into a different character’s head that’s probably a little more fleshing out of this community.
Paste: It’s a different kind of world-building.
Jones: And it was really fun. I was continually surprised by “oh, this person has a voice, this person has a voice.” That was weird to me, but my model for it was, I wrote Don’t Fear The Reaper right at the end of rereading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. And that’s in parts, and each part introduces a new character and then it goes into everything else. And it cycles through all their heads. So that’s what I tried to do in Don’t Fear the Reaper—-and following that model was really productive. I don’t think I could have written Don’t Fear the Reaper if I hadn’t just come out of Lonesome Dove.
Paste: Did you have a favorite new character or voice to get into?
Jones: I liked writing Jace a lot toward the end. He felt really natural to me, I liked him a lot, even though I was only with him for a really short time. But I guess the big thing for me was getting to see the world as Letha sees it.
Paste: Talk to me a little bit about Jade’s journey in this, or Jennifer, as she goes by in this book. Where is she in mentally? .I think it’s obvious she’s still a Final Girl, whatever the new sort of definition of Final Girl is here.
Jones: Exactly. The first book was all about pushing back against our preconceived notions of what a Final Girl is and can be, and then Jade, at the end of Chainsaw, kind of stepped into that role because there’s nobody else, and she does what she has to do to win the day. But then due to bad luck and poor staging, that gets taken away from her, so nobody recognizes her as a Final Girl, only she knows that she is a Final Girl.
So she’s a big hero, but nobody cares, they still see her as they’ve seen her for so many years, so when she’s coming back after four years in a holding cell, pretty much, her long trial for what happened with her father at the end of Chainsaw, and she’s doing that thing I think a lot of us do in our twenties, where we look back at who we were in high school, and we try to turn our back on that. She’s trying to move past who she used to be.
So she’s not wearing her eyeliner, she’s not curling her hair all the time. She’s trying to not be who she was, but the problem is, one, everybody still conceives of her that way, and two, there’s a slasher happening around her, so what’s she supposed to do?
Paste: One of the other things I thought was really interesting about this book versus Chainsaw is that there is actually a physical human face to the evil in the story. Dark Mill South is actually a person versus the myth of Stacey Graves Tell me a little bit about where that character came from, and why you chose to tell a story about an identifiable evil this time.
Jones: I think the reason I did that, and I’m glad you picked up on it, was—well, the easiest reason is that I couldn’t do the same thing over again. And I like Chainsaw a lot, but because it was so locked in Jade’s head, we could never see the world from Stacy’s angle, and that feels a little unfair to me because I think Stacy has not had it great herself. I can understand why she does what she does.
But this going head-to-head [narrative] model [means] I could momentarily dip into Dark Mill South’s head and understand the world through him and also through the essays, some of them try to probe into why he does what he does.
Paste: I love how your work weaves in indigenous culture and indigenous traditions in a way that I just don’t think you see in most other fiction right now. That feels really important. And I have to admit, I didn’t know about those Dakota hangings in 1862 and after I googled it I was horrified. Can you tell me a bit about what including those sorts of stories means to you?
Jones: I know. In 1862 Abraham Lincoln, as the chief executive, signed off on the hanging of these 38 Dakota men for so-called crimes that the Dakota people had been perpetrating against the incoming settlers, which is just self-defense, and I don’t know, it’s bad across the board. And I don’t mean for Don’t Forget the Reaper to be a smear campaign against Abraham Lincoln or anything, I think he did a lot of good, and he was a smart dude, but…really what I’m coming at is just how much history from an indigenous perspective is not considered. People don’t know it, and they kind of accept a story that, well, the Indians were doomed to disappear, or we just happened to be moving in at that time, or whatever. It’s just the colonial myth-making machine steamrolling, and it’s never stopped steamrolling since the 15th century, it feels like. And so anything I can do to push back against that, I think I want to do within the framework of some horror drama, of course.
I don’t know if I like to massage stuff in or it’s just that it happens organically—but it’s the world I know, it’s the world I live in, it’s the world I’ve always lived in. So it doesn’t even come up, it’s just always there if that makes sense.
Paste: Everyone probably asks you this, but why do you think horror is having such a moment right now? And since this series is very specifically about slashers and about slasher history and the culture that has given birth to this trend. Why do you think we are so drawn culturally to the slasher story?
Jones: I think back in the eighties we were drawn to slashers because America had moved away from the cities to the suburbs because we wanted to be safe. But at the same time, we were at the height of the Cold War, and we all thought somebody was going to push a button and we were all going to die. So it doesn’t matter if you’re in suburbia or the city, it’s not going to matter if a bomb comes for us. We could say we were moving to the suburbs to be safe, but a little niggling part in the back of our brain knew that we weren’t safe, which is to say we could still see Michael and Jason and Freddy standing out at the edge of the light, looking at our bedroom window and I think that’s why we loved them in the eighties because they were confirming the fears that we were inarticulately feeling.
Now in 2023, I think the reason we’ve been into slashers the last few years….I think the 24-hour news cycle has greatly contributed to that, and also the election in 2016 that resulted in the news feeding us daily images, hourly images of people doing terrible things at podiums, at rallies, and then walking away unscathed. And what the slasher gives us is the ability to engage for two hours, for six hours, whatever, a world that is brutally fair. A world where if you do something wrong, you’re getting your head chopped off. That sense of fairness is so alluring to us. I wouldn’t want to live in a slasher world because you can get killed for littering and that’s rough, but at the same time, the slasher is a justice fantasy. So in a world that we feel is becoming more and more unjust, I think it’s just quite natural that we’re drawn to [these stories].
Paste: I’ll end with the most important question, which is, what can you tell us about book three?
Jones: Oh, I can’t even tell you the title yet. We did decide on the title about two weeks ago. I expect I’m going to see the cover any day now. I haven’t seen it yet but I have a strong suspicion it’s going to be black because I think white to red to black is a good progression.
What else can I say? Jade is there. And it doesn’t go to college, it doesn’t go to the big city, it’s still in Prufrock. I probably can’t say anything else. Except, I did take a lesson from Lord of the Rings, specifically in the third book, Return of the King, when the dramatic storyline is over and then they go back to clean up the Shire for 50 pages. And so I knew that when I got to the end of the third book, once the dramatic line is over, I need to be stepping out of the room.
What I think a novel is—you as a writer, throw this big party and at the height of the party when everybody’s dancing and doing all their party stuff, you slip out the side door and let the party keep going. And so with the third Chainsaw book, I had to figure out when things were at their highest so I could sneak out and let it keep going without me.
Don’t Fear the Reaper is available on February 7 from Gallery/Saga Press and you can pre-order it here.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.