Stephen Graham Jones on The Angel of Indian Lake, Slasher Tropes, and Saying Goodbye to Jade Daniels

Books Features Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones on The Angel of Indian Lake, Slasher Tropes, and Saying Goodbye to Jade Daniels

Stephen Graham Jones knows slasher stories. He’s proven it time and again in novels like Demon Theory, The Last Final Girl, The Only Good Indians and, of course, the first two books that make up his Indian Lake Trilogy, 2021’s My Heart is a Chainsaw and 2023’s Don’t Fear the Reaper

Now, with The Angel of Indian Lake, Jones is bringing that trilogy, and the story of his heroine Jennifer “Jade” Daniels, to a much-anticipate close, and he’s well aware of the expectations slasher fans have for this book. Over the past several days, readers everywhere have devoured Angel and its breakneck-paced story of bloodshed, redemption, and a Final Girl staring down the weight of her town’s history, but what was the story like from the inside? How did Jones grapple with expectations, tropes, and most importantly, the emotional honesty of his heroine’s journey, for one last bloody showdown? 

Shortly before Angel‘s release, we got the chance to chat with Jones about how the novel came together, how that ending took shape, his next slasher journey, and of course, saying goodbye to an iconic character.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Paste Magazine: The Angel of Indian Lake is almost entirely narrated by Jade Daniels. After two books, what made you think it was time to spend most of the story in her head?

Stephen Graham Jones: Well, you know the first one is third person of course, but it’s really tight on Jade. I think when people remember My Heart is a Chainsaw, they always say Jade is a narrator, and that’s always weird to me because she’s like our narrative focus, but she’s not actually the one speaking except for in her “Slasher 101” essays. Then when I figured out I was going to do a sequel and then a trilogy, I realized I’ve got to modulate the delivery throughout these three books. 

So what I landed on for doing that was in the second one, it’s going to shatter and splinter into a multivocal thing with a lot of people speaking in Reaper, and a lot of people’s angles. To me, that was kind of set up for missing Jade. Like “This is fun, but I wish we had Jade.” So then in the third one, if I were able to, instead of only letting her speak during the [essays], if the main part of the narrative became her voice, then I was hoping that could feel like a return a little bit. Or it could just be as simple as I knew I was having to say goodbye to Jade and I wanted to hang out with her more. And how better to hang out with her than first person?

Paste: How did it change, just on a sentence-by-sentence level, the way you wrote this book? 

Jones: When I peel the lid off the can that is Jade, she just talks and talks. It’s not hard to render her voice, to do her voice. But what was a little tricky was there were some pieces in the Baker Solutions reports [narrative interludes told from the perspective of someone investigating Jade] where we’re hearing Jade on the page as opposed to kind of in her head. So those were a little tricky, because I had to somehow find a middle ground between how she speaks when she’s 25 and how she speaks now…kind of intermingling with the Slasher 101 voice.

So that report she writes, like her state of mental health or whatever it is [in one of the interludes], that to me was a little tricky hybridizing that. Then it was also tricky figuring out the right way to deliver her frantic unspell-checked email to Mr. Holmes. I knew that those all had to be different but recognizable at the same time. So that was a little tricky.

Paste: When this book starts it’s eight years after one massacre and four years after a second massacre in Proofrock, Idaho, and it reminds me of the way Haddonfield is in the later Halloween films, or Crystal Lake in the Friday the 13th films. What was the experience like of building Proofrock back after that? What were the things you wanted to highlight about the town as a character?

Jones: I feel like for me to somehow let the forest reclaim Proofrock would be a little bit too much wish fulfillment. I can’t indulge myself that deeply, in public anyways. But yeah, you’re right about, especially Haddonfield and the Crystal Lake area, those places are sites of collective trauma. It’s going to change the way people move through their day, just the way they move in their heads.

One option is to go the Springwood direction like in Nightmare on Elm Street 6. [In that one] the rest of America is kind of normal, Springfield is this wild slasher playground where Freddy’s dreams just run rampant. That’s another way to go, of course. I didn’t want to dismiss that, I wanted to acknowledge that possibility as well. Therefore, the kind of story in Angel of Indian Lake is this maelstrom of things coming from all different directions. I’m surprised I didn’t do Freddy swooping in on a Wizard of Oz broom, that would’ve fit.

Paste Magazine: You talked about it as a maelstrom, and you created such an environment where you really could have done anything and I would’ve been like, “Yeah, that makes sense. Why not?”

Jones: The slasher audience is very, very savvy. They figure the formula out; they know the conventions. They can anticipate every single thing.

That’s the way it is in the slasher. But still, creating a slasher, your responsibility, your duty, is to in some way surprise the audience. So it’s really a big bind to be in because you have an audience who is going to guess every move you’re making, but you still have to surprise them. That’s why Scream was so magical in ’96, I think, because it did that really well by pulling two slashers out of the hat instead of one slasher.

In Angel of Indian Lake, what I had to do was instead of getting Jade to invest in this or that option, I just had her back on her heels trying to deal with a kid killer, with a dad coming back from the lake, with Seth Mullins over there doing his stuff, and the specter of Cinnamon’s still out there. I was trying to kind of short-fuse the slasher audience’s ability to anticipate what was going to happen, such that I could hopefully surprise them and still luck into some sort of emotional resonance.

Paste: You mentioned also in the acknowledgments that you were scared, I believe you actually said scared, to do this book, so much so that you wrote another book on the way to finishing this one.

With that in mind, knowing that you had written a second book and that now it was being billed as a trilogy, I know you write from a place of discovery anyway, but what did you know, after you finished Reaper? What was in terms of, “Okay, these are the ingredients that I’m going to play with next?”

Jones: Before Joe Monte at Saga had me rewrite the ending of Chainsaw such that someone lived there had [been]…I wrote so many different endings for Chainsaw, but one of those endings that I wrote for Chainsaw is pretty much 80% of what the last half of the epilogue is now, with Jade going out and finding who she finds.

Within that ending of Jade finding Adie, there were probably four or five different variations and in one of those variations Jade steps up out of the water onto the water. Instead of that being a curse, that’s like a gift [from Stacey Graves]. I didn’t use that in Chainsaw. I ended up deleting it.

But once I wrote Reaper, and then when the audio came through, I went back and listened to Reaper. I usually don’t listen to my own audiobooks, but I did listen to Reaper. I was listening specifically to see if Jade had a finger, a toe, a foot, anything had ever gone into the lake. Luckily, the lake was frozen so she never goes in the water, which meant she could be infected with Stacey Graves’ whatever it is. That meant that I could resuscitate that ending where Jade now has the ability to walk on the water.

So then in Angel, I had to be careful not to let her get in the water, not to let her quite get in the water, because that would give away that she had this infection, this curse, this gift [in the end]. So all through writing Angel, after having listened to Reaper and deciding I was going to revive that stub of an ending from Chainsaw, I knew a little bit the general direction I was going. But I honestly thought that that big massacre melee under the dam with the bears was going to be the ending, except for when I got to the end of that moment and Cinnamon is dead, I realized that the story wasn’t over.

We hadn’t emotionally arced these characters. The plot was a little bit dealt with, but the reason for all this happening had not been dealt with and there was still one bad guy standing, that being Rexall, of course. In the first one, I remember readers clamoring, “How did Rexall live? He doesn’t deserve to live.” Then in the second one, people were even more clamoring like, “Rexall should have died.” So I didn’t kill him just to satisfy them. I killed him … Well, number one, because he deserves it. But number two, because to me it was really fun to delay his just desserts for long enough that when it finally happens, it can happen in a meaningful way and it can mean something. It can change things forever for Letha and Jade.

Paste: I wanted to ask a little bit about Jade’s emotional state in this book because you end Reaper with another character essentially acknowledging Jade is the ultimate Final Girl. Then when we come back to [Jade], obviously she’s been through a lot but she’s still very much in this headspace of, “No, Letha is the amazing one who will fix everything.” 

But I feel like Jade has always this sort of denialism had about who she is and what she can do, and a different writer could have made that stale. With you, it works because you can see where she’s coming from with all the trauma she’s had. What was it like navigating that emotional state and making sure that it didn’t ever feel like she was just repeating the same talking point over and over about who the real hero is?

Jones: That’s a really good question. Jade isn’t the type of person to feel triumphant. Instead of thinking, “I saved 99 people,” she’s going to think, “I let that one person die.” Because of that, I think she continually puts herself out of the running to be any sort of hero.

She just thinks that she is in the right place at the right time. There’s nobody else to do it, so she’s going to do it. I think for me, Jade becomes kind of boring if she’s ever like, “Yeah, it’s me. I’m the one. I have that self-confidence.” I think that that uncertainty is such a deeply ingrained part of all of us. None of us really want to accept that we’re good at this or good at that. We’re like, “I got lucky.” That’s how I always feel with writing. I’m like, “Well, I got lucky that time. I probably won’t next time.”

Hopefully that makes Jade a little bit easier to identify with. What I want is for the reader to be able to put themselves in Jade’s shoes because Final Girls’ stories are stories about how to resist our bullies. If I’m doing anything with The Only Good Indians and this Chainsaw trilogy, then what I want to do is I don’t want to bring the Final Girl down, but I want to make her an inhabitable space for us. That’s really important for me to do because I think, especially for young women, but I think for all of us, we need models for how to resist bullies. I don’t have any illusions that novels can fix the world, but if a story or an identification with a character can make even one person feel 10% more confident in telling their boss, “You can’t treat me like that,” then that’s a super success to me.

Paste: Well, that reminds me of something, and I don’t have the exact quote in front of me, but it’s near the end of the book. There’s a moment when Jade realizes what she has to do to finish everything. She says something in her head to Mr. Holmes. She says, “I’m sorry I ruined the diorama, but history doesn’t get to stay put.” That is such an interesting throughline.

In the first book, it’s Terra Nova that she’s resisting coming in and messing with the history. Then now you have the plan to rebuild Drown Town where Camp Blood is, and we see all of these little tidbits of Jade sabotaging that effort. Then in the end, she has to just sort of admit like, “No, in order to end this, I have [destroy this piece of history].” The weight of history is kind of the ultimate bully in this situation. When did you realize that that was the hit that you needed there?

Jones: I don’t think Jade realizes it until she’s right about to do it. When I realized it was probably when she, through the whole novel, has these little asides where she speaks directly to Mr. Holmes, and he’s the arbiter of history. He’s the source and preserver of all the history in Proofrock. I think that’s when I realized it. “Why is she talking to this history teacher so much?” Yes, she misses him. Yes, he was a surrogate father for her. But she’s also in dialogue with history. So the novel kind of is asking to go there, it felt like. So I slowly figured it out. I didn’t plan it. I never plan things, but I do go back and read the previous 10 pages or previous 20 pages, and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that can actually happen in 40 pages and I can provide some resonance or something.”

So it’s just a different way of plotting, I think. It’s a really unwieldy way to do it, but it’s the only way I know to do it. But no, even in Reaper, I wasn’t thinking, “That’s how Jade’s going to end it.” I knew it was going to involve Drown Town because I just hadn’t used Drown Town yet. I’d used Camp Blood, I’d used Terra Nova, I’d used Proofrock, but I hadn’t used Drown Town. So I knew I had to use it.

But the way that I 100% knew it was going to end was Jade was going to blow up the dam and drain the lake and expose Drown Town. But when it came time to do that, I just couldn’t figure out how Jade was going to live with herself for drowning the Valley downhill. Because it’s going to wipe out a few towns down there. I mean, if the cost of preserving your town is erasing five other towns, then how do you feel? You don’t feel good. So I couldn’t do that to Jade. I couldn’t have her blow the dam up. I needed to do something else, but it had to be something big and expensive and terrible.

Paste: Before we go, I wanted to ask about I Was a Teenage Slasher. You said in the acknowledgments [for Angel of Indian Lake] that this was your little decompression thing before you got back into Angel. So what about I Was a Teenage Slasher allowed you to kind of attack the genre from a different angle and step away from Jade for a little while?

Jones: I mean, number one, I wanted to empty my brain and my heart out so I could start from zero. I think that’s always the best place to start from. But what I really wanted to do was I didn’t want Angel of Indian Lake to be all about Jade wrestling and wrangling with the conventions and tropes of the slasher. But I always want to do that. That’s what I want to do 90% of my day is wrangle with those tropes and conventions, just talk them through and figure it out and write articles for Fangoria and call up friends and talk about it if they’ll listen to me. So I wrote Teenage Slasher so that I could do all of that.

But the rule I gave myself in Teenage Slasher was “You can never mention one single film, one single character, one single slasher. It’s all going to be general. You can’t talk about Michael Myers, you can’t talk about Springwood. You can’t dwell on Final Destination, any of that stuff.” Which was a fun constraint for me. I think it opened the book up in a really neat way. But for Angel of Indian Lake, [it had] to be about the characters in their emotional journey.

So I decided that while I will have lots of trivia in there because I think Proofrock and Indian Lake are just infected with slasher trivia, and because we’re with Jade, it’s going to be on the page in some fashion and in her voice. I didn’t want her interrogating the slasher as much in Angel of Indian Lake. Because I thought that would be distracting. So I tried to use all that interrogation in I Was a Teenage Slasher, such that I wouldn’t have any left when I got to Angel.

Paste: Do you think you’re done with Jade? Do you think there are more Jade Daniels stories to tell one day?

Jones: Man, I can’t say no for sure. I don’t think I’ll ever be done with Jade. I don’t think she’ll ever be done with me, but I feel like I’m not going to write her anymore, because I respect her too much.

I think she has been through the meat grinder three times now, maybe four times actually. For me to pluck her out of her life with Letha and Adie and drop her back into some blood-swirling madness just feels cruel. I feel like she’s earned her retirement at 25.

The Angel of Indian Lake is available now wherever books are sold. I Was a Teenage Slasher will be released on July 16 from Saga Press. 

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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