‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ and the Return of the Ultimate Final Girl

Books Reviews

Note: This post contains spoilers for 2021’s My Heart Is a Chainsaw—which you should definitely read anyway.

At its most efficient horror is magical realism. You recognize the characters, the scenarios, maybe even the scenery as genuine and relatable—everything except that one pesky element, be it a demon or a vampire or a slasher there to throw a bloody spanner in the proverbial works. I can think of no better illustration of this than the final act of Stephen Graham Jones’ 2021 novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw.

Chainsaw‘s gory payoff takes place during sleepy Proofrock, Idaho’s annual Independence Day showing of Jaws. Here a waterfront viewing of the Spielberg classic devolves into an all-out slaughter at the hands of a horror film hat-trick; the supernatural Stacey Graves emerges to lay waste to the community that shunned her, land developer Theo Mondragon goes to monstrous lengths to cover up a series of all-too-mundane murders of his own, and protagonist Jade Daniels is able to dispatch her abusive father in the chaos.

Jones’ follow-up, Don’t Fear the Reaper, picks up four years after the Independence Day Massacre. Despite video evidence implicating her in the murder of Tab Daniels, Jade (now Jennifer) Daniels is found not guilty, and, having nowhere else to turn, makes her way back to Proofrock.

There she finds the town not quite as she left it. Sheriff Hardy—who along with murdered history teacher Mr. Holmes formed a sort of surrogate support system for Jennifer in the previous novel—has stepped down from his post, a literally diminished man after left-threatening injuries sustained during the massacre. Her friend and fellow final girl Letha Mondragon, now a wife and mother, also barely survived her encounter with the Lake Witch, and now carries all the requisite scars (physical and psychological) inherent in that post.

Despite the abandonment of the neighboring Terra Nova development, though, this Proofrock is a more bustling take on the one-horse town setting of My Heart Is a Chainsaw—due in no small part to an influx of families more than willing to ignore the slayings to take advantage of the free college tuition offered to Proofrock’s high school graduates.

If that sort of willful ignorance, that innately human ability to ignore barely buried trauma, was mostly hinted at in Chainsaw, it’s on full display in Reaper. Here the entire community is happy to hand-wave away all the unpleasantness of but four short years prior in the name of little more than self-preservation.

And, of course, like all good sequels, this book is more than happy to pile on new characters, new lore, and new threats. At first, these seem to take the form of Dark Mill South, a serial killer (the titular reaper) who conveniently escapes custody just as blizzard conditions further isolate the people of Proofrock from any outside assistance, but, Stephen Graham Jones being Stephen Graham Jones, there’s a certain amount of misdirection inherent in this larger-than-life madman.

Initially more than happy to shed her previous creepy girl persona and ignore the obvious horror movie references of the novel’s first few kills herself, Jennifer relies even more on Letha, who seems to have taken up the mantle of the town’s ever-vigilant slasher aficionado. Thankfully, by the second act, Jennifer is back to being the Jade we all know and love, her encyclopedic knowledge of VHS-error boogiemen still intact.

Like Chainsaw before it, Don’t Fear the Reaper trades not only in old-school slasher references but in the trappings of related media, like the lingering mystery of the classic whodunit and the eerie ambivalence of the Italian Giallo (whose gloved killers did a lot of the heavy lifting for the proto-slasher archetype). Returning characters/survivors like the Baker twins (Cinnamon and Ginger), Galatea Pangborne, and even former frenemy/current deputy Banner Tompkins help fill out the cast, but newcomers such as the aforementioned Dark Mill South more than hold their own against these known quantities.

Jones particularly uses newbie Mr. Armitage to great effect. Ostensibly the town’s replacement history teacher, he’s no Mr. Holmes, even though he entertains the same sort of extra credit assignments that brought the Mr. Holmes/Jade Daniels dynamic to the forefront of the previous novel. (Read: elaborate treatise on horrors both fictional and functional.)

This time the “Horror 102” content is explored through the lens of Gal Pangborne, one of the massacre’s youngest survivors looking to make a little sense of all that senseless slaughter. However, given that Armitage is, a) a horror nut drawn specifically to the town’s dark history, and, b) an unseemly predator of a different type, these asides come across as more clinical, robbed of much of the underlying warmth of Jade’s previous missives.

Despite threats from all sides and red herrings galore, Don’t Fear the Reaper keeps its horrors rooted firmly in reality until pretty late in the game. Just as the late-chapter reveal of the Lake Witch served to ratchet up the impact of her story, Reaper‘s supernatural twist also punches above its weight class. It’s a nice callback to some established Proofrock history that blends seamlessly with the author’s brand of eerie folk horror.

In the end, Don’t Fear the Reaper didn’t displace My Heart Is a Chainsaw as my favorite Stephen Graham Jones book, but it’s a creepy companion piece that, like any slasher sequel worth its salt, knows when to lean into its established tropes and when to swing for the fences. There are, for example, the requisite awkward adolescent sexuality and clueless adults, but when the former weaves in canonical queer representation and the latter has the outright gall to paint last season’s final girl as this season’s self-deluded grownup, you’re reminded why the genre (in written or visual form) always manages to endure.

Like The Empire Strikes Back before it, Don’t Fear the Reaper is a grim and challenging middle chapter. By its conclusion, when all the dirty laundry has been aired and all those narrative twists pounded flat, we’re again left with Jade getting far less than what she rightly deserves. But what else could we expect?

As a woman, as a Native American, as an abuse survivor, as just another daughter of the impoverished middle-of-nowhere that this Idaho town represents, Jade Daniels is everyone who’s ever been left behind. And yet we hold out hope because, if you’ve ever ticked any related outsider boxes yourself, Jade’s success, no matter how minor or transitory, is your success—it’s a win for the whole damn team.

I can’t imagine what the final volume of the Indian Lake Trilogy will hold for our luckless protagonist, but just as Jade’s own mother, a woman previously defined by her outright inability to support and protect her only daughter, earns a modicum of redemption in Reaper‘s bloody resolution, I’m holding out hope that Jade or Jennifer or whoever she has become by the story’s end will, at last, be accepted as the hero we readers already know she is.

Access to an uncorrected reader’s proof of Don’t Fear the Reaper was provided for the purposes of this review. This post contains affiliate links. The saw is family!

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