It’s a truism in the entertainment world that it takes twenty years to become an overnight success. Since the 2000 release of Stephen Graham Jones’ debut novel, The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, he has released a string of critically well-received novels and novellas. However, it was not until the 2020 release of The Only Good Indians—which masterfully blended a sensitive meditation on the Native American experience with visceral, folklore-inspired chills—that Jones was catapulted to the forefront of horror stardom.
Jones has followed up The Only Good Indians with a new longform fiction project, the Indian Lake Trilogy. The first installment, My Heart is a Chainsaw, won the 2021 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel, the 2022 Shirley Jackson Award, and the 2022 Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. Its sequel, Don’t Fear the Reaper, was released as a hardcover on February 23, 2023. We spoke with Jones ahead of the release of the paperback edition of Don’t Fear the Reaper about his fan-favorite heroine, “elevated horror,” and recent slasher flicks.
[GdM] Your prickly, slasher-obsessed heroine Jade Daniels became an instant hit after her first appearance in My Heart is a Chainsaw. Her return in Don’t Fear the Reaper was highly anticipated, as demonstrated by the multitude of online selfies of fans sporting “Jade Daniels is my Final Girl” t-shirts. Why do you think Jade resonates so much with readers?
[SGJ] We all root for the underdog, don’t we? I think that might be part of it. And, that’s built right into horror. You always design your antagonist as bigger and badder than the hero, such that when and if they best that baddie, then it’s an upset—that underdog shouldn’t win. Neither should Jade. But heart and stubbornness count for a lot. Jade’s got heaps of both.
[GdM] In both fiction and horror cinema, creators often struggle with the middle installments of trilogies. How did you tackle this challenge with Don’t Fear the Reaper?
[SGJ] First, I knew about that middle-of-the-trilogy slump, so was intent on avoiding it. Second, I had revisit two of my favorite middle instalments, The Two Towers and The Empire Strikes Back, to get the tone and angle of approach close to right. The trick with a middle instalment of a trilogy is that you’ve got to both “win” the dramatic line while also not yet concluding the narrative arc. The Fellowship bests Saruman, say, and that’s great and wonderful, but, too . . . Frodo’s in a pretty bad place, and Sauron’s still simmering over there on the horizon, portending all the sacrifices that are going to need to happen to vanquish him and restore Middle Earth. Or, Luke fights Vader to a near-standstill, which is to say, his Jedi training’s working out, but, too, not only does he lose his hand, but he finds out Vader’s his dad. To add onto the “down” of Empire, Han’s in carbonite, too. So, taking both of those as templates, as leads, as bars to rise to, in Reaper, Jade had to face off against all the badness in Proofrock this time around—including her own demons—but, first, in spite of that, the novel needed to end sort of “down,” and, second, it couldn’t complete her trilogy-long arc.
[GdM] Even when describing Dark Mill South’s bloody killing spree in Don’t Fear the Reaper, your work has a pronounced literary streak. How do you feel about the term “elevated horror”?
[SGJ] Not in favor of it. I feel like it’s just people’s way of saying that they don’t really like horror, but they like this horror because it’s not like the rest. But “elevated horror” or “literary horror” always feels like an insult to all the stuff not included in that category. To me, “literary” means “that which can be returned to again and again, for more and more.” As opposed to “pulp,” I guess, which are one-reads—you leave the book on the train when you’re done, as you’ve milked it for all it had. Both of those are great, though, that’s the thing. It’s not hierarchy, it’s just different modes, different intents. And readers gravitate to whichever fits their tastes. Or they gravitate to whichever fits their tastes right then. Some days you want pulp, some days want to read a thing for the third or fourth time. And, another hesitancy I have with “literary horror” is that right now it’s kind of taken as a compliment—while also being an insult to the rest of that shelf—but I can suspect a day a few years down the road where “literary” shades into a meaning more like what we hear in movie write-ups, where the code-word is “deliberate,” which always means “super slow.” I can see a day where “literary” starts to be that kind of insult. Then? Then, the pulp stuff will be the mode actually concerned with pulling the reader through by the face. Me, I’m always aiming for pulp. I long to learn to do it better.
[GdM] Do you mainly write for yourself, or do you have a certain ideal reader in mind that you strive to entertain? Is it important to you to also reach people who don’t consider themselves horror fans?
[SGJ] The crowd I write first for is the horror crowd. But yeah, I do try to, say, walk the non-initiates into the land of werewolves or whatever. I don’t want to be exclusive and form some kind of in-group where only those who’ve read all these other werewolf things can play. I think of genres as fields, with fences between them. I try to write my stuff such that the stories have legs long enough to step over those fields.
[GdM] Many readers’ first encounter with your novels is through the Indian Lake Trilogy and The Only Good Indians, but you have an extensive body of earlier work. With Angel of Indian Lake scheduled for March 2024, where would you direct readers in the meantime, after they devour Don’t Fear the Reaper?
[SGJ] Mongrels, maybe? Or the audiobook The Babysitter Lives. Or my two recent novellas, Night of the Mannequins and Mapping the Interior. Or my comic book Earthdivers, if they read comics. These are all very different from each other, too.
[GdM] You recently appeared in Outland Entertainment’s Swords in the Shadows: A Swords & Sorcery Horror Anthology with the entertainingly gruesome short story “The Dog in the Corner.” You also have the digital short Conan: Lord of the Mount coming soon from Titan Books. Can we expect more Sword & Sorcery or grimdark fantasy fiction from you soon? What is motivating this apparent new push into dark fantasy?
[SGJ] For me, it’s just opportunity in the form of invitations. I’ve always wanted to write something Conan, as he’s kind of what I cut my reader-teeth on, and I read a lot of fantasy, too. Reason I never write it? Worldbuilding. I tend to discover places and worlds as my characters walk through them. You can write a fantasy thing like that, of course, but it’ll take a while, I bet. Still? I might have to give it a go.
[GdM] For story reasons, Jade’s knowledge of recent horror releases is spotty. What newer films would she be obsessed with? Given her love of slasher flicks I suspect she’d be a Blumhouse Productions fan, but would she enjoy A24’s output? Do her preferences echo your own, or would there be some debate when choosing what to watch for a movie night?
[SGJ] Yeah, her taste is very similar to mine, surprise. Meaning Happy Death Day and Freaky would be favorites. But I think she’d also dig the indie-stuff, like Last Girl Standing, The Mooring. And talking A24, yeah, I think Jade goes for Bodies Bodies Bodies. Really? I think she goes for any slasher she can see herself fighting her way through. Slashers are models for us all. That’s how Jade uses them.
[GdM] Thank you for sharing your time!
Read Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones