REVIEW: Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

Last Updated on March 7, 2023

Proofrock, Idaho, is a small town marred by tragedy. The Independence Day Massacre that concluded My Heart is a Chainsaw, the first novel of Graham’s Indian Lake Trilogy, claimed more than a dozen lives. Eyewitness accounts of the chaos differed dramatically, but misfit high school senior Jennifer “Jade” Daniels found herself saddled with at least some of the blame. Volume 2 of the trilogy, Don’t Fear the Reaper begins four years after the bloodbath. Released from prison after a mistrial, Jennifer returns to the only home she’s ever known. While deep in her heart she knows that the nightmare isn’t over, that a legendary threat remains at large, she yearns to put the past behind her. But small towns have long memories, and everywhere she turns she finds herself confronted by the scarred and the grieving. Complicating matters even further is that her slouching return coincides with the blizzard-aided escape of Dark Mill South, an enigmatic serial killer hoping to add a few more bodies to his count.

Dont Fear the Reaper Winner of the Bram Stoker award for Superior Achievement in a Novel, My Heart is a Chainsaw introduced readers to Jade Daniels, an angry and rebellious half-Indian girl with an encyclopedic knowledge of slasher movies. While much of the first book centered on her use of horror flick trivia to recognize and deal with a lethal menace in her hometown, it was also an achingly empathetic portrait of a deeply hurt and isolated young woman trying to make her way in an insular community that didn’t seem to have any place for her. She is, as Jones aptly sums up, a girl whose feelings are too big for her body. Don’t Fear the Reaper presents a slightly matured version of Jones’ Final Girl. She prefers to be called Jennifer now, not Jade. And after living through a very real nightmare, scary movies have lost their luster. Despite her attempts to move on, however, to the citizens of Proofrock she’s still the same old Jade. Circumstances also conspire to mire her in the past, as once again she finds herself in a real-life horror movie where knowing the tropes and rules of the game can mean the difference between living to see another day and joining the rapidly expanding ranks of the dead. Burying the past is a luxury she may not have.

Not only does Jennifer remain a captivating heroine, Jones extends his empathy to the surrounding cast of characters as well. Where the first book dealt with one traumatized girl, Don’t Fear the Reaper shows us a traumatized community. Horror movies usually end with the monster’s death, we’re spared the aftermath. But Proofrock is a small town. The loss of so many during the Independence Day Massacre is still keenly felt years later, and to each other the survivors are living reminders of the tragedy. The former sheriff now relies on a walker. The town beauty struggles with an ongoing regimen of prescription medications and reconstructive surgeries. Not all of the characters whose minds we’re invited into are sympathetic, some are fairly reprehensible, but Jones doesn’t play favorites. He makes us understand their motives, their regrets, their aspirations. (And then has them murdered in graphic, inventive ways worthy of the best slasher films.) For this reader, the humanity with which the characters are portrayed was the highlight of the book.

Both volumes share masterful characterization, but Don’t Fear the Reaper differs significantly from its predecessor in terms of pacing. Much of My Heart is a Chainsaw is a slow burn, but this follow- up volume is remarkably compressed. Excluding flashbacks, postscripts, and other asides, the heart of the book takes place in a matter of hours. The struggle for survival is absolutely relentless. Where before Dark Mill South’s killings may have been serial in nature—with victims separated by time and geography—when he arrives in Proofrock he launches an all-out spree. Cut off from the outside world by inclement weather, with power and phone lines failing, the residents of town find themselves immersed in a new massacre, one that many are fatally oblivious that is even occurring.

While Dark Mill South displays a degree of fortitude worthy of movie slashers Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, as in My Heart is a Chainsaw many of the supernatural elements mentioned in Don’t Fear the Reaper remain tantalizing, more often hinted at than foregrounded. Not all of our narrators are reliable, and quite frequently these witnesses are amped up on adrenaline or mortally wounded during their brushes the otherworldly. During these passages, Jones switches to a more gauzy, impressionistic style that requires one to read between the lines. It seems that there are phantasmal elements in play even beyond the legendary Lake Witch described in the first volume. Questions remain unanswered, but the dots the reader are given to connect have begun taking on an intriguing shape.

Like Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, Stephen Graham Jones balances serious literary chops with an unashamed love of genre fiction. Both My Heart is a Chainsaw and earlier stand-alone novel The Only Good Indians (2020) have attracted accolades both within and outside the horror fiction community, and Don’t Fear the Reaper seems destined to enjoy the same recognition. It’s a satisfying follow-up that leaves one exhilarated and excited for the trilogy’s conclusion. Part of me wonders if three volumes is enough, however. As any scary movie fan can tell you, the best franchises have a habit of outgrowing trilogies.

Read Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

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Robin Marx

Robin Marx

Born in Spain and raised in the United States, Robin Marx has lived in Japan for more than two decades. He works in the video game industry, handling localization and international licensing. In addition to over a dozen video games, his writing has appeared in a number of role-playing game supplements. He lives with his wife and their two daughters. You can link up with Robin over at: https://mastodon.social/@RobinMarx