Two Horror Novels from Stephen Graham Jones
Alison Stewart: This is All Of It. I'm Alison Stewart, writer Steven Graham Jones. Work is often darkly playful, incorporates, social commentary and horror as well as history. He's the author of The Indian Lake Trilogy, The First Installment, My Heart Is a Chainsaw, won the 2021 Bram Stoker Award. The second this series has just been released, it's called Don't Fear the Reaper, and it further investigates the slasher subgenre of horror where reintroduced to the protagonist Jade Daniels characterized as a quote, "An angry part Indian outcast from a small rural lake town where a serial killer terrorized residents just four years earlier."
Jade, a slasher film enthusiast found herself right at the center of an investigation after two mysterious deaths. First, a young Danish boy visiting America for the first time, then one of the founders of a new neighborhood development nearby. Determined to help her former classmate Letha become the final girl who trumps the killer. Jade puts all our knowledge of slasher films to youth. Stephen Graham Jones joins us, excuse me, Stephen Graham Jones is the New York Times bestselling author of The Only Good Indians. That's the last time he was on the show.
A review for the new book, Don't Fear the Reaper says, tucked into his warm propulsive prose is a white-hot coal of raw emotional mite and relentless honesty which heightens every horror yarn he spins. Don't Fear The Reaper, his much-anticipated sequel to My Heart Is a Chainsaw is proof of this gift, and that makes it an early contender for best horror novel of 2023. Stephen Graham Jones joins us now to talk about the Indian Lake Trilogy, at least two thirds of it. Hi?
Stephen Graham Jones: Hello. Thanks for having me back.
Alison Stewart: Also, want to make sure you know that he will be at the Strand Bookstore for a live in-person event later on tonight at 7:00 PM. Did you always know this was going to be a trilogy?
Stephen Graham Jones: I did not. This started out as a standalone and it became a trilogy when my editor, Joe Monty asked me to do the ending differently such that everyone didn't die and once people were alive, they could be part of a book two and a book three.
Alison Stewart: How do you work on a trilogy?
Stephen Graham Jones: You stage it where book one is act one, book two is act two and book three is act three which puts you on a escalation ramp, so it's got to get louder, bloodier, goer.
Alison Stewart: Louder, faster, stronger. Do you know what each book is going to be about as you do book act one, act two, act three or do you write act one and then, okay, now I got to figure out act two?
Stephen Graham Jones: That's how I do it. I try to give it all away with each installment such that there's nothing left, and then I go pick through the ashes and see if I can find a narrative thread to pull out to keep this story going.
Alison Stewart: Dark Mill South. Let's talk about the latest villain in Don't Fear the Reaper, a serial killer who has got a specific number of people he wants to kill. 38. I believe he gets to 35, if I remember in the beginning, why 38?
Stephen Graham Jones: Because in 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged for basically resisting colonialism and that was right at the Civil War Times. Abraham Lincoln was the one who signed off on it, and some of the trials lasted less than five minutes. That's something that I think he and all of us can be justifiably angry about.
Alison Stewart: As I mentioned, you put history in your book as you just said, do you collect historical facts and squirrel them away for the right time?
Stephen Graham Jones: As for these 38 Dakota men who are hanging, that really comes from a poem by a lady long soldier. A beautiful, beautiful poem, I've read that every day for I feel like six weeks until I feel like it was part of me.
Alison Stewart: What time of day did you read that poem?
Stephen Graham Jones: Usually when I would start out the day, so eight or nine o'clock
Alison Stewart: In the morning?
Stephen Graham Jones: Yes.
Alison Stewart: Then how did that set your tone for the day?
Stephen Graham Jones: It felt like it reentered me a little bit. It reminded me that there's work to be done.
Alison Stewart: Are you someone who-- it sounds like you have rituals towards your writing?
Stephen Graham Jones: It's easy to fall into rituals. The trick is once you gather rituals to you to make your writing session better, you're really stocking yourself with excuses not to write because you don't have the glass of tea, you don't have the cat, you don't have the candle, all that stuff. Luckily Lay's poem is online, so I could find it wherever I was.
Alison Stewart: Okay, so I went a little tangent there about writing but when me come back to Dark Mill South, would you read a little bit so we can learn a little bit more about this person?
Stephen Graham Jones: I'd be honored to you, thank you. In the summer of 2015, a rough beast slouched out of the shadows into the waking nightmares of an unsuspecting world. His name was Dark Mill South, but that wasn't the only name he went by. Cow poking through Wyoming, working the feed line as they used to call it, he'd been the East Fork Strangler, not because he ever hung his hat in the East Fork bunkhouse or rode their fences but because he'd somehow come into possession of one of their 246 branding irons, and had taken the time with each victim to get that brand glowing red to leave his mark.
For that season, he'd been propping his dead up behind snow fences, always facing north. It wasn't necessarily a Native American thing. Dark Mill South was Ojibwe out of Minnesota, he would say later, just polite. After a while he'd put them through his manners extended to six men and women that winter of 2013. Come spring melt the East Fork Strangler lobbed his branding iron into the chug water and drifted up into Montana where the newspapers dubbed him the 90i slasher.
It was supposed to have been the i90 slasher since Dark Mill South reign of terror had extended up and down the i90 from Billings to Butte but the intern typing it into the crawl on the newsfeed had flipped it around to 90i. By that evening, 90i had gone viral and so was another boogieman born.
Alison Stewart: That was Stephen Graham Jones reading from Don't Fear the Reaper. This is a question I was wondering as I'm reading, so for people can because radio you can't see, it's one font at the beginning of the book and for most of the story, but when it's Dark Mill, it's a different font. Tell me a little bit about that decision when that came about.
Stephen Graham Jones: The first book, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is intercut with high school history papers that Jade Daniels, the protagonist writes, and Don't Fear the Reaper is also intercut with papers that someone is writing which is one of the font changes in the formatting changes for these insertions into the narrative.
Alison Stewart: Do you visualize them as you're writing or is it something you deal with the art direction?
Stephen Graham Jones: Yes. I leave it to the book designer and the layout person. They're much better at that than I am but I do, I think envision the person who is writing it as they're writing it.
Alison Stewart: For people who are listening to you, do have an accent, so we're going to talk about growing up in Texas, living in Texas. That's when you reported late in some of the articles I read about you that you-- that's when you first got into the slashers, do you remember the first film that had an impression on you?
Stephen Graham Jones: Yes, that would be Halloween, 1978, and I didn't see that film until well into the 80s but I must have been six years old, I was born in 72. I was sleeping on the floor of my grandmother's house way out in the country. We couldn't even see another porch lot. We lived out so far, and my aunt and uncle lived on the same property in a little camper trailer out on the corner by the fence. They were the most amazing people in the world. They were giants in my world. They were titans.
They could do no wrong, and then about two in the morning there comes a knock on the door and I huddle up to the door in my blanket, answer it, and it's my aunt and uncle, they're wrapped in a single blanket and they said, "Hey Stevie, can we come sleep on the floor with you?" I said, "Yes, sure, but what for?" They said, "We just went to town and saw Halloween and we can't sleep in our camper anymore." I distinctly remember stepping aside while they huddled past so I could hold the screen door open and looking out into that darkness and knowing that there was something out there that could make these amazing people have to come sleep on the cold floor with me and it was Michael Myers from Halloween.
Alison Stewart: That's such a good story. When you saw it finally, what drew you in?
Stephen Graham Jones: What drew me in was the pervasive sense of dread which, well, that paired with the back and forth between the characters. They actually felt like high school girls thanks to Deborah Hill who co-wrote the screenplay with John Carpenter but John Carpenter's framing and camera work and [unintelligible 00:08:42] were what gave it the dread. Also, the fact that Michael Myers has no discernible motivation to do what he does as Dr. [unintelligible 00:08:51] says, he's just pure evil and there's nothing you can do with that you can't mediate it, make it better.
Alison Stewart: A lot of kids are scared of horror films, why weren't you scared or maybe you were scared, I should say?
Stephen Graham Jones: I was scared and I continue to be scared. I think that might be why I write horror because I am so scared of everything.
Alison Stewart: What is it about horror or for you that makes people come back to it? You get scared, voluntarily, do it to yourself again?
Stephen Graham Jones: You do. That is the fundamental catch that people don't understand with horror is, why be attracted to this essentially disposable thing that's going to give you weird feelings inside and steal your sleep and give you nightmares? I think I don't come to horror for the terror and the dread. I come to horror for that sigh after the jump scare where you realize you're alive and that feeling of aliveness is what I'm addicted to with horror. I feel like.
Alison Stewart: Have you seen Megan?
Stephen Graham Jones: Oh yes. I love Megan.
Alison Stewart: All right. Tell me what you like about this movie, Megan which is, I think surprised a lot of people at how popular it is. Stephen Graham Jones I like how the gradient up to her doing what she does is so gradual. We understand every step. It makes sense in the way she thinks, and that makes it more dangerous and scary for us. I think.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Steven Graham Jones. The new book is called Don't Fear the Reaper. It is the second in the series. The first one is My Heart Is a Chainsaw. Where do the titles for these two come from?
Stephen Graham Jones The title for My Heart is a Chainsaw was not the original title I had on it. My editor Jill Monty, he didn't tell me to change it to My Heart is a Chainsaw, but he said to change it away from the terrible title I had. I had to dream up a new title.
Alison Stewart: What's a terrible title?
Stephen Graham Jones It was Lake Access Only, which I thought was a great title.
Alison Stewart: Lake Access Only.
Stephen Graham Jones The turnover establishment on the other side of the lake. You can only get to about lake. You can't drive there. You can't really pole vault there. Then Don't Fear the Reaper was the title I had while working on it and it's the title on the outside of the book now, so I was lucky that it got to stick.
Alison Stewart: It's very funny. When one talks about slasher culture being a subgenre of horror, could you explain that a little bit to people? Why it's considered a subgenre? Why it's not necessarily its own genre?
Stephen Graham Jones Well, horror is a big umbrella and it covers zombies, werewolves, haunted houses, oftentimes serial killers, and definitely slashers. I think most little corners of the bookshelf are like that. It's one big umbrella over a lot of subdivisions. As for the slasher itself, I think the slasher is preoccupied with the justice fantasy. They are justice fantasies.
They are, someone was wronged or disturbed and now a spirit of vengeance has risen to exec justice or to rebalance the world. The world we live in, we see people doing atrocious things at microphones and podiums, and at the end they wave and everybody clap and they walk away. That leaves us feeling like our world is not just, it's not fair, but for two hours at a time, for six hours at a time, we can a justice fantasy in the form of a slasher, and feel like there is a possibility for things to make sense.
Alison Stewart: What is a challenge? I'm sure there are many in writing in this genre.
Stephen Graham Jones The biggest challenge with putting slashers down on the page is that it's a genre that grew up in the cinema. A lot of its techniques have film stuff baked in. You have to come up with workarounds, but there's also a lot of freedom there because you can do things on the page you can't do on the screen. I really am enjoying that.
Alison Stewart: In the first chapter of Don't Fear the Reaper, a character suddenly has his intestines in his hands. It's just like, oh my gosh, it just happens.
Stephen Graham Jones His hands are numb, so he doesn't know what he's holding at first, which was really fun to do.
Alison Stewart: How do you know if you've gone too far? Or is there, maybe there isn't too far. I don't know.
Stephen Graham Jones If there is too far, I'm still reaching for it. I think that's how you know you're writing good stuff. If you start to get nervous that you might have gone too far. That's how you know you're doing good horror. If you start to get nervous, if I ever feel confident I'm in the right place, then I'm probably not writing horror.
Alison Stewart: Your protagonist also is obsessed with horror, loves slasher. How does that help tell this story?
Stephen Graham Jones It helped me a whole lot because I didn't have to do research. If she would've been into tennis then I would've been lost. I don't have anything about tennis, but luckily I know a lot about slashers, so I was able to feed some of that to her. I share so much with Jade Daniels, the protagonist of My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and Don't Fear the Reaper. We were both custodians in high school and we both got kicked out of school for our t-shirt choices. I used to try to change my hair color and I smuggled so much of my [unintelligible 00:13:46] into Jade, I feel like.
Alison Stewart: If we're reading, we get some Easter eggs about you?
Stephen Graham Jones Yes.
Alison Stewart: Are there Easter eggs about slasher films? I don't know enough about slasher films to pick them up, but I'm sure someone who does.
Stephen Graham Jones You can go on letterbox. People make lists of all the slasher references and My Heart Is a Chainsaw and Don't Fear the Reaper. They go like 160, 200 items long. I've never checked them because I don't remember, I didn't have a list. I wanted to pour this book and this movie and this character. I didn't go at it like that. I'll let things rise organically, but because of that, I didn't track all the references. I'll leave that to other people.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Steven Graham Jones. The first book is My Heart Is a Chainsaw. The second, which is just out, is Don't Fear the Reaper. Why is set in Idaho?
Stephen Graham Jones It's set in Idaho because I wanted to like, Jade is Blackfeet and then Blackfeet, we're out of Montana. I'm not out of Montana. I'm from West Texas. The Blackfeet's ancestral home is northern Montana, right up against the 49th Parallel right up against Canada. I set it in Idaho because I wanted Jade to be remote from her culture, her heritage, her history, her language, her people because I fear that too many Indian stories in the world today propose that there's a single native narrative.
Alison Stewart: Monoliz Monolith.
Stephen Graham Jones Exactly. That would be the most violence I could do was to have somebody out there believe that to be native you have to know the language or you have to know the history or you have to be plugged into your community. I just disregards all the infants who were abducted and adopted out and they didn't grow up in the culture. I don't think because of that they're not Indian. I think they're just as Indian as any of us. I wanted to put Jade out of good remove from the reservation such that I could establish her as being distinctly native, but it's not because she knows the word for elk in Blackfoot.
Alison Stewart: Another tangent because this made me think there's been just recently more interest, more mainstream interest in native culture from reservation dogs. We talked about the new showtime series about murder and Big Horn. First, do you welcome it?
Stephen Graham Jones I do. I like that it's not necessarily a recentering, but it's less invisibility and that's what America wants. America is always trying to turn native people into elves. They want us to be stewards of the forest and to commune with nature and all that stuff. In the same, that's the same mechanism by which we become elves, which are fantasy creatures. When you're drafting new law or dealing with existing treaties, you don't have to deal with imaginary creatures. It's very important that the world understand that we're still here. That the genocide was completely unsuccessful.
Alison Stewart: When you say that the elves made me think about all those movies where there's a magical negro for Black people.
Stephen Graham Jones In native culture that we usually get portrayed as a medicine man sitting up on a Butte and a John Wayne movie, and we give some sacred knowledge. I'll call those coin drop characters. You walk up to the medicine man put a quarter in his mouth and he spouts something mystic and holy, and then you leave and he's completely disposable.
Alison Stewart: Coin drop. I like that. Let's talk a little bit more about Jade and her family. How would you describe your protagonist family dynamic?
Stephen Graham Jones Terrible. It couldn't be worse. She is an outsider as far as her mother and father are concerned. She has no siblings, and she's also an outsider at her high school and she's an outsider in her community of Proofrock Idaho. She doesn't fit in anywhere. She has tried to find a way to fit in with the slasher, and she has in my heart as a chainsaw, she got the prayer answered that she had been praying for so long that a slasher would come to town and balance out the scales, make things just, but by the time, Don't Fear the Reaper happens she realizes that's a bad wish to make. You don't want to slasher coming into your town
Alison Stewart: He shows up just as she gets out of prison.
Stephen Graham Jones Yes. She's just getting out of hollow her legal difficulties stemming from the events of My Heart Is Chainsaw, which a lot of slashers never deal with the consequences of all these buddies on the floor and so I wanted this to be in the real world. I think if it's in the real world, there's going to be consequences.
Alison Stewart: Jade is really into this idea of the final girl. First of all, what is the final girl for people who don't know?
Stephen Graham Jones A final girl in a slasher is basically the antidote to this cycle of violence. She's the one who can put the slasher down usually because she's not in his purview. She is outside of his justice field. All her friends die, her pets die, her parents die, her teachers die. She's the last one standing. She runs and screams for a while and sometimes she falls down while she's running. She finally decides that her life is important enough that she's going to fight for it. She turns around and faces this bully down. That's really what the Final Girl is. She's a model for how we can resist bullies.
Alison Stewart: In oldie times, sometimes the Final Girl though, had some characteristic to her that made her seem like she was better than others.
Stephen Graham Jones Yes, you're right. They're stereotyped as virginal, academic mousey, and all that. I don't think that's actually a part of it. I think that's trash that's accumulated on the snowball of the Final Girl as she rolls through the decades. I think what exceptionalize the Final Girl and lets her finally survive is she's vigilant. She pays attention to her surroundings. She understands that branch breaking out in the darkness might be something. Everybody else disregards it and turns the music up, but she pays attention.
Alison Stewart: Why can't Jade be a Final Girl?
Stephen Graham Jones Jade doesn't think she fits the mold, the preexisting mold of a Final Girl. Over the decades, the Final Girl has been transformed into this sterling perfect, beautiful angel princess warrior. That's wonderful and fun and exciting to experience as an audience. However, it also makes the form the model of the Final Girl so exclusive and difficult to inhabit that she's no longer useful as a model for how to resist bullies. Jade does not match those ideals of the Final Girl so she feels that she can never be a Final Girl. What I want to argue with these books is that being a Final Girl is on the inside it's not on the outside.
Alison Stewart: Is the third book finished?
Stephen Graham Jones It is. I turned it in in August.
Alison Stewart: Oh, wow. Sorry. Just blew people's ears out. I didn't know. Wow. Can you give us any little taste of something or maybe if somebody's going to go pick up, Don't Fear the Reaper and read it. Maybe there's something in here you want them to pay attention to that helps set up the next book.
Stephen Graham Jones There's seeds of three in Chainsaw and in Reaper. Which was really fun for me to draw out in water and let grow. Whereas Don't Fear the Reaper jumps from head to head character to character, such that we can get a more textured understanding of this community who has suffered this trauma. This third book and I almost said the title, I'm not supposed to say the title of it. This third chainsaw book, Indian Lake Trilogy book is more jade centric. I can say it that way probably.
Alison Stewart: More jade centric. All right. We got something. New York Times bestselling author, Stephen Graham Jones, will be at the Strand Bookstore on 12th Street tonight for an in-person event at 7:00 p.m. The new book is called Don't Fear the Reaper. Thank you so much for coming in Studio.
Stephen Graham Jones It was great talking to you. Thank you for having me.
Alison Stewart: We wanted to acknowledge the passing of a great songwriter three-time Academy Award winner Burt Bacharach died Wednesday at age 94. He was a son of New York City, born in Kansas City, but raised from the age of four in Forest Hill Queens. According to our colleagues at NPR, "His father was a columnist. His mother was a musician. She insisted her son practiced cello, drums, and piano. As a teenager, the young Blackrock snuck into jazz clubs to see Dizzy Gillespie and Count Bassy."
Classically trained, he began his career with his frequent collaborator, Hal David here in New York City in the Brill building. He'd go on to create some of the most sophisticated pop songs of the 60s. Many of them sung by Dionne Warwick like this one.
Burt Bacharach went on to win three Academy Awards, won for his score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and a song award for raindrops Keep Falling on my head from that soundtrack. A decade later, he won best song again for the theme from Arthur, and he was awarded the Gershwin Award from the Library of Congress that said he quotes set creative standards. Just last month, Bacharach Rock announced a box set of songs with another collaborator of more than two decades Elvis Costello. The songs of Bacharach and Costello is set to be released on March 3rd. Let's go out on Elvis Costello performing one of Bacharach's hits.
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