Scars Prove You Lived: On Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Angel of Indian Lake”

By Justin WigardMay 11, 2024

Scars Prove You Lived: On Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Angel of Indian Lake”

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones

AS I SAT DOWN with The Angel of Indian Lake, Stephen Graham Jones’s new and final entry in The Indian Lake Trilogy, I was curious: how would Jones up the ante on a trilogy that had already touched on nearly every horror and slasher trope in existence by the end of its second installment? Apparently, the answer was simple: light the whole world on fire, raise the dead, and unleash as many monsters as possible on Jade Daniels, the trilogy’s final girl and protagonist.

Oh. And set the whole damn book on Halloween.

The Angel of Indian Lake takes place in the lead-up to, and primarily on, October 31, 2023. The slasher genre demands this synchronicity, particularly in the third entry of a trilogy, with the first book in the series, My Heart Is a Chainsaw (2021), set on July 4, 2015, and the second, Don’t Fear the Reaper (2023), on December 13, 2019 (Friday the 13th). The same synchronicity applies to protagonist Jade herself. No longer a student, nor recent graduate, of Proofrock High, Jade enters the hallowed halls as a history teacher. Standing in front of a classroom full of teens traumatized by multiple massacres, Jade occupies the same role as Mr. Grady “Bear” Holmes, the now-deceased history teacher/father figure in Jade’s life.

Jade also sees a court-mandated therapist, Dr. Sharona Watts, to work through trauma resulting from the carnage she has witnessed over the last several years and from her brutal childhood. These therapy sessions take place on a swing set, with both Jade and her therapist wearing Ghostface masks while in session to promote honest conversations. These therapy sessions are also coupled with prescription mood stabilizers, which Jade both relies on and occasionally overindulges in. For Jade, the slasher genre has always been a source of protection from the troubles of her life. With the help of her therapist, she also draws strength from these horror movies to deal with two separate slasher events she experienced, along with stints in court, prison, and mental health institutions. In the midst of a panic attack, for instance, Jade reminds herself that she has control over her life, choosing to mentally press the “skip” button on particularly traumatic moments that she does not need or want to relive.

Several events catalyze Angel in quick succession: two teenagers are found outside of town, brutally murdered alongside a recently dug-up grave; the forest surrounding Proofrock is set aflame; and a parent is beheaded in their car at elementary school pickup. Angel’s scenes are caked in heat, soot, smoke, and ash, bringing to mind the heat of Chainsaw’s hot summer setting but echoing the claustrophobic nature of Reaper’s blizzard due to the ever-encroaching forest fire. Angel is also filled with blood and ooze spilled from chain saws, a Halligan, a machete, and a golden pickaxe. This time around, Jade is not a suspect, and as the book unfolds, she is tasked with finding out who committed the murders. Is she dealing with a killer bent on revenge? A supernatural force tied to colonial blood spilled by a golden pickaxe at the bottom of a haunted lake? Or perhaps a final girl gone rogue?

Befitting the end to a slasher trilogy, this forest fire setting somehow brings more blades, not less: in an emergency action, the town recruits volunteer firefighters to turn back the blaze, with a plan to use chain saws to clear fire lines. Jade not only has to protect her small circle of loved ones and deal with another slasher on the loose; she also must do so amid a small army of chain saw–wielding townspeople while her entire world is on fire. Occasionally, the drone of chain saws fades into the plot background like cicadas while Jade continues warning townspeople of the fire and investigating the slasher—that is, until Jones brings these dangerous tools to the fore in violent, brutal fashion, reminding us that, yes, this is a slasher, and because Angel concludes The Indian Lake Trilogy, no characters are truly safe.

Rather than actively choosing isolation and solitude, as she did in the past, Jade in Angel has built a chosen family in Proofrock: Letha Mondragon, the other primary final girl from both Chainsaw and Reaper, whom Jade reveres more than even Halloween’s Laurie Strode; Letha’s husband, Banner Tompkins, former high school football star and current sheriff of Proofrock; and Adie, Letha and Banner’s daughter, whom Jade defends with the fierceness of the mother bear protecting her cub at the end of Chainsaw. As the history teacher at Proofrock High, Jade also feels responsible for her students, trying to prepare the students for the reality of living in a town with a bloody colonial history. In one of her inner monologues to Grady, Jade notes, “Now I’m all about holding the door of the slasher-proof shelter open, so everybody can duck in, ride this out.” This radical turn from isolation to connection, vengeance to shelter, is perhaps Jade’s clearest sign of growth in Angel, a payoff worth wading through the bloodshed of the first two books.

Some of the more sincere, poignant, and thought-provoking moments of the book (and the trilogy as a whole) materialize between two final girls talking about life, death, and the pains of surviving in between those two states and enduring a world that resists them at every turn. Jones gives space to the women to wax poetic about the aftermath of violence and the long road to healing—primarily through horror film analogies, naturally.

Much as the first two books used transitional snippets of writing in other genres and formats, The Angel of Indian Lake uses reports from an external investigative firm. They operate as an innovative iteration of the surveillance mode of “slasher vision” that feels more pervasive and insidious than typical slasher vision motifs in many ways. Evidently, the investigative firm has used wiretaps, email hacking, drones, hidden mics, video recording, and more to follow Jade’s every action and movement within Indian Lake, along with old-fashioned following and spying. These impersonal, factual reports stand in stark contrast to Jade’s Slasher 101 essays in Chainsaw—detailing the history of Proofrock for Bear’s high school history class through the lens of the slasher genre—which were wry, sincere, critical, and confessional. In her essays, she weaved together the town’s bloody history with slasher fiction’s even bloodier genealogy, dismantling tropes and explaining the genre’s fictional rules. In Angel, likewise, the investigative reports, insidious and ubiquitous though they may be, show us Jade’s past, her grief, and her rage.

Readers may want to revisit previous books in the trilogy to keep track of the different narrative threads, characters, and killings that have occupied Proofrock over the years. Jones writes in the acknowledgements section: “[T]he cool thing about trilogies is you get to use every last part of the buffalo.” The town has a long history of colonialism, horrors, and atrocities both public and obscured. Monsters rise and rise again; white land development firms have returned to colonize Proofrock into Pleasant Valley. In Angel, the development firm is bigger, badder, and faster than ever, much like a villainous slasher, except with more money and heavier machinery. A superyacht now sits in the middle of the town’s lake, as does a man-made island used to float construction vehicles and equipment from shore to shore.

After the events of Chainsaw and Reaper, the townspeople are all generally familiar with slasher logic themselves. Many people now take Jade’s word as gospel, including Sheriff Banner and many of Jade’s students, inviting the reader to do the same: to trust in Jade, to believe in her and those around her. This contrasts with the way Jade was treated in years past, when she was suspected of being the bogeyman terrorizing the town and was charged with murder not once, but twice. Sheriff Banner even turns to Jade for advice in the face of surmounting evil while the townspeople follow her into a burning hell. Jade is no longer a broken, damaged, battered young teenager here, but is now a leader, somebody that other final girls and authority figures look up to.

The monsters of Jones’s trilogy are many, and to catalog them would do a disservice to both Jones and fans of Jade. Suffice to say that Jones imbues the story with red herrings and clever reveals, ratcheting tension with each passing chapter. The interstitial surveillance memos build on this tension, revealing more of Jade’s time between Reaper and Angel while foreshadowing horrors to come.

Jones sticks the finale, ending the trilogy in a bloody, satisfying manner without cheapening the lives lost along the way. Part of what makes the first two books so worth reading is that Jones refuses to explain all of the horror amid the carnage. Some of that mystery is still here, and what answers Jones provides are only partial, encouraging the reader to suss out deeper connections by revisiting the “Savage History of Proofrock, Idaho.”

Perhaps my highest praise for The Angel of Indian Lake is that Jones makes me want to slow down, to annotate, to cross-reference and cross-reference again, to sit with Jade on the bench out in the cold for just a little longer, to underline that one choice quote about Drown Town towards the end, to write in all caps “WAIT—NO WAIT PLEASE BE OKAY” about a favorite character, followed by a drawn-in, illustrative, emphasized interrobang a page later. The Angel of Indian Lake demands, and deserves, a kind of slow reading to savor Jade Daniels’s final call as a final girl, though it will be tempting to chew through it like a lawnmower because Jade’s chain saw heart drives this story so quickly.

A good example of this is a short, somber scene in which Jade considers her relationship to her Indigenous heritage, her Blackfeet identity, through the lens of horror films she has consumed. She finds a tenuous connection to the opening shots of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), focusing on the fleeting seconds that the island now known as Wild Goose Island in Glacier National Park is shown. Jade mentions that, growing up, this was one of the few physical spaces and filmic representations of Blackfeet land and culture she could find in slasher cinema. She muses, “It’s maybe a weird thing to feel pride about, but the front of The Shining, that’s the closest I’ve ever been to the homeland in my blood. I watch it over and over.” Countless other moments throughout The Indian Lake Trilogy show Jones’s deep appreciation for the horror genre, to be sure, but they also show his meditations on who gets to be represented, how, and when—that these metatextual connections are not always necessary callbacks to well-trodden franchises for character development, setting, tone, and plot but often can be love letters with cutting criticism and teeth.

Jade Daniels is a queer, Blackfeet, leather jacket–wearing, tattooed punk who survived the Independence Day Massacre of 2015, and the literally hook-handed murderer Dark Mill South on Friday the 13th, 2019; she is, and always will be, my final girl. When you finish The Angel of Indian Lake, you’ll know why she deserves to have her name added in blood to the pantheon of final girls, cinematic and literary.

And that last line? It’s a killer.

LARB Contributor

Justin Wigard is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Distant Viewing Lab at University of Richmond, where he works and teaches in popular culture, comic studies, and digital humanities. He is co-editor of Attack of the New B Movies: Essays on SYFY Original Films (McFarland Press, 2023). His essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, INKS, Cultural Analytics, and Horror Homeroom, as well as in various edited collections over the years.

Share

LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?


LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!