The Final Girl Returns Home: On Stephen Graham Jones’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
By Justin WigardMarch 18, 2023
Don't Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones
The terrain of the slasher and the figure of the final girl are, of course, well-trodden ground for Jones, ranging from Demon Theory (2006)—a novel written as an experimental film treatment that features Nona, a young woman with encyclopedic knowledge of horror movies—to the aptly named The Last Final Girl (2012), which treats the slasher genre and its tropes almost as a law of nature as it follows several final girls facing off against a serial killer in a Michael Jackson mask. But to demarcate Reaper or any of Jones’s slasher entries as simple slashers would be to lose sight of his characters’ humanity and obscure Jones’s critical commentary on the horror genre—most prominently, perhaps, the fact that Reaper features two marginalized women of color as its heroes. Jones’s final girls are a young Blackfoot woman and a young Black mother, surviving it all together: killers, the elements, and various traumas past, present, and future.
Reaper is set against the aftermath of the first novel’s violent events, following Jennifer “Jade” Daniels—the Blackfoot protagonist and final girl from Chainsaw—as she returns home to Proofrock, Idaho, four years after the grisly events of the Independence Day Massacre that served as the bloody climax of Chainsaw. Both the Proofrock residents and the novel’s readers are aware of a violent interloper: Dark Mill South, an Ojibwe man who also happens to be a brutal, escaped serial killer. Bodies are soon discovered. Jones complicates this in true slasher-sequel fashion by injecting unreliability into the narrative. Was this particular victim the work of Dark Mill South or another killer? How many killers are actually in play here? How do we read each murder, and who is Jade ultimately able to trust?
Whereas the first novel was set in the height of a summer capped off with carnage befitting a lakeside viewing of Jaws, Jones places Reaper in the middle of a raging blizzard: increasingly colder as the killing ramps up, the exhalations of fearful victims evident on the air, red blood on white snow. Wryly, the bulk of the novel unfolds on Friday the 13th in December 2019.
From the outset, there is no denying that Jade is a final girl, though she fought against the designation tooth and nail in Chainsaw. She survived the Lake Witch, the Independence Day Massacre, and her abusive, alcoholic father rising up out of the water … who subsequently was slashed down by a machete. Jade returns to Proofrock not as Jade but as Jennifer Daniels: hair no longer dyed; speaking, thinking, acting without slasher references; and newly returned from a prolonged four-year court trial over whether she was the one who was responsible for the Independence Day Massacre—and, ultimately, the one who killed her father. Reaper foregrounds Jade’s imprisonment, prosecution, and notoriety, coloring the interactions between Proofrock residents and Jade. For those who bore witness to the carnage at Indian Lake and survived, Jade is revered as the unlikely hero, the Girl Who Lived And Slayed The Monster(s). For those who were too young, she is something of a boogeyman herself, her experiences and those of the Lake Witch co-opted into a late-night game akin to “Bloody Mary” or “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.” And, as these things go, there are those (primarily white men) who variously seek to capitalize on, discredit, or disparage the experiences, trauma, and survivorship of a young Blackfoot woman.
Though she came to terms with her childhood traumas during the events of My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Jade carries the weight of the Independence Day Massacre like armor, using that experience to help prepare other young women in Proofrock for the encroaching, invading presence of Dark Mill South. The Proofrock residents, unaccustomed to such violence and bloodshed, bear that grief and trauma like an anchor, each dealing with it in their own way: pills, alcohol, repeat viewings of the Jade Daniels Horror Movie collection, and so on. Jade, speaking to retired sheriff Angus Hardy, says plainly, “Everybody down there has PTSD, you know?”
Just as Jones wove interstitial commentaries on slashers throughout Chainsaw, so too does he deploy this trope here in Reaper, but with those same slasher-sequel twists and a deepening of the mythos begun in the first novel. Readers are, initially, unsure of who is writing these reports to the new history teacher, Mr. Armitage—certainly not Jade, who spent the last four years in a different kind of imprisonment: state-sanctioned incarceration. A little later, when it becomes clear who is writing them and why, the novels begs for a rereading, and a rereading of Chainsaw, with new eyes: a kind of slasher-vision or Jones-vision.
The construction of the character Dark Mill South is complicated, and it is fascinating to see Jones deploying garish and brutal onscreen murders at the same that he is playing with horror conventions by making an Ojibwe man a serial killer, a monstrous hook-handed slasher. Throughout these interludes, we’re treated to several historical reimaginings of other folk tales in the area—including that of the Lake Witch. But these reports offer send-ups of Dark Mill South’s origins and the ways that he seems to encompass so many monstrous serial-killer folktales all in one: the hook-handed killer in the back of a car, the axe murderer, the man who has survived electrocution. Like so many monsters and serial killers, his origins are murky—potentially supernatural, uncanny, and fantastic—placing him among other folkloric monsters and murderers. He may or may not have grown up in an Indian boarding school, casting many of his killings as a shadowy form of Indigenous retribution or revenge.
Yet, just as Jones relishes the spectacle of the slasher genre, and at times Dark Mill South’s inventive, terrifying killings, he also makes clear that there is a critical purpose at the heart of these depictions. His interstitial “Slasher 102” interludes in Reaper serve as pointed commentary on the ways monsters are created and mythologies are born, the societal constraints that keep marginalizing folks of color, and the long histories of violence in small-town America. Jade notes the difference between Stacey Graves (the Lake Witch) and Dark Mill South’s killings: “In this kind of work, Jade can see the mind behind it, sort of. The way it’s reducing this dead girl to a—to a thing, an object, a toy. One Dark Mill South probably isn’t finished playing with.” Especially in these interludes, Jones not only works through how Dark Mill South’s Ojibwe heritage complicates the nature of monstrosity in the horror genre and further places the marginalized status of Jade (a young Blackfoot woman) and Letha (a young Black mother) in the spotlight, but he also argues that Dark Mill South is neither to be championed nor cheered.
For the reader, returning to Proofrock is both welcome and brutal. This is a slasher novel, after all, and the characters returning from the first novel gain new depth while we hold our breath to see if they will live through the story. In her review of the first novel in the trilogy, Kali Simmons notes that “Jade is a character that’s easy to fall in love with, but Jones plays upon this likability to build on the mystery of her past.” With Reaper, we find more to love about those surrounding Jade, particularly those she has developed bonds with and affection for. We root for their survival just as much as we hope for the gory, brutal destruction of the predatory men. Retired sheriff Angus Hardy returns, as does Black survivor Letha Mondragon-Tompkins, and several other characters; many take Jade’s slasher knowledge to heart, watching and rewatching the films in her collection as preparation. This, like so many aspects of the novel, is ambiguous too: are they watching in case another slasher emerges … or to step into the slasher’s shoes themselves? For Letha, this is most certainly in preparation, working alongside Jade to survive the wrath of Dark Mill—final girls through and through. Other residents and interlopers of Proofrock, however, voraciously consume these films and other serial-killer paraphernalia for a more sadistic purpose and practice.
As with Chainsaw, readers familiar with the slasher form will find additional connections and genre subversions due to Jones’s metatextual references, ranging from riffs on serial-killer vision to one-off references to long-forgotten slasher films. You don’t need to have read Jones’s previous works to enjoy Don’t Fear the Reaper, but it helps. Reading Jones’s works sheds light on the deep, palimpsestuous connections running throughout his career: popular culture and lowbrow slashers teaching strong, complex young women the skills and the How to Survive Male Predators mindset better than any traditional self-defense course. Reaper unites Jones’s corpus thematically while also expanding on the first novel and introducing a healthy dose of playful apprehension over the final book in the planned Indian Lake Trilogy, since the final acts are always the bloodiest, aren’t they?
In the end, Don’t Fear the Reaper is not just a tour de force; it’s a chainsaw-mounted snowcat crashing through a suffocating blizzard, all heavy metal and diesel and blood, with the final girl Jade Daniels at the helm—older, refined, and more defiant than ever.
Justin Wigard is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Distant Viewing Lab at University of Richmond, Virginia. His essays have appeared in INKS, Genealogy, Kula, and Horror Homeroom, as well as in various edited collections.
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