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If the genre of horror is itself haunted by something, then it is the question of its meaning in a world that is more terrifying than the most brutal slasher film. For the majority of the world’s population, the accumulation of world capital, as Mark Steven noted in Splatter Capital, “is and has always been a nightmare of systematized bloodshed.” Indeed, the contemporary world was generated from the bloodbath and torture of colonial genocide and slavery, what Frantz Fanon has called “an avalanche of murders.” Most of the world’s population still lives in the shadow of this violent history. In this context, then, it is worth asking: what power does the horror novel or movie possess to scare those who live this reality as the world’s exploited and oppressed? Does not the very affective meaning of the genre—to scare and upset—fall apart for any reader or viewer beyond a minority whose everyday lives are not adversely affected by abject violence and fear? As a friend of mine has often noted, Indigenous nations such as her own live in a violent, post-apocalyptic reality generated by Contact and Conquest; horror is normative. I want to suggest that this problem of horror’s own haunting is precisely what makes novels like Stephen Graham Jones’s Don’t Fear the Reaper approach a truly universalist expression of the genre.

Similar to Jordan Peele’s cinematic work in the same genre, Jones has always engaged with horror as a subaltern creator and fan. From his early indie work such as Demon Theory (2006) to his best-selling The Only Good Indians (2020), Jones has demonstrated an encyclopedic but critical knowledge of horror literature and film. What is often centred in his work is what has been historically marginalized in the genre: the subject-position(s) of the colonized in relationship to contemporary settler capitalist life. Considering that particularly egregious tropes in the horror genre, specifically Anglo-American horror, are manifestations of settlerist fear and/or fetishization (i.e. the “Indian Graveyard,” the “Wise Shaman,” etc.), and that many of these have been reinforced by popular contemporary authors (Stephen King, for example, has used a number of these tropes), Jones’s work proceeds from the position of Indigenous subjects and their lived experience of a world hostile to their existence.

What does horror fiction become when created by those whose voices were historically excluded from the genre, who have come from communities that have survived the horror apocalypse of modernity? Maybe they understand the genre better, because it is within the nightmare weight of living history they have inherited; maybe they can think through the genre’s legacy from the perspective of the victims and survivors of actually existing horror. Don’t Fear the Reaper is this kind of thinking through the canon of horror, particularly the canon of slasher films, from such a critical perspective. At the same time, it’s still really fun.

***

Don’t Fear the Reaper is the second instalment of Jones’ Indian Lake Trilogy, following 2021’s My Heart Is a Chainsaw. As such, it occupies a kind of Empire Strikes Back position, a position that Jones in fact references in the course of the novel: something more interesting than the first book’s initial appearance as a standalone, something ending on ambiguity and foreshadowing the concluding book. My Heart Is a Chainsaw introduced us to the protagonist of both novels (and the narrator of the first), Jade Daniels: an Indigenous teenager in the town of Proofrock, Idaho, who is obsessed with slasher films. In that first instalment of the trilogy we observed how her knowledge of the horror genre, specifically slasher films and the rules of slasher films (codified by Carol J. Clover, who is cited as an epigram at the beginning of Don’t Fear The Reaper), allows her to survive. Originally, Jade assumes that someone else is the final girl—Letha, a wealthy but also Black transplant to Proofrock whom she befriends—because she is unwilling to treat herself as the main character. She ends up becoming the actual final girl and saving the day with her knowledge of slasher film lore, which possesses an ontological power in grasping the unfolding violence of that novel’s plot.

The narrative of Don’t Fear the Reaper picks up years after the events of the first book. Jade, despite having saved her town, has been blamed for some of the violence and has thus experienced the unjust colonial violence of incarceration. She is returning to Proofrock, changing her name back to her birth name, Jennifer Daniels, in the hope of starting life anew. Proofrock has become a community as traumatized as she already was, still reeling from the violent events that ended the first novel of the trilogy. As an adult trying to reassemble her disassembled life, this version of Jade feels much more mature, much more burdened by the knowledge with which she was once obsessed, haunted and forlorn. Meanwhile, an escaped serial killer, Dark Mill South, is converging upon the same town. Introduced in a mythic manner, with overtones of Halloween, this serial killer is also Indigenous and is motivated by the settler violence “where thirty-eight Dakota men had been hanged in 1862—the largest mass execution in American history.” (p. 14) And still the code of the slasher film remains: Jade reunites with Letha, who has also grown up as a traumatized survivor, and together they try to deal with this new reality while other, younger, and newly traumatized players—the twins Cinnamon and Ginger; Galatea, who narrates term paper interventions—also position themselves within a knowledge of the lore of slasher films. At the same time, other supernatural elements of the town, and real-world horror elements such as sexual abuse, creep up to provide a complex combination of horror elements. As with the first novel, Jones references multiple slasher films (along with other genre films and also The Breakfast Club) which are simultaneously the conscious reference points of his characters.

One significant reference point for this novel is the Scream franchise. Don’t Fear the Reaper is dedicated to the memory of Wes Craven who, with the Scream films, did something similar with Craven’s own slasher films to what Jones is doing here: the lore of these films becomes a code. With Scream this code was intentionally ironic; the Scream films were meta-textual in a playful way, the references and Ghostface’s copycatting of the code were largely parodic. In Don’t Fear the Reaper this meta-textual element takes on a darker tone. It is not about an ironic distance from the slasher film but instead treating this ironic distance as a terrible ontology of violence. What if these slasher films are just reflections of settler-colonial reality, Jones asks; what if the Scream franchise just helps reveal the code of gruesome capitalist modernity; what if the slasher is colonial violence repeated over and over, even if it sometimes takes the form of a figure like Dark Mill South? But even that figure, Jones demonstrates, is not the real cipher of colonial violence—even he gets sucked into the rules, while something else is developing beyond him and despite him, as Jade figures out at the end of the novel. And just before that end, when Jade listens to Dark Mill South’s final moments, we hear the echo of residential schools. This reference to residential schools is immediately denied by the more privileged narrative of Galatea, the typical denial of colonial violence.

Thus the novel keeps referencing slasher film upon slasher film, its characters, who are aware of the canon, sifting for clues to survival through an avalanche of archived murders. There is one wondrous point, however, as Jade and Letha are escaping from Dark Mill South across an ice lake, where Jade, reflecting on her Indigenous inheritance, realizes that the horror genre is askew: “They [meaning the Blackfeet pre-Contact] were plural, not singular, that’s where horror movies have it all wrong, that’s where the slasher lies: it’s not about a lone girl carving her way to daylight, is it?” (p. 303) Here Jones indicates that this whole code, this whole slasher genre that he loves but also wants to problematize, is missing the point. We shouldn’t find meaning in individualistic moralism. Instead—and from the point of view of the victims of modernity’s apocalypse—we should locate meaning in a collective struggle for self-determination. Looking back to My Heart Is a Chainsaw, this also feels like a commentary on Jade’s confusion—she  sought a single final girl figure to provide salvation, presuming the obliviation of herself, when in fact it was the combined efforts of Letha and Jade that saved the day. This final girl confusion is compounded in Don’t Fear The Reaper by the transference of trauma and the more mature recognition, on the part of the grown-up characters, of colonial and racial violence.

***

Although the final girl trope of slasher films is what makes them a kind of justice narrative, this narrative is largely reactionary: the law is absent and so the solution is to get more law into this absence; the Hobbesian state of nature justifies the repressive violence of the state and its laws. What is horrific, according to this narrative, happens outside of the space sanctified by the nomos of capitalist-imperialist modernity. But this nomos is precisely the order of horror recognized by Don’t Fear the Reaper, what haunts the horror genre landscape that it intimately knows and plays with. First of all, the character of Claude Armitage—the replacement history teacher who came to Proofrock because of his obsession with Jade Daniels’ case—is a stand-in for the conservative slasher genre fan. Jade is weirded out by his worship of slasher lore even though she needs his help. (Armitage’s character also conceals a mystery central to certain plot elements, and one that cements his status as stand-in for the horror fan creep.) Next, there is the non/presence of the pigs. The skeleton crew of the police force in the novel consists of Letha’s recently deputized husband and the retired and injured sheriff; the actual police forces are missing and powerless for the majority of the novel. More importantly, there is the recognition, through Galatea’s narrative, that the police “are by and large as Caucasian as [Galatea and Armitage], and they have been for decades now, if not centuries. And none of them have had any problems with their lynchings, their burnings, or the consequences of those acts” (p. 416). These representatives of the repressive state apparatus are precisely the forces that arrested Jade between the first two novels and, at the conclusion of the second, return her to incarceration.

In the end, what makes Don’t Fear the Reaper a memorable contribution to the horror genre is not simply its understanding of everyday horror that allows it to think through and utilize established horror tropes, but that it does so with a canny and cinematic gusto. Jones tells us that the world is more horrific than the code of these slasher films, that maybe in a post-ironic sense these codes are clues to the everyday of horror, especially for the victims of settler-colonialism and capitalist modernity. But in the midst of a cold and brutal reality—as bitter as the blizzard assaulting Proofrock, as impassive as Dark Mill South, as lawfully unjust as Jade’s incarceration by the settler capitalist state—there is also a tenderness, and a solidarity. At parts the novel is quite moving, as if all that gore is the birth caul within which is a child to be loved—both figuratively and, without spoiling a crucial evocative moment, literally. These tender moments are what make the brutality devastating, although sometimes they stretch out beyond this brutality to survive as those who resist survive and, in this resistance (as Fanon teaches us), become more than survivors: the foundation of a new and truly universal humanity. Which is why, upon finishing Don’t Fear the Reaper, I yearn for the third and concluding instalment of the trilogy even if it will be just as devastating.



J. Moufawad-Paul lives in Toronto, where he works as a professor of philosophy at York University. He is the author of Continuity and Rupture, Politics In Command, Demarcation and Demystification, and other books.
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22 Jul 2024

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