Stephen Graham Jones is not new to the writing world—not by any stretch of the imagination. He's been here: in books, in writing spheres, in many genres and subgenres. His first novel, The Fast Red Road, was published in 2000; but Stephen catapulted into mass recognition as a horror-household name with the publication of The Only Good Indians in 2020. The release of his latest book, Don’t Fear the Reaper, is much anticipated.
Ever the dreamer, Stephen once imagined he'd grow up to be a farmer; but when writing got ahold of him, books bled out his fingers without letting up. Now, he's been across the globe to connect with readers and promote his books.
Without a doubt, Stephen is one of the most prolific horror writers of the day. He bends genres, twists plots, and (according to himself), hems and haws occasionally. His favorite foods are the Venn diagram of chicken tenders, Whataburger, and Chipotle. He’s incredibly kind, his smile is genuine, and he nods a lot.
Don't Fear the Reaper is on shelves now—links to snag your copy below!
It's always a pleasure to sit and chat with Stephen. Please enjoy this interview in which we talk all things Don't Fear the Reaper—and more.
Don't Fear the Reaper
For everyone who is new to the genre or has been sheltering in place away from the Internet and bookstores, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Some random facts?
Sure, yes, I’m from West Texas, never expected to leave, was going to farm and farm and probably go bust doing it, but—surprise—I’m a writer now, living in Boulder, Colorado. Also the Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at University of Colorado at Boulder. Currently, I’m the James Welch Visiting Native American Writer at the University of Montana. I’m married, two grown kids, usually some dogs and trucks around. Blackfeet. 51 already, somehow. Still dig the same horror movies and books and stories I always have, and constantly on the lookout for more.
I guess the best first question is, did you always see My Heart is a Chainsaw as the first book rather than a stand-alone? What led to the thought behind starting Don’t Fear the Reaper?
Never planned on My Heart is a Chainsaw being the first installment of a trilogy, nope. But then in revisions, Joe Monti, my editor at Saga, said... what if everybody wasn’t dead at the end?
I hemmed and hawed, didn’t want to leave anyone standing, but gave it a shot anyway. And it worked, was amazing. And it meant Chainsaw felt like it wanted to now open up to a trilogy, which I think is the most natural form for a slasher to take. And, talking slashers and sequels, when they’re planned...I don’t know. It can feel like the first installment’s playing it safe with characters, some? I’m glad I didn’t know I was writing a trilogy; I might have played it safe just the same. But my favorite slasher sequels are the ones that were never planned—the ones where the first ended in a way that seemed like there was nothing more to be done. But then the market demands more, so a team comes up, tries to mine more story from all the narrative carnage. It doesn’t always work, but, even when it fails, it’s still so much fun.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw
There were many, many iterations and drafts of My Heart is a Chainsaw. Did Don't Fear the Reaper go through a similar process?
No, Don’t Fear the Reaper knew from the get-go what it was doing and where it was going. And the world was already built, the characters were already whole, so all I had to do was hold on, try to keep up. Should say, too, that I didn’t necessarily know where it was going, but I never do. For me, it ruins it if I know, or have some ideas, or any real plans. I like to, instead, drop weird developments and turns that the characters and world have to absorb and react to, such that the story can become its own thing, not something I’m herding here and there, or bossing around. I’m no kind of boss. I just like to watch things play out, and I’m writing down what they’re doing the whole time.
Tell us about Jade.
She’s my heart? That’s how it feels. Really, though, I’m just so lucky that what she glommed onto when she needed it the most was the slasher. If she’d have instead found tennis or the debate team, man, I would have had to do so much research, because I know nothing about tennis, or debate. I do know a thing or three about the slasher, though. But, Jade. Jade Jade Jade. Always wearing the wrong t-shirts, always going for a new hair color, always monologuing about slashers, always worshipping at the altar of Carpenter and Craven. She’s fierce, she’s abrasive, but she’s also tender—she cares more than she’ll admit, and if you’re her friend, then she’ll step in front of a train for you. And, she’s Jade Daniels. She might just stop that train.
Which characters, aside from Jade, do you feel closest to (or) who was the most fun to write?
Letha Mondragon, maybe? Was so cool, getting to see what goes on in her head, her heart. Banner too. Letha was easier than him to me, but still, it was like all I had to do was look his way, and he was already real and fleshed out. My favorite, though, is probably Hardy. His slow, deliberate way of considering the world, I liked it. And the sort of petty resentments he tries to insulate himself with ring true to me as well, especially since they’re just supposed to hide how much he wants to help. I like Hardy a lot.
Using Slashers—horror, really—as a way to process trauma is an undertone to all of your books, but most clearly, here in The Lake Witch books. Does this thought—that horror heals and can aid in transcendence—come from anywhere or anything specific?
In the eighties, final girls in slashers were pretty much freshly minted at the front of this or that cycle of violence. Laurie Strode doesn’t really have a backstory, does she? But then in the nineties, with Sidney Prescott setting the new mold, final girls started showing up with issues to deal with—issues this horror adventure could help them process through, and overcome. So, yes, a lot of my novels are using horror as a way to deal with trauma, for sure. But it feels like I’m really just following the slasher’s own lead, if that makes sense. Or, if the idea comes from anywhere, then maybe it comes from the slasher itself, at least for me.
The Last Final Girl
There is another one of your books that uses your ample horror knowledge. Demon Theory is a clear homage to all things slashery and contains all the horror you could wring out onto the page. How has it been to write My Heart is a Chainsaw, and now, Don’t Fear the Reaper with even more horror movies and books and tropes in your head. Oh my God, 22 years later? Is that right?
More like pushing twenty-four. Demon Theory came out in 2006, but I finished it in November 1999. And there’s also The Last Final Girl in there, too, from 2012, I think—same slasher Q, different slasher delivery. So, yeah, I’ve been thinking on and in and around the slasher for...feels like forever. Probably since eighth grade, anyway.
But, with Demon Theory, I was doing it all with footnotes. With Last Final Girl, I was hotwiring screenplay format and “cinema”-mode with prose. In both of those, there’s a character who knows all this Randy Meeks stuff, but we don’t know from where, or why. So, with Jade, in My Heart is a Chainsaw, I finally decided to, instead of messing with the method of delivery, turning around instead, to look deeper into the character.
I feel like everyone might ask this but it’s fun: what did your playlist look like for this book? You told me once you sometimes write to Jazz music, but I just can’t picture that with Don’t Fear the Reaper. Tell me you listened to the title song from Blue Öyster Cult on loop.
BÖC wasn’t even in the Don’t Fear the Reaper playlist, alas. That song, man, any trampoline you drop it on, it’s a bowling ball, and makes all the other songs behave differently.
No, for Reaper, I used the same playlist I’d used for Chainsaw, so as to be sure I was parachuting back down into the same narrative terrain, the same emotional landscape—into Indian Lake proper. However? For the last book in this trilogy, I ended up having to come up with a completely new and wildly different playlist. The old one was used up, didn’t work anymore. More on that...much later.
This is slasherland, though, yes? You don’t stop the violence with the same machete each time out. Sometimes you have to reach deeper back into the darkness, just grab onto whatever you find that’s sharp enough, that you can swing right.
I’ve heard horror writers joke before about their browser history while writing a book—what did yours look like (without giving away TOO much of the story) while writing DFTR?
Had to search up a whole lot on snowplows and snowmobiles. I’ve sat on a snowmobile up in Park City once, outside a restaurant, probably with the owner eating dinner behind the plate glass a few feet away, but I’ve never actually powered one on. So I had to watch videos and the like to even somewhat be able to make it real on the page. And, snowplows, I’ve never driver nor ridden in one of them either. But I have been in a lot of trucks of that class, so could kind of translate that across. One of my uncles used to drive a trash truck, and that’s the same size.
The cold, though, I didn’t have to search that up. I’ve been in the big bad for-real-be-careful cold a lot, in Montana and Colorado, and even driving across Idaho. That’s where parts of my novel Ledfeather come from. They’re where a whole lot of Don’t Fear the Reaper comes from. But, don’t worry. Under that icy exterior, there’s for sure a warm beating heart. Or, beating for the moment, anyway. And, yeah, the snow in Don’t Fear the Reaper probably looked like a cherry snowcone from all the blood that gets spilled in this novel. But that’s as it should be. The slasher isn’t a boy scout, leaving no trace. The slasher leaves slushy red footprints in all the white. And, yes, “and here’s where it carried you,” though, understand, it was just hauling your corpse up to somewhere so it can cantilever down from the ceiling in a tight hallway, to throw the final girl in the third reel back on her heels, get those screams going.
It's a wild ride, and not everybody lives. Hold on.