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CW: Gore, Violence, Murder, Gun violence, Adult/minor relationship, Animal death, Child death, Drug use, Pedophilia.
Remember video stores? Friday nights spent picking out a movie to take home and watch with snacks was everything. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was one of the last customers at my local Blockbuster, and frequented it until about 2013. (RIP, Blockbuster.) From an early age, the horror section captured my attention. Although I was not allowed to browse there, I somehow managed to sneak away from my parents and look at all the VHS covers. The scary, sometimes cheesy images piqued my interest in a way that no other movie genre ever has.
When I was a little younger than ten years old, Scream (1996) came out on VHS. My older sister got it for Christmas, and I can remember being mesmerized by the cover. A close-up of Drew Barrymore’s frightened expression was more than enough to garner my curiosity.
Somehow my younger sister and I got away with watching it. It was glorious. It’s hard to untangle my fascination with it; I might have enjoyed the film for the thrills (because the meta discussions definitely flew over my head then), but I also might have loved it because watching it was forbidden. Nevertheless, watching it solidified what I already knew: I was a horror fan.
Back in 2021, I received an advanced reader’s copy for My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones, complete in a book sleeve designed to look like a VHS tape. It ended up being one of my favorite books of the year. When I heard that he was writing two more books in the same world, I knew I had to continue reading. After what felt like a really long wait, I recently read Don’t Fear the Reaper and I think I like it more than the first book. It took me back to the video store excitement from years of old. It does exactly what a good sequel should: introduces a new killer, new motivations, and character growth. More than anything, it delivered on the scare factor.
Don’t Fear the Reaper picks up several years after the disastrous events of My Heart is a Chainsaw. After dealing with her legal troubles, Jennifer Daniels returns home to isolated Proofrock, Idaho. The tragic massacre of the first book has greatly altered the small community. Nothing is the same. Things take off right at the start when a convicted serial killer escapes prison transport and makes his way into town. Everything is shut down due to a snow storm, communication is limited, and only one sheriff’s deputy is on duty. Chaos ensues.
Don’t Fear the Reaper features classic character types unique to the slasher genre: a jaded heroine coming home after a long time away (whose nickname happens to be Jade), a tired and older sheriff who has seen too much, a rookie deputy who clearly has bitten off more than he can chew, a shadowy killer whose motives seem unclear and random to the rest of the world, a final girl dealing with the burdens forced upon her. The list goes on. Graham balances them all through shifting perspectives in the novel.
The main character Jennifer “Jade” Daniels feels like a completely different person in this book. Jones wrote her in such a way that you can feel the growth and changes on the page, in the way she thinks and interacts with other characters. When specific things happened in the book, I could compare the way Reaper Jade would react to the way Chainsaw Jade would have reacted. The character development in this book is palpable, to say the least. And, after finishing this, I absolutely need to know where Jade is going next because the end of this book left her fate hanging in the balance.
While alternating perspectives can offer different layers of story, I’m not sure that I’m a fan of it in this book. This could be because Chainsaw was solely from Jade’s perspective and I was used to that coming into this new story. However, we finally got to hear from characters that were mentioned frequently but were always off-page in the first book, like Jade’s mother. The multiple POV’s did allow for some really fleshed-out moments that pushed the story forward.
Horror film references
If anyone deserves an award for the sheer quantity and quality of horror movie references in a single book, it is Stephen Graham Jones. For me, they are the most enjoyable part of the experience. And what’s more, not only are they mentioned through the lens of some characters, the references are also used as verbs in some instances.
The characters deep-dive into discussions in which they theorize about actually-existing slasher films. A full circle moment for me was a conversation between Jade and Letha about the Scream franchise; they brought up important points about the films I could appreciate, and even presented new information I hadn’t realized. This is truly a book for horror film nerds.
Another full-circle moment for me: the video store scenes. This book takes place in 2019, and even though Proofrock is a very small community pretty disconnected from the rest of the world, video stores are obsolete in the town, too. However, some cool Gen Z’s made it their senior project to open up and run a small video store in the middle of town. While some terrible things go down there, it makes for a really fitting setting in a novel about slashers.
If you’re looking to expand and learn more about the genre, this trilogy would be a great place to go. The author discusses classic films, more recent ones, and some that are lesser known. I took a detour while reading and watched Curtains (1983) and had a blast.
You don’t need me to remind you that there are no rules when it comes to reading, so you can read Reaper as a standalone if you’d like. However, I think this book depends on emotional investment from readers of the first book. You’d get so much more out of reading Chainsaw before picking this one up.
Also, this book will most likely resonate with readers who:
-are familiar with and appreciate SGJ’s slow-burn writing style (there’s payoff, I promise)
-know and love the slasher genre
-don’t mind at-times-over-the-top gore (please refer to content warning at the top of this post for more detail)
If you need me, I’ll just be waiting for the third and final book of this series to come out.