This fall, you should be reading Stephen Graham Jones, one of the best horror writers in the business. The leaves have changed color, and there’s a cold breeze at night, so I, and every other writer, am in the mood for horror. As I wait impatiently for Jones’s next book, Don’t Fear the Reaper, a quick overview of some of his best feels long overdue. So here’s a three-pack of mini-reviews of my favorite of his books from over the years, mostly written because Night of the Mannequins is really short.
Like the best horror writers, Jones had a knack for an original spin on classic themes and tropes, though his genre savvy borders on metafiction. My Heart is a Chainsaw introduces us to horror film buff Jade Daniels, a teenage outcast in her small Idaho town, who copes with parental abuse by re-watching classic movies again and again. She puts her knowledge to creative use by writing a series of horror-related local history essays for the only two adults who seem to care for her: her favorite teacher and the local sheriff. However, no one, not even her mentors, is safe either from yuppie serial killers slowly gentrifying the shores of the lake or from the ghost underneath the water. Horror staples like loner nerds might be traditional, but Jade’s love/hate relationship with her small town is one kind. She finds herself routinely labeled as the boy who cried wolf for knowing where she lives but also wishing the monsters stalking her would take out the people she can’t forgive. Jade Daniels will return in Don’t Fear the Reaper.
By contrast, another of Jones’s misfits becomes so obsessed with his little community he is convinced to utterly destroy it. This blog post started after I finished reading this serial killer novella. Night of the Mannequins tracks the breakup of a group of close-knit friends the further they get into high school. Told from the point-of-view of another, much more delusional teen, Sawyer, who murders his closest friends after a prank involving a mannequin in a movie theater misfires and inspires him. Like Jade, Sawyer’s something of a nerd, easily passing his AP courses, always down to watch a superhero movie, and obsessed with the past, but Sawyer can’t handle his friends diverging into different lives than his. It all starts when his cousin’s job means she can’t hang out with him, and then someone gets grounded, then his girl best friend starts seeing a boyfriend. Soon, Sawyer’s fashioning weapons out of the things his father prizes – a fluorescent trimmer line and a barely functioning motorcycle – trying to use his impending adulthood in order to stop his teenage years forever in a nostalgia he can’t get back. All to appease a demonic mannequin named Manny, that’s watching Sawyer’s every move.
Sometimes the monsters live in their own families, though. Mongrels is about that family you see on the road piling out of a tiny car and what they actually do during their lives. They’re werewolves, forever on the run, and never fitting in with society since they become uncontrollably murderous during a full moon. The nameless narrator begins the story at age eight, worshiping the wolves in his life, his cranky old grandfather, his alcoholic Uncle Darren, and his Aunt Libby, twin of his deceased mother. The latter is actually a positive influence in his life but can’t seem to hold herself to the standards she set for the narrator. As his aunt searches for third retail or factory jobs after they’ve roamed from town-to-town, the boy only wants to be his Uncle Darren, turning into a werewolf at night in order to either slaughter livestock or rob liquor stores. As the narrator ages, Aunt Libby finds herself trying her hardest to convince him that he doesn’t have to become the monster he’s created in his mind out of his heroic ideals, even after it nearly proving fatal for Uncle Darren.
Jones’s books represent the most crucial tenet of what I love about horror fiction: no matter the circumstances, once they’ve poked the monster, it’s coming for them. It’s always a monster of their own making, and it’s always a thrill ride.
Each of these gets four of five stars.