Cover designed by Ella Laytham
The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones
Saga Press (310 pages, $26.99 hardcover/$7.99 ebook, July 14, 2020)
Stephen Graham Jones has been a force on the horror scene for well over a decade now. His first major book Demon Theory came out back in 2007. But he quickly became a regular in many horror anthologies and magazines in the ensuing years and he has over two dozen books to his name including the amazing collection When the People Lights Go Out (2014) and his werewolf novel Mongrels (2016).
I first came across Stephen Graham Jones around 2013 in an anthology that included his gut-wrenching short-story “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit.” That story is still one of the most heartbreaking “horror” stories I’ve ever read. Another story of his that really sticks out to me is his “The Darkest Part” in Ellen Datlow’s edited Nightmare Carnival 2014, which I raved about here on Black Gate a few years ago. Though I have not read all of Jones’ stories, I have found him to have a consistent ability to evoke a range of raw emotions, all within the satisfying milieu of the clearly recognizable genre of supernatural horror.
Jones’ latest novel is no exception. The Only Good Indians is packed with wallops of horrific fright as well as some very upsetting and traumatic scenes, emotionally and viscerally so. Jones is himself Native American and most of his stories that I have read have Native American main characters. Given the title of his new novel, it should be no surprise that the main characters here are Native American as well. But The Only Good Indians also takes place within contemporary Native American life, including reservation or “rez” life: its idiosyncrasies, its glories, and most fervently of all, its tragedies.
And, in my humble opinion this is what makes The Only Good Indians so uniquely good — and for me, very thought-provoking.
I live in the inner city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. My neighborhood is quite diverse, including a large urban Native American community. However, I must sadly report that many of homeless here in Minneapolis tend to be Native American. I’ve lived near homeless populations before in other places. But I have never seen a homeless population quite like the one here in Minneapolis that is so nearly monolithic in ethnicity and so glaringly inundated with criminality and drug-use. It is heartbreaking and perplexing. The Only Good Indians is insightful in explaining how at least some Native Americans often view themselves and their cultures. The challenges of being Native American are not white-washed by Jones, but the dignity of the human spirit within such cultures is, I believe, still upheld. It is the very Native American context of this horror story that makes it so distinctively excellent and gives us non-Native Americans some food for thought.
The Only Good Indians centers upon four Native American men who performed a very selfish hunting action ten years earlier, which is slowly revealed fairly early in the book. In short, the book centers upon the reckoning or comeuppance from that action. Though I need to be purposively vague here, the revenge is supernatural and related to Native American mythology. Let me just say this, the hardback cover of The Only Good Indians is beautiful until you understand what it references. Sitting in front of my computer typing this right now I have the book right next to me and the picture on the cover still creeps me out. (You’ll see what I mean if you read it.)
Jones expertly builds tension and suspense throughout the book with chilling hints in the most mundane of things, like flickering lights, borrowed paperback books, or ceiling fans. The supernatural is teasingly suggested throughout, though for most of the first half of the book the possibility that the main characters are crazy or experiencing post-traumatic stress is still held out. By the time the supernatural entity is clearly and unambiguously established, the tension is cemented in place since the reader knows what the remaining characters do not.
One scene I have to briefly comment on—again very vaguely—is about a hundred or so pages in. It is one of the most whiskey-tango-foxtrot moments I have ever experienced in a book! I’m still not sure what to make of it. But count this is my warning and your teaser.
As Stephen Graham Jones does so well with his stories, the characters are very alive and real. Though the main characters are not the most admirable people (with the exception of one Native American girl who towards the end of the novel comes to the fore), they are sympathetic and you feel sorry for what ends up happening to them. Their contemporary Native American context makes everything even more tragic and depressing.
The book is not all horror and darkness though. There are bits of humor throughout, such as the following:
[Gabe’s father is] watching that same channel as always: that camera angled down onto the parking lot of the IGA.
On his rounded little screen there’s nothing and nothing and then some more nothing on top of that, and then—and then a tall dog trots through on some dog mission or another.
Gabe’s father grunts approval and Gabe looks over to him like, What? Like, This is what passes for action?
His father chins Gabe back to the television.
The same nothing, like bank robbers have looped the footage, are cracking into the IGA, stealing all the heads of lettuce they want for their big salad enterprise. (pgs. 215–216)
Jones has a knack for peppering the horrific with these sorts of funny comments or scenes, which makes the characters and situation all the more believable and relieves some of the tension at times.
The Only Good Indians is an excellent overall story, an insightful look into Native American culture, and also a top-notch horror novel. I highly recommend it!