We who like the scary, dark, and macabre tend to leap at the chance to claim a successful piece of literature or film as one of our own. We revel when a work of horror writhes its way in front of general audiences who accept and even champion it. It’s the same for anything speculative. In the great literary-versus-genre divide, everyone seeks legitimacy or even vindication.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a horror novel, and it’s having a moment in the literary world. It’s in the front displays of bookstores. It’s on Time’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2020. NPR and the LA Times gave it favorable reviews, the latter of which praised it for reclaiming the “Indian curse” trope and appealing “to both the genre fan and the literary reader.” It may be a book discussed for general fiction awards as well as the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson awards. That it’s a success seems a foregone conclusion.
But is it really that good?
I had never read a Stephen Graham Jones novel before, but I’d been meaning to get to his writing for a long time. In the horror realm, his name gets passed around, though it may not carry the clout of, say, Stephen King. He’s well known and established with that crowd, and the fact that he has the academic credit to lend to his ethos provides a measure of legitimacy.
I am fascinated by works of literature that are able to bridge the literary-genre divide as The Only Good Indians does, so when I cracked its spine for the first time, I sought to understand how and why this novel has accomplished what it has: appealing to both literary and genre readers. The short answer is it does what any good horror novel should do. It tells a meaningful and moving story with rich and interesting characters, takes risks with craft and form, and manipulates reality in concert with the story so the poetics are amplified.
That is to say The Only Good Indians is not only a successful horror story but also a successful novel.
The pitch goes something like this: One Thanksgiving, four friends are out on a hunt. They happen upon a herd of elk, and they proceed to massacre them. However, because of the weather, they realize they won’t be able to transport all of the bodies. A game warden catches them, and bans them from hunting, though he permits them to keep a small cow, which turns out to have been pregnant. Ten years later, they each are haunted by sightings of something called the Elk Head Woman. Tensions rise. Sanities are questioned. Horror ensues.
It sounds like typical fare for the genre, but Jones uses that framework to tell a story about brotherhood, family, identity, and the cycle of vengeance. He tells a story of folklore, myth, and Native American culture, its modern conflict with tradition. Of course, it is also a story about social injustice, but it is not one that spotlights a lectern and then gets up there for a speech.
As a writer, I am always on the lookout for something I can take from what I read, another tool to stow in my toolbox. As my first exposure to Jones’ work, I found compelling the even hand with which he treats his prose. Imagine every word Jones uses slips from his fingertips, but each word has a different weight determined by its own mass. There is no pretense to Jones’ writing. If a phrase or passage soothes some part of your soul or crushes your heart, it’s authentic and legitimate because of Jones’ even hand. He is less a composer or choreographer who is dictating the tale and more a translator or medium, letting the story flow through him to us.
It is worth noting, however, the story is at times quite brutal and disturbing, which is a statement I feel deserves qualifying again: I’m not at all unfamiliar with horror. But the violence is interestingly complicated because the true perpetrator, the antagonist, remains obscured for a large portion of the novel. Jones gives it body slowly over time. In a way, the treatment reminded me of the horror-comedy film, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, which could be summed up in a pitch as how a slasher duo might attempt to explain the pile of dead teenager bodies when the cops show up. That isn’t to say The Only Good Indians is funny (although, Jones’ voice hits with a handful of dark laughs). Happenstance, though, drives some key scenes, and The Only Good Indians is specifically asking the reader to ponder responsibility. In a symphony of disaster that might also be described as a tragedy of errors, is it our primary characters who shoulder the blame, or is it their circumstances? At what point did the dominoes start to fall, and who pushed the first one?
The Only Good Indians is a solid piece of literary horror appropriate for fans of the genre and for readers who don’t frequent humanity’s darker corners. It is one that, for many reasons, we should celebrate and it deserves the praise it has already received and that which it has coming to it. No matter the literature you consider home territory, every reader who comes to this one will find something unique, unexpected, and deeply affecting.
Stephen Graham Jones
is a Blackfeet Native American author and NEA fellow who has published 22 books and hundreds of short stories. His experimental, crime, horror, and science fiction has garnered many awards, including the Bram Stoker and Jesse Jones Awards. His novel The Only Good Indians was released in July 2020. Jones is also the Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder. Find at demontheory.net and on twitter.
is managing editor for phoebe and an MFA candidate at George Mason University’s creative writing program. He lives and writes from outside Washington, D.C. Tweet at him @tim_the_writer. He will be delighted.