It doesn’t take long for Stephen Graham Jones’ new horror novel The Only Good Indians to claim its first victim. Richard Boss Ribs, a Blackfeet native, finds himself inside a North Dakota watering hole crowded with white roughnecks. Four beers in, the line for the bathroom is too long, so Ricky gives up his seat to relieve himself outside. Wary, he knows it wouldn’t take much for the dark parking lot to become the scene of another cowboys and Indians tussle, especially with all the eyes trained on him.
Only this time, something unexpected—seemingly supernatural—manipulates the fate he fears. “Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar,” reads the local newspaper in the aftermath. “That’s one way to say it,” writes Jones, a searing line that ends the novel’s opening salvo.
Of course, the headline is too curt; there’s a story behind the story, one that The Only Good Indians begins to unravel with phantasmal terror.
Along the way, Jones, a Blackfeet like the characters he writes, contributes to a renaissance of horror as social commentary with his latest offering. Films like Get Out and Antebellum have reckoned with anti-Black racism, past and present, while the HBO drama series Lovecraft Country sets its scares during Jim Crow apartheid. In literature, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic delivers a spooky tale of a mansion, eugenics and family secrets in mid-century Mexico.
By title alone, The Only Good Indians invokes the settler proverb first attributed to Indian War General Philip Sheridan, who denied ever uttering the genocidal remark where Indigenous life held no value outside of being lifeless. But it plays better as a contemporary premonition while the novel’s characters still bear the scars of history, accentuated through Jones’ piercing dialogue.
The scene is Montana and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where my first real experience of Indian Country came as a youth. The Only Good Indians also serves as my literary introduction to Jones, a prolific author whose latest work arrives with much buzz and acclaim.
The lives of four friends—Ricky, Lewis, Gabe and Cass—are followed in the novel ten years after they hunted down a herd of elk on the rez in northern Montana by a lake where only elders were allowed to do so. A pregnant elk serves as the most difficult kill in an otherwise free for all. The friends referred to that day as the “Thanksgiving Classic,” but it proves to be anything but.
In due time, the hunters become the hunted. The racist “Indian curse” trope is masterfully subverted by Jones.
The past mistake from that fateful day opens up to swallow its perpetrators whole as its big anniversary nears. Terror finds its page-turning pace following Ricky’s quick and startling death. Jones flexes the prowess of his prose best when chronicling Lewis’ downward spiral, beginning with a chilling apparition of Elk Head Woman, a shapeshifter with a harrowing yellow-eyed stare.
“He raises his hand to block her vision, to hide, but it’s too late,” Jones writes. “It’s been too late for ten years already. Ever since he pulled that trigger.”
Revenge doesn’t come swiftly; Elk Head Woman has waited a decade, after all. But her arrival is as timely as ever. In his mid-30s, Lewis is finally gaining a stable sense about himself. Like Ricky, he’s left the rez behind. The former high school basketball star settles into a new rental home in Great Falls with his wife, Peta, a white woman, and their dog. The “Thanksgiving Classic” isn’t the only thing that gnaws at him. Peta doesn’t want children, something that weighs heavily on Lewis, whose Indigenous lineage ends with him.
“The few of his ancestors who made it through raids and plagues, massacres and genocide, diabetes and all the wobbly-tired cars the rest of American was done with,” Jones writes, “those Indians may as well have just stood up into that big Gatling gun of history.”
As the novel turns back to the rez, the story slows a bit while developing Cass and Gabe’s less compelling character arcs. The scenes alternate from basketball courts to an improvised sweat lodge. By the third act, the pace palpitates again, especially with the thrill of a final pursuit.
Equal parts horror and thriller with social commentary woven in, The Only Good Indians prefers to employ a creeping psychological terror throughout but does have its brief episodes of gore, where Jones makes poetry out of putridity.
“There is a bright rea aerated blood—a spattery stripe bisecting the garage, going from floor to wall to ceiling then down the other wall again,” he writes. “It’s a line between who Lewis used to be and who he is now.”
It’s similarly hard not to feel unchanged by the novel’s end.
A curiosity lingers, perhaps for a bit too long, as Jones weaves though the eerily atmospheric scenes he crafts. What exactly was it about the elk hunt from long ago that summons such a wrath? And how? Can Elk Head Woman’s vengeful lust be tamed?
The resolution that’s delivered by the final page is both surprising and satisfying.
The Only Good Indians perfects its disturbing tone in print, but with the glaring lack of Indigenous representation in television and film that remains, Jones has also given us a Native American horror story that screams to be adapted for the screen.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, published July 14, 2020, Saga Press, 320 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
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