REVIEW: Rulebreakers and a Restless Spirit: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Detail from the cover of The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. Illustration shows the title alongside elk horns.

Four young Blackfeet friends — Lewis, Gabe, Cass and Ricky — decide to go elk-hunting in an area of their reservation set aside for elders. The hunting trip is bountiful, and they succeed in bagging nine elk. When the time comes to cut up the bodies for easier transport, however, it turns out that one of the elk is still alive. It takes two more shots to put the wounded female out of its misery. Then comes another discovery: the elk was not only alive but also pregnant — and contrary to tradition, the body of its calf ends up going to waste.

Ten years later Ricky, who has long since left the reservation, dies in mysterious circumstances (although these circumstances would be somewhat obscured by the headline reporting his death, which reads “Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar”). Elsewhere, Lewis glimpses a weird apparition: a woman with the head of an elk. It begins to dawn on him that the spirit of the mother-elk has finally returned, seeking vengeance for the wasted body of its baby. Ricky was first, Lewis may be next — and what of Gabe and Cass?

Cover of The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. Illustration shows the title alongside elk horns.

When the plot is summarised, The Only Good Indians — a novel by Stephen Graham Jones that won multiple awards over the course of the year — may sound a little seen-it-all-before. Certainly, the bare bones of the narrative are nothing new in the realm of folk horror-tinged slashers: a group of people trigger a monster attack and are killed off one by one. There is even a final girl, of sorts. One look at Jones’ writing style, however, should be enough to confirm that the book is something special indeed. Belted out in a breathless present tense that keeps both a constant pace and a sense of humour — at one point Jones manages to use “Three Stooges” as a verb — The Only Good Indians pops and fizzes with invention and wit.

The novel’s humour takes on an element of farce, deriving largely from Lewis’ paranoia. After he realises that the spirit is pursuing him, Lewis starts to suspect that his girlfriend Peta is none other than the Elk Woman. His chain of reasoning is comically thin: he notes that elk are herbivorous, and Peta is a vegetarian; this is enough to bulk out his suspicions. He then rejects this idea — only to decide that another woman in his life, co-worker Shaney, must be the Elk Woman; he then takes the drastic measures he perceives necessary to do away with the hostile spirit. The illogical logic that propels Lewis’ character arc provides ample black humour, but it is also convincing as a depiction of a man panicking from multiple forms of stress.

Of course, to discuss The Only Good Indians in terms of its humorous aspects is to lose sight of the fact that it is a horror novel, one with plenty of genuine weirdness to go around. The strongest examples of this are the second-person passages that place us into the perspective of the elk woman:

Just a few hours ago you’re pretty sure you were what he would have called “twelve.” An hour before that you were an elk calf being cradled by a killer, running for the reservation, and before that you were just an awareness spread out through the herd, a memory cycling from brown body to brown body, there in every flick of the tail, every snort, every long probing glare down a grassy slope.

These stretches provide sharp insight into the spirit’s desire for vengeance (“They need to feel what you felt. Their whole world has to be torn from their belly, shoved into a shallow hole”) and glee at seeing its wishes fulfilled (“If either of them looked just six feet into the darkness to the right, they’d see the white slash of your smile. This is it. They’re doing it”).

Such elements of supernatural horror are inseparable from the main characters’ cultural backdrop. The same can also be said of the novel’s satirical observations: the cast contemplate what roles they would have been granted “in John Wayne’s day” and discuss generational shifts in terminology (“We grew up being Indian,” says Cass; “Native‘s for you young bucks”). Lewis is referred to by his colleagues as “Chief” — less a nickname, more a role taken by the only Native in the workplace. This role comes with its own etiquette:

Only stupid Indians brush past a bunch of hard-handed white dudes, each of them sure that seat you had in the bar, it should have, by right, been theirs. They’re cool with the Chief among them being the chain monkey, but when it comes down to who has an eyeline on the white woman, well, that’s another thing altogether, isn’t it?

Interracial marriage, and prejudice against it, are also amongst the topics for Jones’ conversational (indeed, almost stand-up) prose humour:

The headline kicks up in Lewis’s head on automatic, straight out of the reservation: not the FULLBLOOD TO DILUTE BLOODLINE he’d always expected if he married, white, that he’d been prepping himself to deal with, bnecause who knows, but FULLBLOOD BETRAYS EVERY DEAD INDIAN BEFORE HIM. it’s the guilt of having some pristine Native swimmers—they probably look like microscopic salmon, even though the Blackfeet are a horse tribe—it’s the guilt of having those swimmers cocked and loaded but never pushing them downstream, meaning 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 America was done with, those Indians may as well have just stood up into that big Gatling gun of history, yeah?

Early in the story, Lewis has to face the police: “Dealing with cops is like being around a skittish horse: No sudden movements, nothing shiny or loud. Zero jokes.” Gabe’s adolescent daughter Denorah, meanwhile, deals with treatment that ranges from classroom condescension (comments a teacher on an art project: “Is this really Indian, D? Shouldn’t you do something to honor your heritage?”) to various racialised taunts on the playing field (“The only good Indian is a dead Indian”).

These three aspects of the novel – knockabout comedy, supernatural horror, and cultural commentary – are all built upon a single theme: rules. There are rules in life that the characters are expected to follow, and failure to do so will bring misfortune – be it a farcical series of mishaps, losing the status of “good Indians” amongst white peers, or triggering the vengeance of a supernatural entity.

Blending horror with humour is, for obvious reasons, a risky business. In The Only Good Indians the risk pays off because of the sheer satirical bite. In its wryly humorous manner, this novel captures a spectrum of all-too-convincing emotions: guilt, anxiety and the assorted annoyances, embarrassments and fears that come with living on a cultural fault-line. Its acclaim is well-earned: The Only Good Indians is a novel of vitality, nuance and impact.

Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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