In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, winner of the 2021 Shirley Jackson Award, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “[The Only Good Indians] follows the lives of four American Indian men and their families, all haunted by a disturbing, deadly event that took place in their youth. Years later, they find themselves tracked by an entity bent on revenge, totally helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.”
Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, like many horror novels, doesn’t start with the supernatural. But where a Stephen King book might start with the mundane lives of middle-class white people, Jones’ book begins firmly grounded in reservation life—and death. From the opening scene he makes his points clear. This book is not about an idyllic town sitting peacefully in some racially homogeneous flyover state, suddenly disrupted by a vengeful spirit. This is about an Indian reservation, and it already contains hundreds of years’ worth of its own demons. If the “monster” had never entered the story, it would still be about fear and despair and death. The characters we inhabit in The Only Good Indians grapple not just with marriage, children, and jobs, but with intergenerational trauma, endemic alcoholism, a broken relationship with the old ways, and a spiritual disconnection from just about everything. These people were dying off before the monster ever arrived.
Jones confronts his characters and his readers with the visceral terror of facing something you cannot understand, and at the same time with the very real and often physical oppression already faced by Indians in America. There is no shying away from the brutal history. It is clear to any careful reader that the sin committed by the main characters upon the elk—indiscriminate, pointless violence—is the same sin committed by white people upon Indians. It is hard to put down this book without wishing that revenge and justice for humans could be meted out as bloodily and as thoroughly as they were for the elk. Enter this book like you would enter a sweat lodge. Leave expectations at the door, and see which of your own demons are revealed.
Stephen Graham Jones has created a beautiful and gruesome novel-sized parable about breaking traumatic cycles through his novel The Only Good Indians. Though the plot focuses on the karma-like consequences following four Blackfeet men who illegally hunt down an elk herd, it more poignantly points out the kind of strength it takes to see an unhealthy cycle and put an end to it. The idea of things needing to come full circle is challenged by one character, Denorah, who dares to think “…it can stop…it has to stop…” Her choice to stop the violence instead of seeking revenge is powerful, especially when the readers see the growth and life that can come from walking away from such situations.
Meaningful parable aside, Jones has built a complex world within The Only Good Indians that is modern, but carefully folds in other worldly elements. The entity haunting the men so brilliantly bides their time that at some moments it’s easy to forget there really is an entity and to imagine that possibly these men are losing their minds. When the gory scenes filled with brain matter and blood ensue, it’s hard to stop reading because despite it all, it’s eloquently written with almost alluring detail. The gore is horrifying, but is also necessary and apt for the plotlines to be completed. The Only Good Indians is ingeniously written and worth reading every bloodstained sentence.
Horror is achieved in the buildup. The anticipation. The moment of is-it or is-it-not that keeps a person guessing until, inevitably, the horror spills out in a flood that overwhelms. Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians not only achieves this deep level of atmospheric anticipation, it crescendos into a mid-book climax few will be prepared for.
The story of four Blackfoot boys that hunt elk on land they know they shouldn’t spirals into an intricate narrative about the darker aspects of cultural traditions, and the price for breaking them. The true horror of the story comes when the consequences of their actions takes on a physical form, becoming a character that thinks, and speaks, and acts against them. Jones crafts a nightmare scenario both unique to his own Blackfoot heritage, and also so universal it sends a shiver down any reader’s spine on concept alone.
With an ending that sparks hope and respect, The Only Good Indians leaves a reader mulling over its meaning, its symbolism, its vividly gruesome imagery, and a central question of what the characters should have sought forgiveness for.
The opening chapter does well to loop back to its beginning with the phrase, “INDIAN MAN KILLED IN DISPUTE OUTSIDE BAR. That’s one way to say it.” This phrase introduces the reader to some of the narrative style being employed (the cheekiness mainly), and there is plenty of action and a decent amount of explanation given to the character of Ricky. However, as soon as we meet Lewis, the momentarily compelling language that adds just a hint of wry wit is doubled, if not tripled before it distorts into a completely humorless and joyless reading experience.
The narrative voice appears to be overcompensating for something—like the narrator is trying far too hard to make a point that Lewis and Ricky are not the same types of “Indian.” The narrator’s need to separate their personalities into distinctive categories causes the text to overindulge in the instances of ‘what-if’ scenarios and mental newspaper headlines that were just peppered on but are now dominant all over the page. Lewis’s hallucinations are handled no less elegantly than his own reckless character, which exhausts itself quickly within his introduction. I rarely feel empathy for a character who knowingly does idiotic things and then suddenly regrets the action right in the middle of it—this is the problem I have with most media that lends itself to the horror/gratuitously horrifying genre.
Also, the redundancy of Lewis reassuring himself that hallucinations are just hallucinations and no dead elks are coming back from the grave becomes mind-numbing. I enjoyed Ricky’s brief entrance far more than Lewis’s stagnating presence for his remaining portion of the novel, and I found his mental deterioration increasingly formulaic and expected. While the descriptions of gore are disturbingly vivid, there is an abrupt change from literary to an overbearingly supernatural and mystical style that does not align with the book’s first half. The abrupt changes in tone and narrator perspective were often jarring and intrusive. Even with the cultural slang and traditions, I would not place this work alongside any cultural literature, and I would not rate this novel highly with other horror tales.
S. N. Valadez