Stephen Graham Jones, “The Only Good Indians” (2020) – An old friend of mine sent this book my way. It’s a horror novel written by a Native American writer, set in contemporary times with mostly Native American characters. Interestingly, most of the characters refer to themselves and their co-ethnics as “Indians.” Jones seems to imply in one bit this is a generational thing- most of the characters are in their thirties, and it’s younger characters who prefer “Native American,” “indigenous,” and so on. I usually use “Native American” to be safe but have been corrected by people claiming authority for using both “Native American” and “Indian,” so, who knows?
The premise of this book is that four young men from the Blackfeet tribe of the upper Midwest go hunting the week before Thanksgiving. They bring their truck onto the part of the hunting grounds reserved for elders of the tribe, which is bad. They find a big herd of elk and blinded by greed, enthusiasm, and the joy of killing, fire rapidly into it, which is pretty bad. A game warden catches them and makes them throw a lot of the meat away, which would seem to make him a party to the badness, but that doesn’t come up- either way, more bad shit. Worst of all, one of the four gruesomely and gracelessly killed a pregnant elk and the calf inside her. He tries to make it right — even bargains with the game warden to let him take the corpse, to make use of all of it — but it won’t be that easy.
Ten years later, mama-elk-spirit comes back for revenge. I don’t feel like that’s a spoiler because it’s revealed in the first third of the book. Spoilers, I think, would be revealing exactly what she does and how to stop her. We’ll just say that she does more in terms of getting her marks to damage themselves and those around them than she does directly attacking people. She can shapeshift, and summon either a herd of elk or the spirit of her herd. It’s not entirely clear, but I think that’s ok, a good thing even. Fiction with monsters these days, influenced by role-playing games where monsters come with stats, often lay out exactly what it is monsters are and aren’t capable of. Good on Jones for keeping it uncanny.
I’m not much of a horror guy (though I probably read more horror this year than I ever have, given my birthday lecture was partly about Lovecraft) so I’m not the best judge, but the action seemed well-paced and horrific without being gratuitous. The character work is what really shone for me. Jones sketches out his characters quickly and completely without a lot of rigamarole, so it really has an impact when stuff happens to them. Even the monster feels real, especially for a vengeful elk spirit.
There is exploration of Native American identity here in a way that is genuinely interlaced with delivering the genre goods, no mean feat in this age of tacked-on morals. I was intrigued by the different ways the characters processed their Native American (invariably, in their inner monologues and conversations, “Indian”) heritage- omnipresent, a determinant factor in their lives (all were reservation-born), a source of both pride and impediments they wish to escape, an altogether different relationship with history, space, and race than white people like me are used to, but never presented by Jones in a reductive or essentialist way. Jones also isn’t so lazy as to make the character stand-ins for different ways of being Blackfeet or Native American. They’re all ambivalent in their own ways about their identities and how they intertwine with their personalities. In keeping with his highly competent interweaving of the themes with the genre action, this shows in how the characters deal with the elk spirit: not so “traditional” as to believe in it right away, not so “modern” as to dismiss it entirely, suspended between very real-seeming doubts and suspicions of the sort that would occur to people when the uncanny and horrifying occurs. All told, a strong genre work. ****’