Stephen Graham Jones (SGJ to his fans and acolytes) is a beautiful writer, who first emerged in the early 2000s as an avant-garde literary fiction type. He soon swerved into the hardcore genre world with a string of beat-you-with-a-rusty-pipe-and-leave-you-for-dead horror stories. His fiction is a barroom of sordid characters—deadbeats, local legends, hustlers, wannabes, passers-through; that one guy who swears this place has the best mozzarella sticks in town, typical and atypical drunks, teens with whiskers on their chins who think they’re fooling everyone; some folks you wouldn’t want to come across out there in the dark, but on the whole folks granny would call Good People. Jones’s prose is vivid and vernacular, pulls you in, makes you wish you were wherever his characters find themselves—even though there’s rarely a good reason why you want to be. I mean, have you read SGJ’s stuff?!
The Only Good Indians, Jones’s most recent novel, is the story of a hunting trip gone awry—and of how the sins of youth come knocking, literally, on the door of adulthood—and settler-colonial violence coming full-circle. It’s the story of Ricky who, no, scratch that; it’s actually the story of Lewis and how he—ugh, sorry, one more time; it’s about Cassidy and Gabe and Gabe’s basketball superstar daughter Denorah and y’know what, never mind. Let’s try a different tack.
Ten years ago, some Blackfeet teens thought they’d be badasses and do some elking in hunting grounds which they knew were off-limits and reserved for elders only. They got lucky: they ran across a whole herd of elk, unused to hunters at the close of season, just days before Thanksgiving. So the teens shot and they shot and they shot, and the result was horrifying: dozens of elk mowed down by senseless violence, described by SGJ in gruesome detail; yet it all goes nowhere—because the teens get caught by Fish & Game cop Danny Pease. It’s a moment that haunts some of the teens, a frenzy of humans-turned-monster that still others of them move on from.
But the elk remember, and one elk in particular—a cow who had been pregnant with a calf, which was in turn cut from her corpse when the teens start to field-dress their kills. So begins the cycle of Po’noka, or here Ponokaotokaanaakii—Elk Head Woman. Reborn a decade after her brutal murder, and that of her unborn calf, by Ricky, Lewis, Cassidy, and Gabe, Po’noka comes seeking retribution, to reap the violence the Blackfeet boys sowed in a fit of youthful ecstasy. And, like them, when they played victorious cowboys against the helpless Injuns (a racial-historical reversal referenced often in SGJ’s writing), she destroys them—one by one, at first simply, then with psychological dexterity, and finally with ’80s slasher film persistence, going beyond just those who hurt her and her calf and killing with abandon.
SGJ—or perhaps Po’noka—pops off with a prologue featuring Ricky. He’s an unlikeable hustler working on an oil rig out West, having escaped from the Rez. But, in the storied way of many in a rough-and-tough line of work, Ricky ends up dead in a field after a bar fight. He saw elk; all the white guys at the bar saw a drunk stumble off into the night; the papers assumed “Drunk Indian Dies of Drinking.” SGJ sets the stage in this prologue, then, with the shadow of a natural horror to come—and frames it through the racial-colonial lens of reservation poverty, casualized white supremacy, and media disinterest in crimes against and deaths of indigenous people.
Jones then switches focus to Lewis Clarke, who left the Rez nearly a decade ago this Thanksgiving, with a white woman he met while working at a resort. They’re still together and they work well, have a happy lower-middle-class life working jobs they don’t mind (Lewis at the Post Office, Peta at the airport), still enjoying each other’s company after so many years. Their biggest problem seems to be a flickering light in the den that they can’t fix. Then a Crow, Shaney, walks into their life, and with her comes an Elk Head Woman (in fact, maybe they’re the same person)—and seeds of chaos are sown that put the suburban angst of most horror fiction to pale shame. Lewis’s happy off-the-Rez life starts unravelling, beginning with the near-hanging of his dog and proceeding through its being stomped to death in his garage. As Lewis starts investigating Shaney, and second-guessing why his life with Peta has gone so story-book-well, events build to one of the Top Ten horror climaxes I’ve watched or read. Reader, I shouted “no fucking way” in bed (to my sleeping partner’s dismay) as Shaney’s hair got caught in the—nope. That’s enough.
Regardless of the gruesome end to Lewis’s tale, SGJ also offers a critique of what it means to try to leave one’s past behind, whether what we seek to escape is the bad things we do or the other lives we lived. Lewis was the Indian who left his Indianness behind, insofar as Indianness is defined in the American cultural imagination as “poor drunks who live on the Rez.” Lewis’s tale is at first only a story about that, with Jones seemingly going hard at the off-Rez, why-am-I-with-a-white-girl guilt; but as it goes on it also purposefully draws this expected “ethnic” reading into the spotlight, calls its efficacy into question through Lewis’s inability to decide on Elk Head Woman’s provenance, and disrupts white readers’ expectations. So Lewis’s story is equally, and perhaps moreso, about escaping the violence of our own pasts, about how history haunts us no matter how far from home we run—wherever and whatever that home might be.
With the abrupt end of Lewis’s story, SGJ takes us back to the Blackfeet Rez, to Cassidy and Gabe, and to Gabe’s daughter Denorah. Cassidy is the hard-working guy with the girl, also a Crow, who saves and saves so he and his girl can have as good a life as any; they’ve got horses, dogs, a nice trailer, and a jar of money tucked in an abandoned car out front. Gabe is the guy who hasn’t made much of himself (as capitalist ideas of “success” go)—though at least he passed on his basketball genes to Denorah, in whom he takes pride as the town’s up-and-coming girls’ high-school varsity b-ball champ. But he’s quite satisfied with his life, thank you. Things are going well, on the whole, until Elk Head Woman, who has previously played in the shadows and on the psyche, now comes full-throttle at the remaining masterminds of the Thanksgiving Classic—and some who were not even involved in the original slaughter. All bets are off as she stalks Cassidy and Gabe in the form of Denorah’s doppelgänger, learning their habits and ways, manipulating them into a gruesome trap that, when sprung, brings a would-be end to the cycle of violence.
Jones’s choice to end with Cassidy, Gabe, and Denorah is an interesting one. Having moved on from the psychological complexity of Lewis’s encounter with Elk Head Woman and his feelings about having left the Rez, his conflicted sense of Indianness, Cassidy and Gabe are situated as two guys who stayed behind and led, to them, fulfilling lives on the Rez. Cassidy and Gabe represent two different methods of coping with the violence of colonialism, one buying into a “hard work” ethic to “get out,” the other drifting through life. Both make out rather well for themselves and settle into something like adult happiness, and Jones isn’t here to judge; but their lives are disrupted and cut up nonetheless for the violence they once inflicted. Then there’s Denorah, somewhere between the poles of Cassidy and Gabe in terms of her life goals, but still young and mostly interested in being a hotshot b-baller. She’s not at all culpable in the crimes of her father or his friends, but, like the calf all those years ago, violence is visited upon her nonetheless—a literal visiting of the father’s sins, a gendered reversal, a recognition that violence is not bounded.
But Denorah breaks the chain in an act of compassion, in recognition of the sometimes unspeakable pain that drives harm. The novel’s end is emotionally beautiful, politically poignant, a call to compassion in the face of violence—but not the kind of call that asks us to befriend or hear out, say, a virulent racist; it’s the call to listen among us, among those working toward justice, to understand how the pains of oppression (sometimes centuries-old) wreak havoc on our relationships, our own well-being, and our drives for change. Would that we all had Denorah’s spirit.
The Only Good Indians is a hard book. It doesn’t lend itself to anything like simple allegories, easy glosses, or cheap interpretations; it demands attention and covers its demands with affecting horror and just a little bit of gore. It’s an indictment of colonialism, as so much of SGJ’s writing, but that doesn’t say much; it’s also a scream of terror at the violence colonialism has wrought on the psyches, behaviors, and practices of the colonized, who are not beyond reduplicating colonialist aggression in turn—in this case on the natural world. Jones pursues the idea of colonialism as psychic parasitism further, with the elk taking in the lessons of human violence and learning to revisit it themselves. In this way, colonialist violence becomes a cycle that threatens to suck family after family, animal after animal, down the drain, syphoning off those like Lewis, Cassidy, Gabe, Denorah, and anyone else who might live a worthwhile life in spite of centuries of genocide, Indian wars, forced marches, language loss, and so much more. The violence of colonialism threatens to turn victims against one another, decentering responsibility for it, moving it off camera: who’s the enemy now? Obviously not the folks that started it all! Muahaha, kill, my pretties, kill (each other)!
But of course the genius of Jones is that he works with both allegory and reality—because while Po’noka is an allegory of the cycle of colonial violence, she’s also a fucking Elk Head Woman out to murder the shitheads who killed her and her calf. It’s understandable, you kind of root for her, but also—this is terrible, right?
It’s downright funny in a Jones sorta way. His prose invokes American vernacular and inspires readers to connect with the quotidian details of this particular milieu, relaxing in the backyard around a Walmart-bought BBQ, poking hotdogs like we’re all naturals. The humor, meanwhile, transcends the prose and takes on a life of its own as the ironies of the characters’ situations manifest. And it’s there in the title: The Only Good Indians. The title comes from a comment attributed to ruthless US general Philip Sheridan during the wars of Indian dispossession: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” or some version thereof. Oft repeated in Westerns and other racist-colonialist quips, Jones here turns the phrase on its head, situating it with the point of view of both the colonizer and the Elk Head Woman who reduplicates colonial violences. It’s also a damn good title for a horror novel, evoking the exigent political concerns of the phrase’s overt racism but also implying what we should expect. Only, can you ever really expect the twists and turns of the brutal roads down which SGJ takes us?
Next to his Rez Renaissance aesthetics that painfully and indispensably capture what makes life shitty for those clinging to the edges (and redefining the meanings) of American life, Jones’s work in horror has set him apart from his genre contemporaries. His horror is stick-in-your-craw terrifying, usually coming at the reader in one of two tacks. There’s the scenes that come out of nowhere, fuck you up, and send you into pseudo rigor mortis—you’ll need a minute. (This was me at the end of Lewis’s story; I put the book down for a month.) And there’s the scenes that build slowly, tensely, frighteningly across scene after scene: you know what’s coming, you’re omniscient, you’re basically in on the kill, but you can’t stop it, you can’t warn anyone (do you want to?), and SPLAT. Yet you’ll keep reading after the climax because you’ll need to know how Jones brings you (and any survivors) off the high.
There’s a tendency among critics—and I’ve been guilty of this—to claim that an author has hit a high point. Not necessarily that their career has peaked, but that they’ve produced a masterpiece, something they’d be hard-pressed to beat. It’s a shortsighted thing to do, especially when reading an artist like Jones, where the temptation to claim a Great Work arises with each and every book. Stephen Graham Jones is frustrating that way, and he’s fucking brilliant in that way; it’s hard to keep up but, damn, do I love the challenge.