From Native American author Stephen Graham Jones, The Only Good Indians is horror painted on the unsettled background of reservation life. It also bends the time, space, and being continuums. In other words, you’ll need to suspend all disbelief and just go with it. So hey, that fits 2020 for sure. Right?
In the story, four young, cocky men from the Blackfeet tribe go elk hunting in an area reserved for the elders. It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, and they feel fraught with uncertainty and regret for growing up. To them, it’s their “last weekend” to hunt together. So, they just go for it and think they’re prepared to flaunt whatever consequences might occur.
As Graham Jones tells the tale, there are indeed immediate repercussions for the men. But the true heart of the story happens as the ten-year anniversary approaches. Two have left the reservation. Two remained behind. They struggle with their place in the world and identity. And the events of that last hunt together haunt them in ways they never imagined.
Graham Jones combines many genres in this masterful book. He lays the social commentary about Native American realities alongside some wildly gruesome horror. It’s the horror of what people do to each other with some extra blood and gore on top. Then he dives into the possibility that the dead don’t truly die, and that the line between beings is less clear than we imagine. Now you see why plenty of reviewers start off saying “I can’t describe what I just read.”
Despite all the unknowns, Graham Jones draws his characters with depth and intricacy. These are no tropes, but men with untenable lives. They straddle and sometimes mock the ancient legends of sweat lodges and hunts. And facing life off the reservation doesn’t improve matters. It just makes them feel even more different and unmoored.
Despite all the hard edges, Graham Jones allows us into the soft inner core of these men. They aren’t monsters. Or are they? Maybe their circumstances force them to see life from this odd, uncomfortable angle. Or the decisions of people hundreds of years ago are finally catching up to the tribe.
There’s much beyond the horror to think about in this book. But you must be able to stomach the intensity. Still, I recommend the unforgettable voices that Graham Jones brings to his books.
If you’re looking for a pair, The Only Good Indians is definitely the much darker adult brother of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Or try his earlier book, Mongrels, for a lighter hearted take on horror.