The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

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Ricky, Gabe, Lewis and Cassidy are men bound to their heritage, bound by society, and trapped in the endless expanses of the landscape. Now, ten years after a fateful elk hunt, which remains a closely guarded secret between them, these men – and their children – must face a ferocious spirit that is coming for them, one at a time. A spirit which wears the faces of the ones they love, tearing a path into their homes, their families and their most sacred moments of faith.

Ten years after that fateful hunt, these men are being stalked themselves. Soaked with a powerful gothic atmosphere, the endless expanses of the landscape press down on these men – and their children – as the ferocious spirit comes for them one at a time.

I have to say that Stephen Graham Jones has been an author I’ve been meaning to check out for some time now, he’s a cult following which is currently blowing up into the mainstream of horror, so when The Only Good Indians dropped like a grenade into a packed room full of booktubers, bookstagramers and reviewers to devastating effect; I had to pick up a copy and pop my Jones cherry, once and for all.

And I have to say that I very much enjoyed my first outing and it certainly won’t be my last (I have Night of the Mannequins – already pre-ordered).

The Only Good Indians was a blast, it started off with a break-neck frenetic vibe that drops the reader straight into the melting pot of America, where Jones is able to finely balance a social commentary (some of the bigoted views of a white America on those of the Native American demographic) with the unfolding and devastating drama that is unfolding before our very eyes – and the horror in this opening sequence, sets the pace for the whole book and of the nightmares to come. It’s dark, and gritty and bloody brilliant!

I’ll be honest, it did take me a little while to get into this book, due to the style of prose Jones offers (as being the first thing I’ve read of his I was unsure if this was his writing style or just a style used for this book), it seemed to be written as a stream of consciousness, one that was harassed and harried, but once my mind settled down into the unfolding chaos, and being guided so deftly by Jones into the way of life for the Blackfeet Native American community and the life of our main protagonist (for this opening third of the book) Lewis. You can quite quickly see that the tools implemented and the feelings of being harassed and harried which are embedded in his stream of consciousness is a tool that is used to great effect at pulling the reader in. Lewis is a hoot of a character, I found him interesting and enrapturing all at once, his sense of humour was infectious and dark and his inner turmoil seemed to be balanced on a knife edge, he could go one way or the other with the slightest misstep.

There was some great work here with particular attention to body horror (detail). The first third of this book is phenomenal and the horror / body horror had me thinking of the very best of David Cronenberg, it was dark and meaty and brutal.

But The Only Good Indians main attraction for me, putting the horror aside for a moment (because as you know I love me some horror) was the characters and the character work that Jones delivers; and the depths of the inherent oppression this Blackfeet community faces, this hurt and pain and suffering for generations is sewn into the very fabric of this enchanting tale and the horrors of life, can’t be separated from the ongoing horrors of the narrative – they are one and of the same.

“We’re the police asking to see your dog,” the first officer says, that thing rising in his voice that isn’t so much saying this call can go bad, but that he’s kind of hoping it will.

As the premise at the top of this review shows, our cast of characters have a unifying tragedy that binds them all together (a hunting trip gone bad), and ties that bind are hard to break – it’s this brokenness, this tragedy that is eating away at each of them, whether they recognise this or not; and I  for one am a sucker for damaged characters. It’s why I love the work of  Pollock, Fante, Ellis, Bukowski and Burroughs – and Jones’ work brings these comparisons to these great writers to mind, each one not shy in stating the obvious, whatever the cost – their soul purpose is to create fully realised characters, not just some copy of a copy, we don’t get lukewarm characters we get broiling messy characters – each unique in their own brokenness and heartache. Jones also dumps into this melting pot of characters the prejudices and the inherent racism that Native Americans face in America today, and does it well with dark humour and an honesty that is beguiling and hard to shake free from and some of work was painful to read, as it should be.

“What’s this about?” Lewis says, hands in clear view up in the frame of the Road King. Though of course, should they pop him in the back with their .40-calibers just because, then their reports could all be about how it looked like he had a gun tucked up under the tank.

When this first third of the book finished I struggled getting connected again to the new characters that were introduced to and the continuing carnage of the ongoing narrative. It seemed to slump, as if Jones had taken his foot off the pedal, and in doing so, for me, the story just stalled a little and he lost me for a little bit. But this might be because the first third was so well constructed, written to within an inch of its life. I just found that the introductions of a new character just forced the story to slow down a bit too much for my liking, it came at a point when all I wanted to do was power on through, but Jones slows us down; quite possibly on purpose, so we don’t gorge ourselves and become sick on this bountiful offering that he wants us to consume, one course at a time.

This lull in the proceedings is only fleeting and Jones pulls it back for the last third of the books thrilling tale, which canters off into the snowy, bloodied, darkness with a frenetic energy that builds to a powerful conclusion and ensures that all ties are irrevocably severed. I also very much enjoyed the symbolism of the elk (to Native Americans) and witnessing the barbaric way in which they initially met their demise (the elk), this error in judgement by the hunting party sparks the revenge of the story and enforces the deeper message that sits at the heart of this defty told story.

A dark and brutal revenge story that is full of broiling menace that leaves the reader scarred, this is a gritty and unforgettable book with bloody gore and violence that is put across in visceral detail, just how I like it!

The Only Good Indians is Published by Titan Books and is available here.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen and a half novels, six story collections, a couple of standalone novellas, and a couple of one-shot comic books. Stephen’s been an NEA recipient, has won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, four This is Horror Awards, and he’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. He’s also made Bloody Disgusting’s Top Ten Horror Novels, and is the guy who wrote Mongrels. Next up are The Only Good Indians (Saga) and Night of the Mannequins (Tor.com). Stephen lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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