Stephen Graham Jones is prolific. According to his website, he’s “the author of 23 or 25 or so books, +300 stories, some comic books, and all this stuff here.” The Only Good Indians is the 5th of those 20 plus books I’ve read, and it’s by far the best.
The Only Good Indians opens with “Ricky Boss Ribs,” a member of the Blackfeet tribe, hanging out in a bar. He’s working with “a drilling crew over in North Dakota.” His work is so dangerous that “Each time he came back with all his fingers he would flash thumbs-up all around the platform to show how he was lucky.” He has no illusions about how dangerous the bar is for a Native American man. When he slips outside to pee, there’s an elk in the parking lot, destroying vehicles.
When she sees him, she charges. He tries to escape, cutting through cars, but the elk smashes her way after him. The car alarms catch the attention of the angry white men waiting outside the bar. But those men can’t see the elk. They only see Ricky and the damage to their trucks. They’re furious.
The Only Good Indians is a revenge story. Ricky and his three best friends—Lewis, Gabe, and Cass—committed an unspeakable act of violence almost ten years before the start of the story. In two weeks, that tenth anniversary will hit, but will any of them be alive to see it?
Jones’ work calls back to Peter Straub’s horror classic, Ghost Story. Both novels revolve around men fighting a monster from Indigenous folklore that they met long ago. What separates The Only Good Indian is that Graham Jones and his characters are all members of the Blackfeet Tribe. Unlike Straub’s classic, this isn’t cultural tourism.
As well as being a terrifying horror story, this novel doubles as a razor sharp commentary on how American Indians are treated both on and off reservations. Ricky and Lewis have both left the Reservation and have to deal with both casual and violent racism. In Lewis’s case, the casual racism comes when the post office he works at hires another American-Indian woman, Shaney. Jones writes, “everybody’s been doing that thing they do with armchairs or end tables when they match: trying to push him and her together over in the corner, leave them there to be the perfect set.” Ricky’s time at that bar speaks for itself.
Gabe and Cass never left the Reservation and Jones shows their unique set of problems. They’re both living as part of a culture that’s been decimated by genocide, making it harder to pass down the traditions they still try to observe.
At one point, Gabe’s daughter Denorah thinks, “She knows the joke about how Indians are crabs in a bucket, always pulling down the one that’s about to crawl out, but she thinks it’s more like they’re old-time plow horses, all just walking straight down their row, trying not to see what’s going on right next to them.”
Denorah is a basketball star who plays a huge role in the story’s excellent climax. It’s unlike anything in any other horror novel. The book’s climax is as intense and unexpected as it could be. In a word, it’s excellent.
While The Only Good Indian does the important work of laying bare the way systematic genocide affects the Blackfeet community today, seeing any of the four men who set these events into motion interact with one another is full of joy. When Lewis calls Gabe for the first time in years, they start out the phone call with this interaction:
“Tippy’s Tacos,” Gabe says after the second ring. It’s how he always answers,
wherever he is, whoever’s phone. There was never a place called that on the
reservation as far as Lewis knows.
“Two with venison,” Lewis answers back.
“An, Indian tacos… “ Gabe says, playing along.
“And two beers,” Lewis adds.
“You must be Navajo,” Gabe says right back, “maybe a fish tribe. If you were Blackfeet, you’d want a six with that.
Both the humor and the cultural commentary make the horror in the novel scarier, rather than distracting from it. These details build the world where these characters live(d). When something happens to someone that readers like because they’re funny, or someone that a reader understands the suffering of, it hurts more.
Jones does a phenomenal job making readers care about the characters. He does strong work making his folk monster feel like a real part of our modern world. He weds all of this to real life cultural commentary. The cherry on top is an unexpected climax that takes a left turn out of horror, but makes the book all the scarier. The Only Good Indians is must read.
Wicked Rating – 9/10
Saga Press / Gallery Books will release The Only Good Indians on May 19, 2020.