When I was a kid growing up in Montana, hunting was a steadfast part of my family’s life. Elk, deer (mulies and white-tails), antelope, pheasant — if you wanted to eat it, you had to go out into the snow-covered woods before the break of dawn and hope that you would find something early enough that you wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day dragging the cleaned carcass back to your truck. There were rules, of course: respect nature to the point of veneration; don’t shoot what you don’t have a permit for; don’t shoot anything you don’t intend to kill; don’t kill more than you need. The cardinal rule, the one impressed the hardest into my mind, was that you don’t set foot anywhere that you don’t have permission to go, not for any reason.
That particular decree, in myriad permutations, is at the heart of so many American horror stories. Don’t step beyond this boundary, don’t trespass onto that property, don’t engage in such-and-such behavior, because if you do so, the consequences will be dire — even more so if you’ve been warned ahead of time. In the case of The Only Good Indians (2020), four young Blackfeet men find out in the hardest ways possible that they all should have stayed home on one fateful morning rather than go out looking for elk on the weekend before Thanksgiving. But hunting they go, and pickings are slim, until one of them gets a bright idea and they find something that seems to have walked right out of an old tale. Unfortunately for them, that tale has legs and teeth and a taste for revenge.
Stephen Graham Jones has a real knack for horror, and knows exactly how to draw out tension until it’s right to the breaking point. Not only are Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabriel being stalked by a supernatural something, they’re also indigenous people trying to make their livelihoods in a country that would prefer they not exist, caught between the old ways of their fathers and grandfathers and the newer ways of the generation Gabriel’s daughter Denorah belongs to. It’s easy to get caught up in the frustration they feel toward themselves, toward each other, toward everything. And yet that tension is leavened with humor, whether it’s a hearty joke among friends or the bleak blackness of knowing that a bland headline like “indian man killed in dispute outside bar” is certainly “one way to say it” without coming even close to touching the horrifying reality of what happens to Richard Boss Ribs, or to any of his friends and their loved ones.
Basketball is a heavily-featured element of The Only Good Indians, and it’s a fitting addition; anyone can play it if they have a ball and a hoop, but if you practice hard and have a noticeable talent, that ball can be your ticket off the prairie (or the reservation, as the case may be) and into a good school, maybe some high-dollar scholarships. It’s not without its own bitter pills, of course: an in-novel article from the Mocassin Telegraph notes that, when “a certain big-time college scout” has been spotted in the area, local rumors swirl that “the trade was that if a certain scout bagged his [hunting] trophy early enough in the day, well, that would leave his evening free, wouldn’t it?” Because being good enough on your own merit to warrant a high-profile scout just isn’t possible for certain kids, Jones wants you to think about that while you’re thinking about sweat lodges and snow-crusted grass and Blood-Clot Boy and the way that bull elk sound like eldritch beings when they bugle.
I’m glad Jones mentions in his afterword that he was inspired, in part, by a specific episode of a specific subscription-cable horror series, because it’s both an excellent episode and it’s the exact one I had in mind while reading. I’d also like to point out that the way Jones handles his Final Girl character is thrilling, cranking my heart rate way beyond what I was expecting, and is the perfect resolution to this story. The Only Good Indians is an excellent horror novel, perfect for curling up under a thick blanket to ward off shivers, though I definitely recommend that you keep as many lights on as possible while you read. And make sure your dog is within sight. And close your blinds. And lock all the doors. And whatever you do, don’t open them, no matter what you think you might hear on the other side.
The Only Good Indians (2020), by Stephen Graham Jones, is a horror novel with touches of magic. Written in a realist style, the book grabbed me by the back of the neck and wouldn’t let me look away. The story had me flinching at unexpected sounds and any movement at the corner of my vision while I was reading it, and even when I wasn’t. Not only was the psychological terror part of the novel vivid and intimate, the characters were genuine people, whose actions I understood; Jones explores life for Native Americans who grew up on reservations in a deep, personal way, channeling anger (and joy) into the precise details of this story. The book is a story of transgression and vengeance, of loss, that contains a growing shoot of optimism. It’s a beautiful love letter to basketball.
The story follows four Indian men. Ricky Boss Ribs dies early in the book, beaten to death by a mob of drunken white men, many of whom are on the same oil rig crew he is. Before they attack him, Ricky has an encounter with something, an animal perhaps, that he thinks he recognizes.
The next person we meet is Lewis. Like Ricky, Lewis has left the reservation where he grew up. Lewis is by standards of the dominant culture, on his way to being successful; he is happily married, he has a job with the Post Office, and a good dog. Perhaps the only thing that he worries about, once in a while, is the fact that his wife is white. This point occupies his thoughts more and more since Shaney, a Crow woman, started working with him. One day, while Lewis is at home, he climbs up on a ladder to fix a flickering light. Looking down through the whirling blades of the ceiling fan, Lewis sees a young cow elk lying on his living room floor.
From that moment, Lewis’s life implodes in slow motion. The first changes seem tragic but understandable, if barely. His dog jumps the fence and nearly strangles when its lead gets caught. Lewis’s relationship with Shaney grows more tempting but more disturbing, especially when she asks to borrow several of the fantasy books Lewis likes to read. Lewis is also obsessed with the cow elk, even marking its outline on the living room carpet in masking tape. Someone, or some thing, is haunting Lewis, or mocking him, as one by one the things he values are taken away from him — in two cases, by his own hand.
Interestingly, in the midst of the steadily creeping psychological horror, one of the scariest scenes in the section with Lewis is when two cops show up to talk to him about his dog. It reminds us that in the midst of whatever supernatural thing is happening to Lewis, the real-world dangers for an Indian male are more immediate.
Jones excels at the granular, exquisite description of real-world objects, conveying a wealth of terror with a trail of black ants on a pair of boots, a wadded up ball of masking tape, a bundle of decomposing elk hide and later, a black vacuum flask.
Along the way, Lewis finally breaks down and tells his wife Peta about an illegal hunting expedition he and his three friends went on, close to Thanksgiving. They drove into an area where vehicles were restricted to only tribal elders, intending to bring back a feast of elk meat for the tribe. They encountered a huge herd of elk. Wild with hunting lust, they killed several of the animals until the moment turned horrifying and tragic, transforming into an ordeal of shame and failure.
As Lewis spirals down, the story shifts in two ways; it takes us back to the reservation, where Gabriel Cross Guns and Cassidy Sees Elk are living, and it moves into the point of view of the entity that stalks them. This supernatural being is clearly the adversary, but I couldn’t question its motivation, and I sympathized. And now, the next generation is at risk; as part of its vengeance quest, the being targets Gabriel’s middle-school-aged daughter, basketball star Denorah.
Cassidy’s life is pretty good. He’s in a good relationship, he has a job, he’s happy. Gabriel ekes out a living in quasi-legal ways, and a restraining order taken out by his ex-wife and her new husband keeps him away from his daughter, who he adores. The book slips in and out of Denorah’s point of view. She loves the sport for itself, and the court is a place to channel all her rage and frustration into achievement. It’s also her passport to college and off the reservation, and her older stepsister is her role model for that. As the revenging entity circles closer and closer, my fear for Denorah grew.
The climax of the book starts around a sweat lodge Gabriel and Cassidy hold for a tribal police officer’s son who has gotten into alcohol and drugs. It may be a sacred ceremony, but it will not protect the men from what’s coming. Again, reality begins to shift around Gabriel and Cass, and long-silent resentments come to the fore. It ends badly, and near the end of the book, the next generation, Denorah and the police officer’s son Nathan, are defenseless and at risk.
Thanksgiving plays a big part of the story, a day filled with connotations of imperialism and genocide for Native Americans. The story is layered with meaning; the four men transgressed against the elk herd, but their lives are filled with the daily transgressions of the colonizing culture. Of course, Jones depicts this in a much stronger and more graceful way than I can.
The book is scary and will stay with you, not only for the terror, but for the currents of family, tradition, and the consequences of colonialism. If you think you wouldn’t like those things, then
read it for the basketball.