Published in the summer of 2020, Stephen Graham Jones’s novel The Only Good Indians immediately started garnering lots of buzz, and ended up winning several awards, including the Ray Bradbury Prize, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. I had read a couple of Jones’s books before, including his 2020 novella Night of the Mannequins (which I really liked), and his 2012 novel The Last Final Girl (which I couldn’t really get into and ended up not finishing). The Only Good Indians fell way more on the “really liked” end of the scale, although I felt that the first half of the story was stronger than the second half.
The novel reads almost like a series of interconnected novellas rather than a single cohesive narrative: there’s a brief prologue, then three long sections following three or four different characters, although all the stories are centered on the same set of events. Though there are some absolutely brutal scenes, this is overwhelmingly a slower-burn, character-based horror, and something of a literary exploration of guilt and cultural identity. Plot-wise, it’s essentially a revenge story, with the antagonist being a mythological creature who is righting a wrong done to her by humans. I will note that the writing style and the vernacular that was used in the book took me a bit to get into, but I got used to it after a few pages.
The prologue of the story kicks off with a man named Richard Boss Ribs, or Ricky for short. He’s Blackfeet, originally from a reservation in Montana, but ran off to work on an oil rig in North Dakota after his brother overdosed. He’s at a bar one night, getting epically drunk, and when he goes out into the parking lot to take a piss, he sees some bizarre shit: a seemingly crazed elk staggers into the lot, crashing into a bunch of good ol’ boys’ pickup trucks, denting them all up and setting off all the car alarms. Said good ol’ boys all come piling out of the bar and don’t see an elk; they only see a lone, very drunk Native American man stumbling around amid all of their damaged vehicles. They chase Ricky into a field, where he sees seemingly hundreds of glittering eyes: an elk herd, appearing to hem him in. The guys from the bar pile on Ricky and beat him to death.
The story then shifts to another man, Lewis A. Clarke (his parents were real comedians, it seems). Lewis is also from the same reservation as Ricky—the men were old friends, as we soon find out—but managed to move away from it. He’s married to a white woman named Peta, and has a job with the postal service, while his wife is an aircraft marshaller. They live a decent, working-class life with a nice house and their beloved dog, Harley.
Into this domestic bliss, though, appears a small wrinkle. There’s an indigenous woman named Shaney who’s a coworker of Lewis’s. She’s Crow, he’s Blackfeet, and there’s a long history of antagonism between their two tribes, but Shaney befriends him, and even seems to low-key flirt at times. The whole situation is made slightly more awkward by all of their white coworkers, who are of the opinion that the only two Indians on the staff should get together, in spite of the fact that Lewis is already happily married.
There is one thing from his past that Lewis has never shared with his wife, though, and that he ends up spilling to Shaney, because he thinks she’ll have a better understanding of it. Turns out that ten years prior, when he was just a teenager, Lewis and his three friends—Ricky, Gabriel Cross Guns, and Cassidy Sees Elk—did something they really shouldn’t have. Being young and rebellious, they deliberately went into the reservation’s elder hunting grounds, where they were forbidden from hunting, and came across a massive herd of elk in a valley. The four boys stood on a ridge and had easy pickings of the animals; they couldn’t believe their luck, and were looking forward to having elk meat in the freezer all winter. They ended up shooting nine elk in a bloody eruption of gunfire.
When they go down to retrieve their spoils, though, they discover that one of the elk, a female, isn’t quite dead, and though they fill her full of even more lead, she is surprisingly reluctant to give up the ghost. The reason for this soon becomes clear: she’s pregnant, and is fighting for her baby’s survival. It’s too early in the season for her to be pregnant, the boys know, yet here it is. Lewis feels awful about killing her, and not only buries her baby, but vows to use every bit of the elk, to honor her sacrifice.
When the boys return to the ridge, the game warden catches them, and forces them to throw all the meat back, further banning them from hunting the lands for the near future. So all of the elk deaths ended up being a complete waste, though the warden does allow Lewis to keep the one “special” animal.
For a long time, Lewis is seemingly able to make good on his promise to use all of the slaughtered elk, selling a good deal of it to others on the reservation and keeping the hide for himself, and for ten years his life was going just fine. But then, apparently, one last bit of the meat that was never consumed is thrown out of a freezer somewhere, and a supernatural revenge epic is set into motion.
After Lewis tells Shaney all this, strange things start happening around the house: he hears what sounds like footsteps or hoofbeats on the stairs, he thinks he sees the dead elk through the blades of a spinning ceiling fan. Most horribly of all, his dog is stomped to death by some person or thing unknown. After this, Lewis seemingly starts down a rabbit hole of paranoia, first suspecting his wife, then Shaney, of being the agent of vengeance come to cash in his tab. This section of the book ends quite savagely and gruesomely, and was easily the most entertaining part of the story.
We then go back to the reservation and into the tale of the two remaining friends, Gabe and Cassidy, who never moved away and have established somewhat satisfying lives. Cassidy lives in a trailer with his girlfriend Jolene, also a Crow woman, and the pair are saving up money to get married. Gabe is divorced, but very proud of his teenage daughter Denorah, a basketball superstar who is sure to get a scholarship that will take her off the rez and into sports history.
But the repercussions of that long-ago elk hunt—jokingly dubbed the Thanksgiving Classic by the friends, since it occurred the weekend before Thanksgiving—are about to come due, and the remaining two men and their families fall into the cross-hairs of a horrifying, shapeshifting, yet oddly sympathetic monster known as Ponokaotokaanaakii: the Elk Head Woman.
The Only Good Indians is a book about many things, not least of which an examination of the contradictions of modern tribal life, in which ancient traditions clash with more current ideas, and how the past still has a devastating stranglehold on the present. The four men at the center of the story aren’t bad men, not really, but from the point of view of the avenging Elk Head Woman, they visited her “people” with the same senseless violence that colonialist forces had long marshalled against them. It’s also an interesting examination of the cultural identity and stereotypes surrounding indigenous people in general and Blackfeet in particular (author Stephen Graham Jones is Blackfeet), and how growing up on the reservation has a profound effect on one’s outlook, even if one tries to escape one’s upbringing.
I would recommend this to anyone interested in more literary horror and in stories based around the mythologies of indigenous people. I felt like the first parts of the book, following the stories of Ricky and Lewis, were much more engrossing and horrific than the later parts involving Cassidy, Gabe, and Denorah, but it was all a well-written, fairly gory, and blackly humorous ride.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.