The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery/Saga Press 2020)
Reviewed by Robert Drinkwater
I was instantly drawn to the premise of Stephen Graham Jones’s book The Only Good Indians. It centered around four Blackfeet men who are haunted by a malevolent entity from an event ten years in the past. It is a story that is full of Blackfeet folklore, tradition, and plenty of blood and gore.
This book is about four Blackfeet men, Ricky, Lewis, Cassidy, and Gabe. Ten years ago, they went on a hunting trip where they stepped foot on land that was reserved for the elders of their reservation. While there, they shot and killed several elk, including one that was pregnant. Lewis shot this elk multiple times before she eventually died. After shooting her, Lewis cut open the mother elk and found the elk’s fetus somehow still alive. The men were caught by the law and forced to throw away all of the meat. Ten years later these men are haunted by the vengeful spirit of the mother elk they killed.
Each of these characters fascinated me in many ways. They are all flawed in some way, and have to deal with their own demons on top of the one hunting them down. One section of the book follows Lewis, the man who shot the pregnant elk. He is haunted by a woman with an elk’s head or “Elk Head Woman” as she was referred to throughout the novel. He grappled with trying to find out who this Elk Head Woman was, causing him to become suspicious of the women closest to him. Graham Jones did a wonderful job portraying a man with a guilty conscience becoming more and more unhinged as the story progresses.
Graham Jones also did a phenomenal job portraying an eerie atmosphere. He used simple language that worked well to amplify the fear within the pages: “When he breathes his next breath in, it’s thready, unsteady, isn’t a breath he can trust not to explode into a scream”(87). I felt like I could feel the fear and anxiety in these pages.
Part of this atmosphere comes from the fact that Graham Jones doesn’t hold back on the gore factor. There are dogs that get stomped on by elk hooves, a scene involving a woman’s hair and a motorcycle engine, brains being splattered, and a vivid scene with an elk calf coming out of a woman’s body. All of this adds to the horror element of this novel, making it that much creepier.
At core of this novel is are four Native men struggling with tradition. As they are hunted down by this angry spirit that is hellbent on revenge, they all leave their reservation and struggle with their identity. Lewis for example is married to a white woman and there is a cultural barrier between them. His wife Peta reflects on her husband’s behavior: “And that he’d been telling the elk story to another Indian, which Peta could never be no matter how fast she ran, no matter how high she jumped”(69).
The Only Good Indians is a novel about vengeance, tradition, and identity. As we switch between points of view, each character feels human. They are flawed, and make mistakes. Even Elk Head Woman seems human, in that she has every reason to be angry. In this novel, Graham Jones shines a light on contemporary Native American life, and the struggle of four characters trying to connect with their own heritage. It’s the perfect book for those looking for a well-paced, spooky read.
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