Book Review: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press (July 14, 2020)
Length: 320 pages
The Only Good Indians has been getting some rave reviews, and for good reason; it’s extremely well-written and candid, its themes darkly jarring and intense. Unfortunately though, while the book has all these great points and more, as a horror novel, I confess it failed my expectations. The story was a bit confusing. It was slow. And although Stephen Graham Jones does a fantastic job putting his characters in eerie and disturbing situations, I had a hard time actually feeling frightened or even unsettled.
At the heart of this novel are four young Blackfeet men: Lewis, Cass, Gabe, and Ricky. A decade ago, they ventured off their hunting territory, killing a herd of elk on restricted land. As a result, the group faced some serious repercussions from their community, but little did they know, their punishment was far from over. Many years later, they will be made to answer for their reckless violence and disregard for life by a mysterious, vengeful force.
In the present, the book catches up with the four friends and reveals their fates. All of them have moved away from the Reservation and are experiencing strange and disturbing things, and in fact, one of them meets his end in the prologue. One of the our more prominent protagonists, Lewis, also starts spiraling out of control as he suspects he is being haunted by a malevolent entity, after seeing a terrifying vision of a dead elk so much like the one he killed all those years ago. His paranoia taking hold, Lewis starts to become unraveled amidst the pain, terror, and chaos caused to loved ones and friends by his spiteful demon.
This is my first time reading Stephen Graham Jones and I am in love with his splendiferous writing. He clearly has a way with words, and ironically, I think the smoothness of his prose inadvertently diminishes the edginess and grit of the gruesome, dark scenes he tries to write. In other words, as a literary piece, this book soars, but as a horror novel, I found it somewhat lacking. That’s because reading about the terrifying is one thing, but actually feeling terrified by them is another. While the author certainly knows how to set up nightmare-inducing sequences by employing disturbing imagery and some of the grossest, most blood-soaked provocative descriptions you can imagine, at the end of the day, they are still mere words. As well-written as some of these characters were, as realistically as their terror was conveyed, I simply did not feel any of it in my heart or mind.
Then there was the story. I’ll be the first to admit I sometimes fare poorly when it comes to unconventional plot structures, so many other readers will probably have no problems. The Only Good Indians follows a unique and artful storytelling style, unfolding in a way that emphasizes its distinct sections, giving the overall narrative a disjointed, stop-start juddering feel. In between these sections, we also have a lot of meandering exposition which slows down pacing, disrupting any interest building in the supernatural horror aspect.
That said though, while these exploratory, soul-searching passages might not have done the book’s momentum any favors, they added plenty to the characters and the central themes of the novel, highlighting the struggles of cultural identity and generational anxiety. As detached as I felt from the story’s horror elements, it was the weight of the characters’ malaise and disquietude that really got to me. Threaded through this tale are important reflections on family, community and heritage, the expectations and responsibilities they demand on the characters as seen through a Native American lens.
Ultimately, The Only Good Indians was a book that worked for me on some levels but not on others. Had I not gone in expecting a horror novel, I might have enjoyed it more, but well, that’s what the book is billed as and the risk with expectations, eh? Still, I’m glad I read this; I’ve discovered a new author to watch, and with his strong talent for character development and wordsmithing, Stephen Graham Jones is definitely worth reading again.