In the opening chapter of The Only Good Indians, Ricky, one of the titular “Indians” has stepped outside a bar to take a leak when a massive and possibly hallucinatory elk appears, stomps on a bunch of cars, and leaves him to the mercy of a bunch of drunk white guys who mete out swift and decisive street justice. It’s a common device in horror: show the potential of the threat early on so we can be appropriately terrified for the protagonist(s) who must defeat it.
Author Stephen Graham Jones knows this.
He also doesn’t let us off that easy.
A few months before Ricky’s brutal death, Ricky and three other guys on their Blackfoot reservation went on an illegal hunting trip and got much more than they bargained for when a herd of elk, while running away from the men’s truck, jumped off a cliff to their deaths. At first, the group can’t believe their luck, even if they can’t quite figure out how they’re going to get all the carcasses home. One, Lewis, tries to put an elk that survived the fall out of her misery, a process that turns gruesome fast and ends with him finding a calf in the dying elk’s womb.
Nearly ten years later, Lewis, now living in domestic bliss with a vegetarian white woman and working as a mail carrier away from the reservation, gets a glimpse of that elk and her calf again in a series of hallucinations that feel far more real than they should. He begins obsessing, the memory of the hallucination and the events it is rooted in infecting every part of his life. The others who were in that same hunting party, Cassidy and Gabe, haven’t thought much of that illicit hunt in years, they tell him, but Lewis can’t shake the feeling that the spirit of the mother elk—or an Elk Head Woman somehow born from that moment—is lingering close to him.
On the reservation, Cassidy and Gabe are trying to carry on tribal traditions to the next generation, even if they lack the mystique of the elders who taught them. Though neither of them fixates on the hunt—Cassidy is head-over-heels for a girlfriend who’s helping him straighten his life out, and Gabe is trying to stay in his daughter’s life despite the trouble his various drunken outbursts have caused him over the years—they are still trying to rebuild the respect they lost from the tribe for poaching all those elk. As Cassidy prepares to propose to his girlfriend and Gabe encourages his daughter, Denorah, to rise to stardom on the high school basketball team, something lurks in the background—something that remembers what happened ten years ago all too well.
Jones, like his characters, is Blackfeet, and that heritage feels indelibly woven into Ricky and Lewis and Gabe and Cassidy—not as anything approaching a gimmick, but as quite flawed people trying to find how to blend tradition with modern reality. Only one of his characters is easy to root for, but the rest are drawn with such honesty and humanity that you can’t help but hope for their better angels to take hold. Some of them do. Some of them don’t. Although, in the end, it doesn’t really matter, because this is a horror novel and things end, well, horribly.
One thing Jones does impeccably is tease with tension and release. Each time Lewis gets caught too fully in his own head obsessing about the elk, the growing shadows are dispelled with a moment of relief, which Jones then uses against Lewis (and the reader) a few pages down the road. For example: I see you like those extremely nerdy fantasy novels, Jones says, and turns them into a monstrous portent. As a female coworker becomes friendly with Lewis, the tension grows to include whether Lewis’ wife will catch them and suspect adultery, destroying the already-fragile life Lewis has built for himself.
Jones also delights in visual horror in a way I haven’t seen many authors do. Ricky is beaten to death. When Lewis’ dying dog attacks a male coworker, you can see the man’s teeth through the gaping skin of his cheek. When Lewis goes to murderous lengths to solve the mystery of the Elk Head Woman, you can practically hear the sound of (spoiler) each tooth being pried free from his victim’s mouth.
And this is to say nothing about the gore that coats the pages leading up to the climax. You quickly learn how intentional the book’s title was, with the end of the implied General Sheridan quote being “…is a dead Indian.” The Elk Head Woman is unstoppable and ruthless, her powers of monstrous suggestion flawless. Under her influence, heroes could become villains, or killed by some other exterior force, such as the enraged mob that takes Ricky. As her revenge sends her mercilessly after her final target, we know perfectly how little hope there is for escape.
Gory, yes. Unnerving, absolutely. A little much for some people, probably. And well worth all 320 pages of tension.