Several months ago, a very interesting-looking book appeared on NetGalley, and prompted me to do some Googling. Said book was Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, which stood out because of its beautiful cover art, familiar sounding author and unique title. After researching what it was all about, I quickly hit the request button and was appreciably granted access to an early digital version of the novel. Unfortunately, though, due to having a lot on my plate, I didn’t get to reading it until just now. Since the book is now out, I ended up reading a finished, physical retail copy, with part of the reason being that the aforementioned and wholly appreciated digital copy wasn’t fully edited. That’s the case with most books on NetGalley, though.
Well, after just finishing Stephen Graham Jone’s latest, I can safely say that I’m glad it caught my attention. Then again, the buzz on Reddit and elsewhere probably would have if NetGalley hadn’t. There’s quite a bit of good word going around regarding The Only Good Indians, and it’s even been called “One of the best horror books of 2020.” That’s pretty lofty praise, and it’s deserved. The thing, though, is that this is the type of novel that some will love and others will struggle with. It’s far from a typical novel, even a typical horror novel, and is pretty unique. Things are also quite violent and visceral within.
The Only Good Indians tells the story of four indigenous men who made a big mistake ten years ago. Back then, just several days before the end of hunting season and American Thanksgiving proper, the friends (Ricky, Lewis, Cass and Gabe) all ventured further than allowed in search of a big score. By that, I mean that they entered into the elders’ hunting territory and massacred around nine elk, all of whom were innocently grazing at the bottom of a steep incline. What they did was unfair and illegal (in reservation terms), and ended up getting them banned from hunting by game warden Denny Pease. In fact, they were prohibited from keeping almost all of the meat and antlers.
Things pick up years later, at which point Ricky ends up running from some racist white men at a truck stop of a bar. He doesn’t get far before dying, although what actually killed him isn’t entirely clear. The men weren’t far behind him, but he also saw visions of a herd of elk.
Fast-forward some time, and we pick up in the shoes of Lewis, who has left the reservation to start a new life with his athletic, white and vegetarian wife, Peta. They’ve moved hours away, to another part of Montana, and things are going well. Peta lands planes, and Lewis recently got a job working at the post office, at which he’s in charge of training a new hire who also happens to be native. She’s a Crow, though, as opposed to Lewis’ Blackfeet roots.
It isn’t long before things get weird and, by weird, I mean really weird. Lewis also starts having visions, his dog changes, and things just aren’t right. He begins to question his sanity as well, as anyone would, because what’s happening simply isn’t normal. He also keeps being reminded of the elk he and his friends massacred, and just one in particular: she was a young mother who seemed too early in life to have a calf inside her. Both she and her calf died, and that haunts our protagonist.
If I were to say more, I’d really risk spoiling The Only Good Indians, and I hate spoilers. In fact, I hope I haven’t said too much already. What you need to know, though, is that this is the story of four men who are forced to face up to something awful that they did a decade ago. Something has it in for them, and it isn’t interested in stopping until it’s had its revenge. Other characters, who weren’t there at the time, also end up getting wrapped up in things unfairly, including Gabe’s badass of a basketball star daughter, Denorah.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t a big fan of this book from the onset. For one, I’d never read anything by Stephen Graham Jones before, and he happens to have his own style of writing that is different from almost anything else I’ve read. The first part of this particular novel was kind of confusing in its use of descriptors, and had a surprising amount of strange run-on sentences. At that time, I wondered if I’d made a bad choice requesting this one for review. However, things got better, and I got used to the writing. It also improved quite a bit, and the run-ons became almost nonexistent later on. At least, I didn’t really notice any.
As I got more and more into this odd, unique and interesting story, I also started to enjoy and appreciate it a lot more. It’s definitely one of the more creative books I’ve ever read, and something that I will never forget. On top of that, the cultural information and settings were quite interesting. I appreciated reading a book about indigenous people, as they aren’t often represented in horror. Stephen Graham Jones is also native American, so he was a good person to tackle such a thing.
The characters also feel very real, and have a ton of depth. You don’t always get that in this genre, or in books as a whole. I really felt like I got to know and understand these men, and that I lived through them while reading. That made some of what happened even more shocking.
If you’re looking for something new, different, unique, creative, scary, unsettling (and it very much is), or native-themed, The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is a good choice. Be warned, though, that it’s dark and strange, and that it won’t be for everyone as a result. Thus, if you have an open mind and want to read something unlike anything you’ve ever read before, you should give it a shot. In the end, you’ll likely walk away impressed and find that what you read was unforgettable.
This review is based on a copy of the book that we were provided with. Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley. Please know, though, that receiving the book for free did not sway my opinion of it.