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The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

(Saga Press)


Where many other horror writers create with a chainsaw, the pen Stephen Graham Jones wields is more of a scalpel. His 2020 release, The Only Good Indians, has been praised by many as one of the best horror novels of the year, but Jones’s work reads more like liter­ary fiction than the genre camp it’s been roped into.  

The Only Good Indians is the story of four Blackfeet friends and the ramifications of a decision they made ten years prior. While each of them are different than they were when the event transpired, sometimes consequences just don’t care.  That truth is one aspect of the horror employed by Jones—he doesn’t rely on jump scares or gore (though there is a bit of that as well) to scare his readers, but instead evokes a sense of dread.  

Jones achieves this dark inevitability with his deft use of minute, meaningful detail, characters’ questioning what they see or what they think they see, and hints of the supernatural:


Lewis is standing in the vaulted living room of his and Peta’s new rent house, staring straight up at the spotlight over the mantle, daring it to flicker on now that he’s looking at it.


Entire scenes are built around this spotlight: it drives the plot forward, its flicker sets the tone for what’s to come, and it almost winks with a smile at what it watches happen.

   Jones doesn’t just dwell on tiny details under a microscope, however; he writes real characters with real relationships and real problems.  Teens deal with authority, friends grieve each other over distance and death, and daughters try to reconcile life with disappointing fathers.  Jones places his characters in some harrowing situations to drive their development, yes, but he also shows the reader who these characters are in their everyday lives.


“Double it if I go ten for ten,” Denorah says.

Her dad raises his eyebrows, says, “You are my Finals Girl, aren’t you?”

She smiles her smile that she knows is his, that she can’t do anything about, and dribbles twice, banks it in just for show.

“Somebody give the little lady some dice,” her dad says.

It’s not luck, though.  It’s skill.  It’s practice.  It’s proper form.

“That’s one,” Denorah says, and turns her back on her dad again, imag­ines a gym all around her, wall-to-wall white people, all chanting for her to go home, go home.

She spins the ball toward her, dribbles twice, and lines up.


Everyday situations in The Only Good Indians are far from mun­dane, though. Jones’s talent for writing believable dialogue shines throughout the book.  He utilizes conversations to give greater depth to his characters and to more fully flesh out the situations he’s placed them in.


“What are you saying?” Gabe then says to Cassidy… “That Lewis was all messed up?  That all those elf books finally caught fire in his brain…?”

   “It wasn’t the books,” Cassidy says.

   “Elves?” Nathan says, watching the two of them now.

   “Breathe, breathe, you’re hearing things,” Gabe says.

   “How much longer?” Nathan asks.

   “You cured yet?” Gabe asks back.

   “Of what?” Nathan says.  “Being Indian?”


His characters talk with a naturalness that’s hard to achieve, bal­ancing an ease of readability with a weight of information.

The Only Good Indians succeeds at another balancing act as well, teeming with details that hold multiple meanings. Jones incorporates objects and circumstances in his story that are both significant to the plot and that tie in both Blackfeet stories and current Native American experiences to further deepen and enrich the story that he’s telling. This complexity affords readers the opportunity to see just what’s under Jones’s scalpel, peeling back layer after layer of symbolism and significance—all the richer for those steeped in Blackfeet mythos.

That reality, coupled with Jones’s superb use of subtle hints and narrators who aren’t entirely sure what they’re seeing, makes The Only Good Indians a novel that I wanted to read again as soon as I’d fin­ished the final page—though having learned my lesson, not before bed this time.

- Jordan Hirsch