Rating: 5 out of 5
I just finished reading Stephen Graham Jones’s horror novel The Only Good Indians and my heart is still racing. Four men made a mistake ten years ago: they hunted elk where they weren’t allowed to be, and one of those elk was pregnant. They’ve never entirely forgotten the incident–and neither have the elk. Lewis, who moved away and married a white woman, starts having visions of a woman with an elk’s head. He becomes convinced that she’s coming for revenge, and that she must have taken over the body of either his wife Peta or his colleague at the post office, Shaney. Ricky is already dead–no one thought there was anything strange about one more Indian getting beaten to death outside of a bar, but he saw the elk before he died. That leaves Gabe and Cassidy, both of whom still live on the Reservation. Gabe has a basketball-star teenaged daughter, and Cass is thinking of proposing to his girlfriend, Jo. But soon, the past will catch up to all of them.
I thought the book was a little low-key at first, and while I thought that I understood what sort of violation the four friends committed, I had a little difficulty seeing it as being that big of a deal. But wow, Jones really does make you feel it well before the end.
Lewis’s story is amazing. Is he seeing the Elk Headed Woman? Is it his guilty conscience? If she is real, is it Peta? Is it Shaney? Is it someone else entirely? The narrative builds up so gradually, expertly creating just the right atmosphere, and then suddenly you find yourself reading with a hand over your mouth and your eyes wide open. This book has some of the best pacing I’ve ever experienced.
The characters are fantastic, not a one of them is a caricature or stereotype. Gabe and Cass are still fuck-ups, but they have their genuinely good moments. Lewis tried his best to offset the harm he did to the elk and her calf, but now he thinks it wasn’t enough (he speculates a bit on why this might be, but I don’t think we ever really know, and that’s fine). The worldbuilding (sounds strange for something nominally set in the real world, but he’s still building the details of a place many of his readers won’t be familiar with) is fantastic. It acknowledges the truths behind some stereotypes while also showing us that there’s so much more to it than that. Both the Blackfeet and the Crow are represented here.
There’s definitely a content note for animal harm and death, not just in the expected places. It’s hard to read, but belongs in this story in a certain sense.
I can’t recommend this one highly enough. I’m still having trouble moving on to start another book because this one is stuck in my head!