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The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham JonesUK edition5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Only Good Indians is brutal and wrenching. On the surface, it’s a classic body-count revenge story with a ghostly animistic twist, recontextualizing the old horror trope of a killer coming back on the anniversary of a terrible tragedy to enact violent karmic justice on those who wronged them. On a deeper level, it deals with its four principal characters in a crisis of purpose and connection, a kind of personal and cultural limbo where traditional ways take a backseat to modern life, and living as an indigenous person means reconciling yourself to adapting to a culture that did its level best to destroy your own.

Lewis, Cassidy, Ricky and Gabe are four men of the Blackfeet Nation who, ten years before the story opens, made a fateful decision to go hunting for elk on the final day of the season in an area of the reservation set aside for elders. They hit the jackpot, slaughtering an entire herd, including a pregnant cow, before being busted by the game warden and forced to abandon all the fresh meat. The massacre has left all of them with varying feelings of guilt, especially Ricky and Lewis, both of whom leave the reservation to start new lives. Lewis, in particular, finds himself comparing their massacre of the elk to how the Blackfeet themselves were slaughtered under colonization and expansion. Now, ten years on, who should come calling but the vengeful spirit of the mother elk.

Ricky has gone east to South Dakota. Lewis has moved to Great Falls, married a white woman, and works at the post office where a younger Native woman, a Crow, is flirting with him. Gabe is mostly estranged from his family, but devoted to his teenage daughter Denorah, a rising basketball prodigy who might very well be looking at a scholarship. Moving on has not exactly meant putting the past to rest for any of these men. There’s a sense of inertia, that their roots have been pulled up and nothing is really anchoring them. They are all, in some very real ways, punishing themselves.

Ricky is killed first. Then Lewis begins seeing apparitions, of the dead elk cow on his living room floor, of a woman with an elk’s head casting shadows on the walls. From the first moment, Lewis knows what is happening and what is coming for him, and he understands exactly why. Life goes from normal to bad to worse with terrible speed and inevitability.

Jones’s prose has the rough edge and verbal economy of classic pulp writing. It makes his storytelling feel tactile and lived in. It’s not the flowing and endlessly descriptive text of Stephen King, but something earthier and more stripped down, like the difference between riding in a vintage Chevy pickup truck with the windows down rather than a climate-controlled Escalade. It’s the kind of writing that makes the story’s character development deeply empathic and heart-wrenching. Every emotion in the book is so real it’s almost like a physical presence. And the scenes of shock and gore deliver a truly visceral impact rather than feeling cheap and exploitive. The book’s entire midsection, featuring Cassidy and Gabe and taking place in a sweat lodge, may be one of the most intense and deeply felt sequences I’ve read in a horror novel. Jones treats it as a slow burn, first drawing us into the friendship and the history between the characters and then bringing everything to a climax so brutal I had to put the book down for a couple of days to process it.

In my review of Night of the Mannequins, I mentioned that Jones does have something of a lighter side in his fondness for popular horror conventions, and The Only Good Indians lets our revenge killer face off with a Final Girl, as it falls upon Gabe’s daughter Denorah to take on Elk Head Woman in the climactic showdown. When it comes to subverting expectations, there’s probably nothing quite like having victim and killer begin their final battle over a basketball game. But this is how Jones throws us off balance just enough so that we’re completely vulnerable to the catharsis in the final pages. The Only Good Indians brings Stephen Graham Jones’s considerable gifts and distinctive voice to a powerful story about regret and consequences, reconciliation, and the power and courage to say “This ends here.”