Review: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Gallery/Saga Press (July 14, 2020)
320 pages: $20.63 hardcover; $12.99 e-book
Reviewed by Sadie “Mother Horror” Hartmann

I read an interview with Stephen Graham Jones where he said, I just figure I am Blackfeet, so every story I tell’s going to be Blackfeet.” (Uncanny Magazine/Julia Rios)

This one, simple statement is manifested in SGJ’s body of work; each book wildly different from the last, but distinctly identifiable as his own because they bear his fingerprints, unique storytelling voice and personal context.

Over the last few years, I have been a fan of his short fiction (“Dirtmouth”), novellas (Mapping the Interior), novels (Mongrels), and experimental fiction (The Last Final Girl). I will gladly show up for anything he has to offer.

The Only Good Indians begins with a swiftly-paced narrative, aptly balancing social commentary and real-time drama. Readers are drawn into the life of a Blackfeet Native American named Lewis. It takes only a few sentences to fall in love with him. He has an infectious personality when he’s interacting with those around him, but it’s Lewis’ inner thought life that reveals his sense of  humor and vibrancy I found so endearing.

The narrative is two-fold: Lewis’ present day circumstances peppered with flashbacks to an elk hunting trip with his friends. It becomes increasingly clear that whatever transpired during this hunting trip almost a decade ago has haunted Lewis all of his days. Something bad happened there. 

As Lewis goes through his day-to-day life, an unsettling suspense begins to build surrounding Lewis’ past; it’s almost unbearable as Stephen Graham Jones expertly winds the tension tighter and tighter and tighter until there is an unexpected break. We finally learn Lewis’ secrets and once the reader sees the truth—you can’t unsee it. It colors everything from that moment forward. 

This is the magic of SGJ’s storytelling—everything comes at you from all sides. A barrage of human experiences told through people who feel real to you, their feelings uncomfortably tangible. Stephen Graham Jones expertly switches POVs, head-hops, transitions the entire story into a new one halfway through, kills his darlings with unflinching decisiveness, and basically is able to get away with everything authors are told to never do. SGJ makes his own way, by his rules. And thank goodness for that.

This is a story that is shared so intimately, it’s hard to separate and let go of the connection that is formed when it’s over. I almost feel possessive of it—this book is mine! Nobody will engage with it the way I did!

I wonder if other readers will experience that same feeling of ownership over this story? There is something so devastatingly heartbreaking as a reader to feel a kinship to a protagonist and his story but at the same time, know that the stakes are too high—the hunter has become the prey. I wanted to jump through the pages and protect Lewis from what I was sure was coming for him.

I loved the time I invested in this story. There were some major payoffs—the ending is spectacular. This will likely be the book that catapults SGJ’s name on the lips of all readers, not just die-hard horror junkies who already know and love his work. He’ll be everyone’s new favorite and it is well deserved. This is the new benchmark for slasher/revenge stories—SGJ just flipped the script and staked a new claim. A gold standard for the genre.

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