Here’s a little horror novel that was nothing like what I expected. It is at the same time a contemporary psychological thriller with horror elements and a treatise on some of what I think are foundational, critical elements of Native American ideology. At its heart are themes of fear and retribution, and the deep connection between man and nature. Native American writer Tommy Orange remarked that The Only Good Indians was “more than [he] could have asked for in a novel,” and I couldn’t agree more; this is not just a novel, it is philosophy-as-raw-nerve.
I first heard of this one from young adult writer Andrew Smith, who raved about it early in the summer, back when the book was first released. He also recently cited it as one of his favorite reads of 2020. I read a lot of what Smith recommends because he’s one of my favorite writers, so it makes sense that I can trust his recommendations. Like Andrew, I was caught off guard by this one. At first, I was disappointed that it didn’t read like a traditional American horror novel, a la King, Koontz, etc. I think what The Only Good Indians does so well, though, is that it carves into the genre from a unique perspective and with unheard stories to deliver. It is similar to another horror novel released to wide acclaim this year, Mexican Gothic (my review of which will be available soon) in that the heart of its tale is not horror for horror’s sake, but the specific horror manifested by a particular culture, time, and place. These are stories that couldn’t be told by anyone else and, if they were, they’d lose the importance and the charm they carry across so effectively.
The story itself revolves around a group of friends who commit an atrocity against nature and tradition. Years later, on the anniversary of this terror, they suddenly find themselves prey to an unnatural and insurmountable force that has come to seek retribution for what was done. Some of the friends are eliminated quite quickly, while others are teased and toyed with, and then eliminated. There’s a deep discomfort in the way they are hunted that is metaphorically indicative of the terror that human hunters bring to their own prey. I thought Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” was the best rendered version of this tale imaginable, with the likes of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale coming in close, but Stephen Graham Jones really turns this theme on its head. Never have I felt truly vulnerable as a human being, the way animals must feel when we come for them, and their children.
I will admit that I found the structure of the story a bit underwhelming. The parts develop into more and more complexity, with additional characters added into each of the friends’ storyline, and then in the final section, the original happenings, those that were the impetus for the friends’ downfalls, is recounted. I couldn’t help but find myself wishing for a more linear and balanced segmentation; but that said, the ingenuity, the raw emotion, and the cultural significance of this one are impossible to ignore. For fans of horror, Native American folklore, ecoterrorism and conservation, or any combination of those.