Mocking tradition comes at a price in Stephen Graham Jones’ captivating psychological horror novel, The Only Good Indians.

Lewis, a Native American just trying to get by working at the post office, has good friends, a devoted and beautiful wife, and basically everything he can ask for. The only problem is, something isn’t right with him. 

While standing on a ladder to fix a light in his living room, he looks down through a whirling ceiling fan and sees the image of an elk, or perhaps a woman, standing beneath him. Maybe it was the swirling motes of dust, he doesn’t know, but he becomes obsessed, taking pains to create a masking tape outline of the elk on the carpet to recreate it. His understanding wife helps him, passing strips of tape to him as he works on it, but he can’t seem to get it right. Not until Shaney, his co-worker and also Native American helps him complete it by making the elk look like one of those ancient drawings, alive in its stick figury-ness. Then, Lewis is struck by another thought; Shaney is possessed by the thing that is haunting him.  

Unable to be certain, Lewis draws Shaney in closer and she is all too willing to take a risk with him, but is it just a physical attraction, or is there something sinister within her? 

The reader follows Lewis’ steady psychological decline as he stops attending work, and Graham Jones unfolds a startling, visceral memory of a hunting trip where Lewis and his friends drive into the backcountry that only the tribal elders are supposed to hunt. There, they poach more elk than they are able to load into their truck. Despite trying to get out of there before the game wardens showed up–they only take the hind-quarters of the elk they slaughter–Lewis makes the mistake of looking a wounded, pregnant doe in the eye. As though suddenly realizing what he was doing was wrong, Lewis slows down, resisting the urge to flee, and treats the doe with reverence, skinning her and taking all portions despite his friends’ pleas to hurry, but this small ceremonial act isn’t enough, and they won’t get away with it. The warden is waiting for them at the end of the road. He makes them dump all of their kills back down into the valley, all except the doe Lewis begs to keep. 

This white man’s sin of taking more than you need, of abandoning tradition, is at the dark heart of the novel. Graham Jones cleverly establishes how the characters, living in poverty on the reservation, hate being from there but “love it” at the same time. They mock the traditions of their elders–one of them creates a sweat lodge out of dirty, dog hair-covered sleeping bags and goes through the ceremony sacrilegiously, drinking beer beforehand and playing recorded tribal drums throughout, which is to say nothing of the fact that the whole thing is just to score some cash: the local sheriff has paid him to include his kid, hoping the sweat will help him get clean.

Graham Jones’ writing is strikingly beautiful and haunting. The perspective is akin to being a ghost observing private moments undetected, which allows you, the reader, to creep close, wait so patiently that Lewis, like an elk stalked by a master hunter, can almost convince himself you’re not there, that it’s all in his head, until it is too late. 

A masterfully executed horror novel of the highest caliber, The Only Good Indians accurately captures the tension of being caught between the modern world and one that demands respect for a unique cultural heritage and identity, and the feeling of being adrift and out of place in both.

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  1. Elky stuff – Stephen Graham Jones

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