It’s National Native American Heritage Month here in the States, according to the Library of Congress. It’s also just after Halloween, when I keep finding candy wrappers all over the place, so why not be late about Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. Besides, this blog’s never been afraid of a retro review (remember that time we did a Stephen King series?). 

Blackfoot horror writer Stephen Graham Jones released his novel The Only Good Indians last year and I’ve read nothing but praise. However, I cracked it’s spine for a spooky read for Halloween ‘21. It’s a ride, to say the least. Against landscape where horror often reacts to external catalysts, The Only Good Indians observes a fully internal terror brought on by willful ignorance and selfishness. 

Like much good horror, the curse begins with youths, in this case Lewis, Gabe, Cass, and Ricky. These four Blackfeet go hunting one snowy Saturday before Thanksgiving in an area they are not permitted, reserved for the elders, and find the biggest elk herd they’ve ever seen. However, Lewis shoots a pregnant calf. The game warden catches them, and the curse follows them for the rest of their lives.

The taboo of shooting a pregnant animal comes to fore as the elk’s spirit turns vengeful and begins luring each to their deaths. Ricky and Lewis find themselves drawn by guilt off the reservation, where all their friends and family live. Like animals apart from their pack, the isolation in the wider world leaves them vulnerable. Ricky lives the solitary life of an itinerant worker in the oil industry. He feels lost in a sea of white faces. Being alone provides the perfect backdrop for the elk spirit to attack. Lewis, however, doesn’t remain alone for long, marrying Peta, a white woman, and getting a job at the post office where he has coworkers who will work on motorcycles with him. Among these, a young Crow woman, Shaney, draws the story of the elk hunt out of him, before Lewis becomes convinced that first she, then his wife, Peta, are merely incarnations of the elk spirit. This spirit of vengeance poisons whatever community it touches as it surrounds and overwhelms Lewis, driving him to murder the two women and be killed by police as he flees with what appears to be a baby elk.

Lewis and Ricky have fled their community, and been chased down by the spirit, but Cass and Gabe chose to remain behind. Besides the poaching incident, neither has kept a clean record with police either. Both abuse alcohol, though Cass sobers up once as he plans to marry. Gabe has married and divorced, now with a child of his own, Denorah, whom he is forbidden to see. Each finds himself separated from the tribe, despite his attempts to reconcile. Gabe, for example, nominally takes care of his father, only to steal from him in order to pawn his possessions off, including an antique Mauser rifle from World War I. In order to set both themselves and one of Denorah’s classmates on the right path, Cass and Gabe build a sweat lodge and perform a ceremony that, unbeknownst to them, the elk spirit will exploit to kill them. Unlike the other two Cass and Gabe recognize the importance of building up the next generation and yet the disconnect is too great for them to overcome. Their war with the elk spirit stems from their disrespect of the elders, as well as the shooting of a pregnant cow. It’s only by a respect completely alien to the four hunters that Denorah, now the elk spirit’s target, can escape it.

The pace at which the elk spirit wages its war of vengeance is terrifying as is the vivid gore it leaves in its wake. Four relatively short lives filled with problems that could seem mundane on a macroscale are actually a microcosm of a greater generational rift. It’s a chilling tale that belongs in any horror fan’s canon.

Four out of five stars.

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Favorite quote: “You realize that he’s made his fingertips into horse hooves, that it’s still the cavalry taking a shot at him, and finally getting lucky.”

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