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Sins of the past – ‘The Only Good Indians’ Featured

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The last decade or so has seen an explosion of indigenous voices in the realm of speculative fiction. Native American and First Nations authors have always used elements of their respective cultures in their work, but the last 10 years has seen a real growth of distinct and diverse voices in the realms of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and the like.

One of the most prolific – and most talented – indigenous genre authors working right now is Stephen Graham Jones. In many ways, Graham, with his two dozen books over the past couple of decades, has led the way – he’s definitely a huge part of the vanguard.

His latest novel is “The Only Good Indians” (Gallery, $26.99), a tense and thrilling work of horror fiction. It’s a tale of the consequences – both mundane and supernatural – that spring from the decisions that are made. A decade ago, four friends embarked on a fateful hunting trip – one whose aftermath cast a ten-years long shadow over their lives … and the price ultimately paid.

Ten years ago, a quartet of Blackfeet – lifelong friends – took to the woods to go elk hunting. The four of them were young and vibrant, just kids really, and decided to take their hunt into forbidden territory, venturing into the area reserved for hunting by tribal elders only. In the course of that trip, they stumbled upon a massive herd – and they opened fire. However, they were caught in the act by the local authorities. They were forced to abandon their kill and had their tribal hunting privileges revoked.

Subsequently, they drifted apart – some more literally than others. The events of that night faded into the past, becoming part of the local lore, a story shared back and forth by others on the reservation. Even the ones directly involved – Ricky, Gabe, Cass and Lewis – let the fateful day fade into memory as they moved forward with their lives.

But something didn’t forget.

Now, the four men find themselves confronted by the unforeseen consequences of their long-ago actions. There is something out there, something relentless and deeply powerful. Something that desires nothing more than to make these men pay for their offenses. Something seeking a particularly vicious variety of vengeance.

“The Only Good Indians” is an incredible book, a work that blends the trappings of classic horror fiction with sharp and concise social commentary. It’s a rare novel that can be both genuinely thought-provoking and darkly unsettling, all in service to an engaging and compulsively readable narrative. This book is just such a rarity.

When reviewing a work like this, one must be extremely careful. It’s important to give a sense of the storyline – that’s always a big selling point with genre fiction – but there’s so much value in the subtext and surprises that Jones has constructed. Spoilers should always be avoided, but this book warrants special care – there’s a LOT you shouldn’t know going in.

Jones also does a tremendous job opening a window of insight onto the indigenous mentality. The personalities and attitudes with which he endows his characters are truly evocative. He presents these men and women as they are, flaws and all. He weaves together threads of pride and pain to create a sense of not just what these people do, but who they are.

And these people populate a world that … is. As in, the small details and moments that Jones has brought together to construct a setting that feels utterly genuine, even in service to elements that are beyond the ken. The lives that these people lead and the places in which those lives are lived, all of it grounded in a reality that feels truthful without the least bit of contrivance.

Lest we forget, however, “The Only Good Indians” is a horror novel. And let me tell you, it more than lives up to the expectations of the genre. There are moments that are genuinely chilling, the kind of scary that makes you put the book down and take a deep breath. The kind of scary that forces you to remind yourself that this world isn’t your world. It gets gruesome at times, but never gratuitously; the whole book radiates with a raw intensity that embeds itself into your experience.

(No spoilers, but there’s a part of this book – centered around a one-on-one basketball game, of all things – that might be the most heartstoppingly hold-your-breath intense stretch of writing that I’ve read this year, regardless of genre. You’ll know it when you get there; just strap in and hold on.)

“The Only Good Indians” is the best kind of genre fiction – the kind that treats its genre with genuine respect. This isn’t just a great horror novel. It’s a great novel, period. We’re lucky that writers like Stephen Graham Jones choose to turn their tremendous talents toward the speculative. And when those writers also have important things to say and reasons to say them, well … that’s when you get something unforgettable.

Last modified on Friday, 31 July 2020 08:25

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