After reading an article that called Stephen Graham Jones “the Jordan Peele of horror literature” I was really looking forward to The Only Good Indians. Sadly, Jones’ novel never quite lived up to its eerie premise. Then again, this may the case of ‘it’s not the book, it’s me’ or maybe I have just become inoculated to horror fiction (the last horror books I’ve read—The Bright Lands, Revenge, Empire of Wild—did not elicit any feelings of fear or anxiety in me).
Anyhow, just because I did not find The Only Good Indians to be a particularly good piece of horror doesn’t mean that I would want to discourage others from reading it (if you are thinking of picking up this book I encourage that you read some of the many positives reviews here on GR). So, before I move onto my criticisms, here are some positives.
Jones’ is an undoubtedly imaginative writer. It is refreshing to read stories that do not implement Western myths, and the vengeful deity at the heart of The Only Good Indians is inspired by the Native American myth of Deer Woman. I appreciated the way Jones’ calls out stereotypes about Native Americans (for example by having his characters fear that they will become another ‘statistic’ or that their behaviour will fuel harmful stereotypes). There was also a brief scene in which Jones contrasts the views and attitudes of younger and older members of the Blackfeet tribe. Jones’ use of repetition and onomatopoeias (such as: “the story her stepdad told her isn’t the real story, isn’t the one with feet on the ground and smoke in the air, bang bang bang.”) could also be quite effective.
And now, onto the things I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy (mild-spoilers below).
The pacing…is kind of all over the place. Maybe I approached this book with the wrong exceptions but I wasn’t too keen on the way Jones’ structured his story. The four friends mentioned in the summary are not at the core of this story. We have one chapter focusing on one character, then we spend quite some time with another character, and then we move to two other characters. While I understand that geography was in the way of our deity’s hunt for these men, I do think that weaving their storylines together would have created some more suspense. By the time we move to the last two characters, we know what will happen (and yes, surprise surprise, it does happen). Their stories felt kind of disjointed, their relationship with each other a mere echo. The story never builds a momentum but rather it thrusts us in scenes in which shit has already hit the fan. Take Lewis. From the very first page we meet him, he’s kind of lost it. There is no slow descent into madness. Because we only see him at his worst, I never had time to care for him. There were quite a few chapters that cut off before a scene had reached its zenith, and we are only retroactively told of what came next, so that the narrative lost a lot of its urgency.
The characters…well, they are kind of the same man. They are kind of messy, selfish, not too bright. They articulated themselves in the same exact way, they had no real interests or drive, they kind of just exist. When having sex with his girlfriend Lewis makes a joke about going “bareback” which yes, Lewis himself admits is a “stupid joke” but that this joke re-appears later on…yeah, it didn’t make me feel particularly sympathetic towards him. The only time he showed some depth is when he acknowledges his own conflicted feelings about being with a white woman (and of the possibility of fathering children outside his community). Other than that, Lewis remains a static character. I think that making his story a bit longer, and of slowing down his mental breakdown, would have made him a more dimensional character. The other two guys were mostly forgettable (one is a father, the other one has a girlfriend).
The female characters were hard to digest as they would have been far more at home in a novel published in the 80s. They are physically and emotionally strong, paragons of strength who when needed can transform into sexy temptresses (which begs the question: why would they ever choose to be with or flirt with these four walking-disasters?).
The younger characters were less one-dimensional but they play such small roles that they didn’t really make a huge impact on the story.
Now, onto the most disappoint thing of this book: the horror element. Jones’ horror relies on gory descriptions. I didn’t feel chilled or disturbed by the content of this book. While I do find scenes that depict violent deaths (blood and gore galore) to be somewhat disgusting, for the most part I was unshaken by Jones’ reliance on splatter which would have more in common with B-horror movies than Peele’s Get Out. These explicit scenes were not very shocking or terrifying, in fact, they had the opposite effect as their gaudiness could be unintentionally funny.
The final section was corny as hell, and didn’t really fit with the rest of the novel.
As I previously said, although I did not have a very high opinion of The Only Good Indians I wouldn’t discourage others from reading this novel. I don’t think I would have finished this novel if I’d read the book myself. The audiobook narrator gives a really good performance and he definitely kept me from DNFing this.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars