Author Stephen Graham Jones on his new horror novel, The Only Good Indians
Author Stephen Graham Jones‘ latest novel, The Only Good Indians, released last week via Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press imprint, is the first horror novel that I’ve read in a good long while to really affect me. There came a point in the novel where I legitimately set the book down, walked away, and didn’t come back for a solid two days. It’s a short scene in a novel that encompasses past traumas, generational issues, identity, and more, but it honestly left me shaken and more than a little freaked out.
That said, the book’s short blurb, which describes it as a novel which “follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way,” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what The Only Good Indians has to offer.
Therefore, it was with some great elation that I hopped on the phone last Friday to speak with Stephen Graham Jones about his book, its ideas, and his own history with horror.
The Pitch: Throughout The Only Good Indians, all the characters have these mental headlines which go through their minds during stressful or doubtful moments. Even the opening line of the novel is “The headline for Richard Boss Ribs would be INDIAN MAN KILLED IN DISPUTE OUTSIDE BAR.” Do you have one for yourself regarding the book’s release?
Stephen Graham Jones: “LOCAL AUTHOR SURPRISED ANYBODY’S ACTUALLY READING HIS BOOK.”
It’s doing really well. I’m looking at Amazon’s listings for stuff on Kindle right now and in horror fiction, you’re number three, in between two Stephen King books. You’re doing better than Stephen King’s newest book, even. Why do you think of yourself as a local author?
Every author’s local to someplace, you know?
Reading the book, it starts out at night and as it progresses, it seems to move more into the daylight in terms of where it’s set. Was that journey something that was intentional?
No, it wasn’t. That’s really cool, thinking about that. It makes sense for a whole novel to move from the lighted spaces to the shadowy space in the forest but that wasn’t intentional at all. I had that happen with my first horror story collection. The guy who wrote the introduction for it, Laird Barron, noted how most of these stories come from childhood and that surprised me, too. I didn’t see myself doing that, but I always end up doing things I don’t think about doing.
Anything that takes that takes place during the daylight, where things can’t be hidden, seems like a really hard thing to do. Even movies like Midsommar are a rarity. Was presenting it all this way a means by which all the characters could see what was coming for them?
I wanted Lewis to have a pretty good sense of what might be happening, or what he thinks might be happening. Ricky, of course, never really figures it out. That lightness and darkness thing: I wonder if it’s just about hunting hours? You’re supposed to hunt in the daylight – it’s illegal to shoot at night – and so, in the first part of the novel, we have to get the hunt onto the page. After that, in the nighttime, the punishment comes for the hunt.
The entire book hinges on the hunters becoming the hunted. Are you a hunter?
Yeah, I grew up hunting the same fields and the same places. I guess I started hunting on the reservation when I was probably 12 or so, and have been doing it ever since.
Sharing is such a big part of hunting. You don’t just keep it for yourself, and the idea in the book is that they attempt to mitigate what they’ve done by giving the food away. That seems to keep things at bay, but what brings it back to them is the idea that the last of it has been finally eaten, and that’s what brings the elk on their trail?
You’re right that sharing the meat is a big part of hunting. Back when – 10,000 years ago or as recently as 2-300 years ago – that was how you kept your people alive. When that last a little bit of meat is actually wasted in the sense that it was fed to dogs and not given to the elders, that is the final trespass which dooms them.
The wide variety of these four friends lake and how their paths have gone, it seemed they’re all very real. All of the characters in this book feel like they were drawn from real-life experiences. Are these people you’ve known or once-removed people who knew people you knew sort of thing?
When I look at each character, they’re not a single person my life but they’re generally characteristics and traits of two people, maybe three people but they’re all people that I’ve hunted with, generally.
The one I’m most interested in is Denorah, who takes such a big part of the back half of the book. There’s always the idea where it seems that sports are always one of the few escapes for people who were in marginalized communities –
Yeah, I agree.
But with Denorah, it feels as though she’s much more aware of the possible limitations of that. How do you get in the head of a sixteen-year-old girl who plays basketball?
The way I got in the head of Denorah was that when I was writing The Only Good Indians, my daughter was sixteen. I just am around my daughter all the time – every hour I can be – just watching her grow up and just be herself. I wanted to try to capture a little bit of that.
The part of the book that affected me most not necessarily emotionally but viscerally is the motorcycle scene. When I got to that scene I set the book down and walked away from it for about two days, because it feels like it’s a line in the sand where you’re like, “This is where this is going.” Was it intended to be sort of like a test of the reader?
It’s like, “If you can keep going here, you’re gonna be okay,” but I like that because it is unflinching. That’s what I wanted as a horror writer. That’s really cool that you took the two-day break after that because I think that’s a good place to take a break in that novel. I don’t know if a minute is a test. I guess with a horror novel, all those moments are tests, really–every little spook, scare, gore–but just structurally, I was at a point in a novel where the narrative needed a spike or the dramatic line needed a spike, so I just tried to rig up the sharpest spike I could think of.
That was definitely sharp, but I think you almost double down on it later on. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but there’s the scene at Cassidy’s with the truck? I’ll just leave it at that.
Usually, I don’t feel guilty about the scene I’m writing, but I felt bad about that one. I think it’s largely because I liked that character and I didn’t want anything bad to happen to that character, but something bad happened—and not only bad, but something terrible, and then I describe it down to the granular level. I felt bad for sensationalizing the last moment of that character, whom I really liked.
But, I think as a horror writer, that’s kind of your job. You’ve got to go into unthinkable places. If you’re making yourself uncomfortable, then you know you’re forging into good territory.
As a genre fan, it seems that Native voices are really making a greater appearance in the horror genre as of late, in a much more visible way. There’s the movie, Blood Quantum, which hit Shudder earlier this year, or the short story collection, Taaqtumi, which came out at the end of last year and was probably one of the creepier things I had read until I read your book. Is it satisfying to be part of a wave of voices in a genre where Native characters have been very much fetishized or caricatures, if not outright racist depictions?
It’s nice to be part of like a wave or a group or a movement–whatever we’re going to call it–but to say it in a different way, it’s just nice not to be alone. It’s nice to know that. It’s wonderful to look around and see that I’m not the only Native in genre stuff. It makes me think that together, we can all get something done. We don’t all have to be calling each other and saying, “I’ll do this, you do that.” We don’t have to organize and plan or anything, but it’s just–for so long, I think the market and probably the Academy or universities have only been interested in native stories and native fiction that stays really close [to a particular narrative].
If you can see literature and fiction as a tree, it stays close to the trunk, because it’s not grown up enough yet to dare to go out on the thin branches of the genre, but I don’t think we need to wait for permission to run out on those branches. I think we can do it, ourselves. I hope we can jump over the critics and we can jump in straight to the market.
To tell you the truth, the first to do that in a really good way was Rebecca Roanhorse with Trail of Lightning. It felt like she was saying, “I don’t need your permission. I’m gonna do this anyway,” and that’s how things get started.
How did you personally come to horror–what was your gateway into the genre?
My gateway would have been when I was in junior high. Growing up, we lived all over Texas. We were always throwing that stuff our bags in the car and moving on to the next town. One town we lived in for ten months, maybe, was Wimberley, Texas, down by Austin. I got to runnin’ about the group of other junior highers, and one of them had a friend who worked at the video rental store and every Friday after school, he would sneak over to the video store and come back with a stack of slasher VHS’s–Jason, Freddy, Michael, Leatherface, all that–and another friend had a house out in the trees and a little garage that was not connected to the house. His dad had put a couch, a little TV, and a VCR there in the garage,
We would pile onto that couch, eight of us, and just watch Freddy and Jason and Michael and Leatherface and whatever scary stuff we could steal from the video store for the night. Then, about two in the morning this guy’s dad would get deep enough into his twelve back that he would put on a Freddy glove and sneak out to the garage and scatch his on plastic blades down the metal door. We would scream and scream and we’d run out the side door of that garage through the black trees, running for the creek. If we could run and jump in the creek, we were safe.
That feeling of just running with absolute terror to the trees with tears going back to my eyes – and laughing at the same time–I think that programmed me to not just love horror, but I think it was programmed me, specifically, for slashers, really. I’m always looking for that feeling.
There was, yeah–I mean aside from Stephen King. Everybody’s interested in Stephen King. I read Tommyknockers and it changed me when I was 16, but in the very front part of ’97 I’m working on my Ph.D. at Florida State and the hard-line that I gave myself for doing graduate work was that I’m there to write. I better do the work–I’m not there to go do fun things, you know?
One night I’m at my apartment–just tapping away at the keyboard and a friend comes and knocks on the door and he says, “Hey, man, I’m taking you to the movie. You got to see this one. I said, “Nah, man–I’m writing. Sorry.” That’s what I tell everybody who comes asking and he said, “No, I’m taking me the movie,” and I said, “Listen, I’m in the middle of something. Maybe we can do it next week, yeah?” He finally insisted enough that it was just easier to go with him than it was to tell him, “No.”
So, he dragged me to movies and the movie he dragged me to was Scream. Kevin Williamson was that writer for me. He told me that the things that are closest to my heart can be things that other people get a rush from. I sat there and I watch Scream and my brain and my mind and my life were changing as I was watching it. Then I went back the next six nights on my own, in a row. I still watch and read Scream all the time. It’s one of my addictions, I guess.
That’s a story that makes a lot of sense because Scream is about taking previously existing ideas and twisting them into something new and presenting them in a way that hasn’t been done before. You’ve done that with some of your books, with Demon Theory presented as a screenplay and Ledfeather has elements of epistolary fiction–which, by the way, I’m a huge sucker for. There’s just something I love when authors are like, “I’m gonna tell this story in a way that makes you have to work for it a little bit.” Writing a story in a different style like a screenplay or with elements of letters or, as in The Only Good Indians, where there are news stories and the short story interstitial, “Moccasin Telegraph”–what does that offer to you as a writer?
Like you, I’m not only a sucker for epistolary, but I love flash fiction that is like, a recipe for soup, but it’s actually a story. Lorrie Moore had those second-person things where it was like, how to do this, how to do that, where it was how to put a desk together, but it was actually a story. If I could have a favorite genre of anything, it’s those stories that aren’t supposed to be stories, but get a story across, anyway. I just love alternate forms.
One of my novels, Not For Nothing, is a second-person crime novel. Second-person is really hard to juggle and manage, and it’s not just that I love the challenge, but that I love the fact that story can bubble up through anything. I’m always trying on other forms, myself. They don’t all work, but I learn something from each attempt, I think.
Your book came out in the midst of like a very big week of news regarding Native causes and while I know it wasn’t planned to be timed like this but The Only Good Indians‘ release dovetails not only with the idea that we were talking about earlier, with the rise of sort of genre fiction and stuff like that but the football team from Washington changing their name, the shutdown of the Dakota Access pipeline, and the legal decision regarding Oklahoma. People are finally recognizing native voices on literally a national legal level where you have a Supreme Court justice recognizing, “Hey, this was a treaty that was made in perpetuity.” How do you take that news in while you’re also trying to talk about your book?
My first—strategy’s probably the wrong word …etiquette, maybe?—is that I want to give that stuff priority because, at the end of the day, I’m an entertainer and this stuff with Oklahoma, with the Redskins, and the pipeline? All that stuff that matters and that changes the world. I’m so completely thrilled that it’s happening and that it’s happening in the same mini epoch that my book is coming out is wonderful, of course. It’s just totally coincidental, you know.
Your books have covered so many different topics and styles. Do you consciously shy away from directly addressing things that are going on right now to try more for universal topics, as opposed to particular political issues?
I don’t know about universal. I just tend to—like everybody, you know?—I just write about the things that thrill me or make me mad at the moment, and sometimes, I’m behind the times, and sometimes, by pure chance, I’m ahead of the times. My novella I have coming out in September, Neither Mannequins, there’s a father who, ironically, loved to wear a Redskins hat while he was mowing the lawn. He thinks that’s the most hilarious thing ever. I wrote that last year, but that’ll come out after this thing is over.
You always get warned, as a writer, that if you try to write about the hot topic thing at the moment then you miss it. You come in late because a book takes so long to get to the shelf. I just write about the things that are currently thrilling me or making me mad.
Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians is out now from Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press.