Review and summary of The Only Good Indians by author Stephen Graham Jones
Spoiler Free Review
For the purposes of this review and synopsis I will be using the term “Indian” in reference to the characters. This is the term the book uses and this is to maintain consistency. Please don’t at me with any semantic complaints okay?
The Only Good Indians is a horror novel by Stephen Graham Jones that puts a Native American spin on a spiritual revenge story. I think spiritual is more accurate in this case than supernatural or paranormal because it has an air of folklore that could be truly believed instead of just used as a scare tactic to freak out children. These are the consequences of disrespecting the dead.
Lewis, Gabe, and Cass are all about to see what happens when they don’t follow the stereotypical adage of “using every part of the animal” that we were taught is so important to Indians. They killed a lot of elk 10 years ago but were unable to utilize their bodies due to the laws of modern hunting licenses. Now, they seem to be under attack by the ghost of one of those elk.
The basic premise of The Only Good Indians is an original take on a traditional horror story. The execution, however, is flawed.
A big indicator that a book just isn’t doing it for me is how often I end up on my phone instead of between the pages. I found myself picking it up at every chapter break. I just wasn’t that invested and the pacing wasn’t holding my attention.
There is good groundwork for getting me to care about the characters, they’re developed well, especially Lewis. But it took so long to get to the haunting and the action that I was surprised at how little I actually understood his motives when things suddenly got dark.
I believed that I was starting to understand this man but he switched gears so abruptly I felt lost. Instead of rooting for him I found myself questioning how a regular person could go so crazy so quickly. Many of the conflicts in The Only Good Indians could have easily been avoided had the characters just sat down for an adult conversation. Instead, they immediately turn on their oldest friends and loved ones without any real reason that couldn’t be explained.
Although the horror imagery of the novel is impressive there is a lot of wasted space in this novel. Author Jones clearly is able to set a scene and bring the picture to a cinematic level but I really didn’t care about the details of the characters playing basketball, regardless of how well it’s written.
These Indians really love to shoot some hoops. Cool, we all have our things. But there is really no advantage to reading dozens of pages about various basketball showdowns. It didn’t enhance the plot in anyway and the final basketball scene was so misplaced it felt downright silly. Definitely not a good way to enter the climax of a horror novel.
There were parts of The Only Good Indians that I did find very enjoyable but I was overall disappointed. In the end I’m not actually sure who I was supposed to be rooting for and if the ending was a happy one or not. Perhaps if the basketball was trimmed to be less of a distraction I could have felt more scared and less bored?
In the end I’m not remembering this novel as a folk horror but as a sports book, and that’s a problem.
3/5 elk 🦌🦌🦌
in order to keep me up to my ears in books please consider using the following affiliate links to purchase this product. it’s at no extra cost to you and would really help me out, thank you and happy reading!
If the only good Indian is a dead one, then she’s going to be the worst Indian ever.Stephen Graham Jones – The Only Good Indians
The Only Good Indians Synopsis
The horror novel starts with a Blackfeet Indian named Ricky getting killed outside of a roughneck bar. He sees a giant elk trash the big ego trucks in the lot but is blamed for it after the elk flees. The drunks chase him and he runs into a wall of elk, he’s trapped between the two entities that want him dead.
10 years later Lewis, an old friend of Ricky, is living a modest life married to a white woman named Peta and working at the Post Office. He calls up his old friends Gabe and Cass about the upcoming 10 year anniversary of an incident in which they killed a hoard of elk. He’s asking because he thinks he’s hallucinating an elk in his living room.
One day shortly after the phone call he comes home to find his dog mostly dead. It would appear that the dog tried to jump the fence and accidentally hung itself. This whole scene is very difficult for any dog lovers like myself. It’s truly sad how Lewis faults himself for this accident. Also consider this your warning for more dog violence to come, I know this is a trigger for a lot of people.
Shaken by this tragedy he finds himself spending more time with his work wife, a Crow Indian woman named Shaney. He confides in her the story of the elk incident, a story he hasn’t even told Peta (or the reader) fully.
We finally get a flashback to this tale. 10 years ago the group of men were illegally hunting on the last day of the season. In what they thought was their lucky break they chance upon a whole herd of elk trapped in the perfect spot next to a mountain. They kill 9 of them and now face the challenge of moving the meat.
They begin butchering in order to salvage the best parts and try to fit it all in the one truck. As they were butchering one lady elk just wouldn’t stay down. She needed to be shot 4 times and now its unusual yellow eyes haunt Lewis’ memories.
Peta walks in on Lewis and Shaney being alone together. They weren’t doing anything particularly nefarious but Peta is jealous that they appeared to be having an intimate conversation against her knowledge. That night they find their poor dog finally put out of his misery. However, it appears the dog was stomped to death which is not a particularly benevolent way of killing.
With this final blow Lewis opens up to Peta and tells her the final piece of the elk story. The elk that was shot 4 times was pregnant. He dressed the elk fully intending to honor its death but then the game warden showed up. He told the men that they could either pay the hefty fines on each body or throw all the meat back into the forest. In an absolute waste of a punishment they throw all the meat back. Lewis, however, keeps the hide of the pregnant elk.
Now Lewis begins to lose his mind. He sees a woman with an elk head on the other side of the train tracks and become paranoid. At first he suspects his wife is playing a trick on him. He ultimately decides to trust that she wouldn’t do that and starts to suspect Shaney instead. The next day his dog is no longer buried in the backyard.
He lures Shaney to his house in order to determine if she is the evil elk woman. Impulsively, he kills her in an “accident.” He manages to get her hair caught in his motorcycle wheel and scalps her completely in the garage. From this point out I was both impressed with the imagery of the death scene but also unconvinced that someone could lose it and turn to murder so quickly.
After her death he begins to doubt that she was even the elk head woman. He gets it into his head that if she was then her canine teeth would be ivory so he violently pries them out to check. Nope, not ivory.
Peta returns home and finds him covered in blood. In an almost comical scene of everything going wrong at once Peta falls and cracks her skull open. Deranged, Lewis begins to rip her teeth out as well. As he does he finds her stomach moving. He slices out a baby elk and flees with it.
He doesn’t get very far before he’s shot down by vigilantes who are then killed, save one, when a mysterious girl appears in their truck bed where a dead Lewis and baby elk were.
The Only Good Indians then shifts from Lewis’ story to that of Gabe and his daughter Denorah. With some chapters told in second person, addressing the reader as the elk head woman, we see that they are the next targets.
Gabe and Cass intend on having a sweat in honor of Lewis as well as to indict a young Indian teen into manhood with his first. As Cass is setting up the sweat lodge he sees about 90 head of elk down at the end of his property. Ominous.
During the sweat Gabe steps out to pee and finds all three of Cass’ dogs stomped to death. He decides he does not want to be the bearer of bad news and leaves them just as he found them to deal with after the sweat.
The elk head woman manipulates the scene so that Cass thinks Gabe killed the dogs and stole cash from him. Once again not fully understanding how someone could go from friends to murder rage so quickly Gabe ends up killing Cass and then himself. Maybe just get some water and talk it out a little bit first?
Denorah shows up at the sweat lodge to talk to her dad where she finds the elk woman in Shaney’s form. Sure. Then they engage in a way too long and way too detailed game of basketball. Why? Lord, I don’t know. I guess because the elk head woman wanted to humiliate her before killing her? All I know is that I really didn’t need over a dozen pages describing a pointless basketball game.
After a long foot chase and three whole deus ex machinas they arrive at the original killing field. Denorah protects the elk head woman from the final deus ex machina in an act of kindness that I guess is all she needed to stop the revenge rampage.
The elk woman kicks off her human skin and returns to the forest with a calf that was hidden amongst the old bones. Happy ending?
Briefest The Only Good Indians summary: men kill the wrong elk, get haunted 10 years later, go crazy very quickly, everyone dies, elk’s successful revenge ended with kindness and a new baby.