I can’t even tell you the last time I read a horror novel that was from an author not named Stephen King or Joe Hill. Enter Stephen Graham Jones and his 2020 novel, The Only Good Indians, which I largely read over the course of a few sittings today. The title is taken from the idiom, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” which I think can be taken literally, as in, killing them off, and figuratively, as in, corralling them to the reservations “out of sight, out of mind.”
In Jones’s book, four Indian friends, Lewis, Cass, Gabriel, and Ricky, are out hunting elk one day, when they decide to go into the “illegal” part of the reservation meant only for the elders. There, they come upon a nine-elk herd, where they start blasting away with their guns. Lewis comes down to his elk, meaning to skin it and take the meat, only to find that she is still alive. He shoots her. She’s still alive. He shoots her again. Then, as he’s carving the hide off, he realizes she was pregnant with a baby calf. He buries the calf.
What those four men decided to do that day, a few days before Thanksgiving in what has been deemed the, “Thanksgiving Classic,” haunts them as they approach the 10-year anniversary of the event, even as Lewis, who is married now, and Ricky, who isn’t, leave the reservation. Lewis becomes paranoid that he is seeing the Elk Head Woman, the same one he killed 10 years ago, he becomes convinced his colleague at the United States Post Office is her, so he kills her. Brutally. Then he checks her teeth for ivory to prove her elkness. After that, in his state of paranoia, for all intents and purposes, he “allows” his wife to die in a tragic accident, and he also searches her teeth for ivory to see if she’s the Elk Head Woman. The police end up shooting him, I believe.
Ricky is killed after a bar dispute, as the headlines in the newspaper declare, but the insinuation is that he was the first victim of the Elk Head Woman. Or at least, she set him up and then trapped him so as to be killed in a bar dispute.
So, were Lewis and Ricky paranoid and delusional, or were they legitimately being stalked, haunted, and preyed upon by the Elk Head Woman seeking her revenge for them killing her calf? It turns out to be the latter, and is made all the more clear when she kills a police officer, his son, Nathan (although, he could still be alive at the end of the book, but it is doubtful), Cass and Gabriel, and Cass’s girlfriend, Jo. Technically speaking, Cass and Gabriel got into a dispute that led to Gabriel inadvertently killing Jo, and Jo inadvertently mortally wounding Nathan, and then in revenge, thinking Cass had killed his daughter, Denorah, Gabriel kills Cass. Only then does Elk Head Woman threaten to kill Gabriel’s daughter for real if he doesn’t off himself, so he offs himself.
But she set it all in motion! As it happens, Denorah shows up where this all took place anyway, and what commences is a fierce … one-on-one game of basketball between Denorah and the Elk Head Woman, who is disguised as a human woman. That is a real sentence of what happened in the book. Denorah is an incredible 14-year-old basketball star, and is hoping to use that to elevate the image of the Indian and her people. But Elk Head Woman, so headstrong in her determination for revenge, not only wants to kill Denorah — a calf for a calf — but she wants to destroy her spirit by beating her in a pickup basketball game.
A few shenanigans happen before we can see who would have won the game, although Denorah was winning, and the climax leads Denorah and Elk Head Woman back to the bones of her fellow elk from 10 years ago, and her calf. That is where Denorah makes the decision to end the cycle of violence and revenge, and in so doing, her story has become legendary, and is part of the oral tradition passed down Indian to Indian for generations.
My thought, of course, was that the fight between the elk and the Indians was a metaphor for the fight between the white man and Native Americans. That the white man took everything from the Native Americans, even their children, and when they made promises, those promises were broken. That everything about how messed up these four men are stems from their choices to be deliberately malicious and wrongheaded toward the elk herd. And it haunts them 10 years out. I think my interpretation falls short in regards to the fact that I’m not sure white men of their time ever felt remorse or were haunted by what they had done to the Native Americans? At least, I’m not steeped enough in that history to know of any notable examples, but what I do know of is the title of the book, and the fact that the expression exists for a reason!
As for my interpretation of why basketball … I have no clue. I mean, a lot of what Denorah learned from her coach applied to her evasion of the Elk Head Woman, so, maybe it is that simple. I try not to read reviews of a book from others before writing my own, so as to not be influenced, but this sentence is an addendum after I finished mine: A Washington Post article said basketball, particularly the one-on-one scene, was a metaphor for fate vs. human will. I could see that, because Denorah was determined to win, and Elk Head Woman didn’t think it was possible for Denorah to win.
As horror, particularly both a revenge tale, and creature horror, I thought Jones’s book was fun, with a loose, if campy, writing style. And weird as heck, but fun. I wouldn’t have minded if Lewis, and the rest of the gang, really were paranoid and just suffered either a psychotic break (as Lewis did) or hit a path of bad luck leading to their inadvertent downfall. Nonetheless, that Elk Head Woman legitimately existed and sought her revenge made for an interesting, if again, deeply weird, climax between her and Denorah.