The Only Good Indians,” Stephen Graham Jones’s latest horror novel, sprints from start to finish. In a breathless prologue, a gang of angry white boys outside a North Dakota bar offs Richard “Ricky” Boss Ribs, a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

Ricky happened to be one of four friends — Lewis, Cassidy and Gabe the others — who participated in an illegal elk hunt on an elders-only section of the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana. A decade later, Lewis sees a young, dead elk on his living room floor, and, terrified he’s cursed, becomes convinced she’s the same pregnant cow he killed with his buddies. Has the elk come for revenge or is he hallucinating? In a tug-of-war between myth and reality, the book tracks Lewis and his two remaining friends to solve this mystery.

Jones, a Blackfeet writer who has published more than 20 books, “likes werewolves and slashers,” according to his author bio, but he has also spent a lifetime interpreting Native American culture and mythology for contemporary readers. So he does here, exploring Native American deer and elk mythology and delving into the importance of elk ivory. Mature elks have two ivory canines — prized by Native American jewelers as well as collectors — vestiges from a prehistoric era when elk had tusks.

Lewis, who is married to the white and aptly named Peta (a vegetarian), strikes up a relationship with Shaney, a Crow co-worker and former basketball star, and proceeds to tell her the full extent of his crime. Rather than getting the absolution he seeks, though, Lewis’s life spirals from copacetic to gruesome.

Jones writes in clear, sparkling prose. He’s simultaneously funny, irreverent and serious, particularly when he deploys stereotype as a literary device. Lewis gets “trophies for having avoided all the car crashes and jail time and alcoholism on his cultural dance card.” When a young boy tells Gabe, “Nobody says ‘Indian’ anymore,” Gabe quips. “One little, two little, three little Natives . . . doesn’t really sound right, does it?”

The three friends judge themselves harshly. They try to do right by the people who are in their lives, though not necessarily by those they’ve left behind. Lewis has worked for 10 years to be a good partner to Peta; Cassidy has finally managed to settle down with a Crow woman named Jo; and while Gabe has tanked his marriage, he struggles for a meaningful relationship with his daughter, Denora. Like the younger Shaney, Denora is a rising high school basketball star.

But the best intentions may not matter when you’re complicit in murdering a pregnant elk. And basketball may not quite be basketball, either, but instead a metaphor for what’s really in competition here — fate vs. human will. If that seems heavy for a book billed “one of 2020’s buzziest horror novels,” it’s not. “The Only Good Indians” is splashed with the requisite amounts of blood and gore, but there’s much more to it than that.

Martha Anne Toll is a Washington D.C.-based fiction writer and book reviewer.


By Stephen Graham Jones

Gallery/Saga Press. 320 pp. $26.99