Horror, Weird Fiction, and Slasher Justice in ‘The Only Good Indians’

Posted by Cybil on July 1, 2020
In the horror writer trade, creepy images are a prized commodity. Come up with a really good one and you’ve got a tremendous head start toward the ultimate goal—scaring the bejesus out of your audience. A strong central image will worm into the reader’s head and get to those brain stem synapses where the really scary stuff lives.

With his new horror novel, The Only Good Indians, author Stephen Graham Jones conjures one of the most effective scary images to ever hover in that magical space between readers’ eyes and the page. Jones’ story tells of four young Native American men who encounter a kind of supernatural entity risen from the bloody soil of the North American continent. Known only as the Elk Head Woman, the entity is part ghost, part avenging nature spirit, and part psychic manifestation of trauma that has long haunted the land.

By way of precise phrasings and small, startling details, Jones gets into your head. Elk Head Woman lives in the space between spaces. You might catch a glimpse if you’re in just the wrong place at just the wrong time.

Jones’ scary stories probe a little deeper than your average genre tale, and the author is known for mixing literary stylings into his speculative fiction. Calling in from his home in Colorado, he spoke to Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about the new novel, the old Omni magazine, superior verbs, and the clockwork mechanics of classic horror.



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Goodreads: Do you recall the genesis of this story, the initial idea that sparked it?

Stephen Graham Jones: I do, yeah. About two years ago, my wife and I and the kids, we rented a house. It had a really tall living room with a spotlight right above the mantel. The light seemed to be haunted—it would come on at completely random times. I got up there on a ladder one day to try to figure it out. While I was up there, I found myself looking down at the room through the blades of the ceiling fan.

GR: That’s the incident that starts the book—that particular frequency or rotation of the blades gives a glimpse into this other world.

SGJ: Yeah, that’s it. I thought: I wonder what I could be seeing.

GR: Aside from thriller elements, the book has fascinating details on how kids grow up in a reservation community out West. Is that how you grew up?

SGJ: I grew up in West Texas, but it wasn’t on a reservation. We were in cotton farming land, oil field land. It was way out in the country. Sitting on the porch, you couldn’t see a neighbor, couldn’t see lights, nothing. I’ve been on reservations, but I wouldn’t know it as intimately as someone who grew up there.

GR: You also have some great descriptions of one-on-one basketball; it seems like you must have a particular passion for that game?

SGJ: I remember in seventh grade, we had to try out for the junior high basketball team. I didn’t make it. I wasn’t good. I was down at the other end of the court just crying and crying. Next year I made the team, I eventually made varsity. But I remember my coach would tell me, “Stephen, I know you like basketball, but when you grow up you can’t eat basketballs. You have to do something else.”

I thought I would go to college and play ball. Nowadays, I’ve had so many knee and ankle surgeries that if I try to play I’m going to end up on the operating table yet again. So I make myself stay away. I’m not going to be able to grow old with basketball like I wanted to. The only way I can play is on the page. That’s probably why I get so into the one-on-one games that I write about.

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GR: I read that you were a reader of the beloved science fiction magazine Omni when you were a kid.

SGJ: Well, I wasn’t there at the get-go—it started in 1978 or something—but as a kid I used to get Omni at our local store. We would go to the store about once every couple of weeks. I kind of blame [longtime Omni fiction editor] Ellen Datlow for my taste in books. Blame her or thank her, I don’t know which. Those stories that she picked way back when are the first stories that I felt like I found on my own, rather than having a teacher give them to me. You prize those kinds of stories in a different way, when they’re just out in the world and you happen to snag them.

Actually, Omni was trying to come back about a year ago and Ellen was back as fiction editor. She asked for a story and I wrote two, because I wanted to make sure I got into Omni. To me, that just closed the circle. But then the new Omni folded before the second print issue. So I didn’t get to be in Omni. [ed. note: Omni is still in limbo, but the magazine website is encouraging readers to stay tuned.]

GR: It feels like your new book brushes up against the tradition of weird fiction, which is a slightly different kind of vibe than mainstream horror. Your characters have an encounter with a deeper reality.

SGJ: For me, there’s a difference between weird fiction and horror fiction. Horror fiction is, somebody goes out and sees a bear and fights the bear or runs away from the bear—but either way the bear is dispensed with. Whereas weird fiction is, somebody goes out one day and sees a little flutter at the edge of a curtain or a wall. Peek through, you see things you’re not supposed to see. Maybe it’s the vastness of the universe, or a realization about the insignificance of human life.

Now usually you escape that and come back to the real world, after your encounter with whatever it was. But now you’re changed by what you’ve seen. I think weird fiction is scarier than horror. It fills you with dread. Horror uses dread, but really its currency is terror. Whereas weird fiction, it’ll unsettle you in a different way.

GR: The story has this suggestion that the characters are actually peeking through to other realms of cause and effect, and justice.

SGJ: Right, and it’s a closed cycle of justice. In horror, there are open cycles of justice and closed cycles of justice. Open cycle is, someone’s walking down the street and a demon jumps into them, possesses them. They didn’t do anything to invite this demon in, it’s just random. Closed cycle is, same guy is walking down the street and they kick over the cup of some homeless person. Then a demon jumps into their head. That’s a closed cycle of justice because they invited that demon in. They invoked the demon.

To me, The Only Good Indians is a closed cycle of justice. The four guys in the story, they’re good guys, but they did something they shouldn’t have done, and they’re going to get punished. To me, that’s the great thing about justice in horror—slashers, in particular. It proposes a world that’s fair, where bad is punished and good is rewarded. Of course, that’s not the way the real world is. But I think that’s why we turn to horror in these kinds of troubled times. We want to believe in that fantasy of justice.

GR: That’s fascinating, I never heard of that. Now I want to look that up, the idea of closed and open systems of justice in horror.

SGJ: Well, I think I’m the only person who proposes that. Look it up and you’re just going to find me talking about it. [Laughs.]

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GR: Throughout the book, you present this image of the menacing Elk Head Woman, which is a really specific kind of creepy. It’s very primal. Can you talk about finding that image?

SGJ: Actually, I think I robbed it from Elizabeth LaPensée. I had one of her comic books on my desk for a while. It’s called Deer Woman and it has a picture of a woman with antlers. So if there was a catalyst, that was probably it. Although, I’ve also written about werewolves, and a werewolf is basically a person with an animal head, a canine head.

I didn’t realize till four or five years ago, when I was talking to my mom, where I may have picked up that particular fear. When I was born, my mom had this big old German Shepherd. She had to get rid of it after a couple of months because she’d come into the nursery and find the dog looking at me, with its head over the side of the crib. I think I got imprinted with that vision—that scary oblong head. I think that’s probably why I’ve written about werewolves so much and it’s probably responsible for Elk Head Woman, too.

GR: You also do this interesting thing where, during certain critical passages, the book drops into second person point of view. Why go that way?

SGJ: You know, when you’re watching a slasher—Jason, Michael, Freddy, whatever—there’s always what I call this “slasher cam” moment, when you’re looking through the eyeholes of the killer. It was always kind of corny to me, to break scene and go into this living, breathing point of view in the middle of a movie. But I thought that it could work on the page. The closest thing to slasher cam I could do is drop into second person. Hopefully, it somewhat works. It’s about evoking that same feeling.

GR: I have to say, you use some really cool verbs. There’s a scene where the guy is carrying a deer haunch over his shoulder, and you said he’s got it “Fred Flintstoned” on his shoulder. The one I really liked is early on, when Peta rescues Lewis, you describe her as “shriking” across the room. Do you recall that?

SGJ: Oh, yeah, I’ve been using that shrike verb forever. I’m the only one who does it, though. My idea was a real fast dive-bombing bird.

GR: That’s funny, I somehow had that association, too, but I didn’t think I knew the word shrike. When I looked it up, sure enough, shrikes are these fast little predatory birds.

SGJ: That Fred Flintstone thing, it’s just part of this pop culture language we all speak. I think writers have the option of economizing their fiction by evoking these images we all have in our heads, like Fred Flintstone. When you hear that as a verb you get this image of a proto-man with a big haunch of meat over his shoulder.

GR: What are you reading right now?

SGJ: Hmm, let’s see. Right now I’m reading Alma Katsu’s The Deep. I just started that yesterday. It’s about the haunting of the Titanic—historical horror. I just finished up Grady Hendrix’s new one, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. It just blew me away. It’s like Anne Rivers SiddonsThe House Next Door crossed with The Lost Boys. It’s so good.
 
GR: Here’s a question we like to ask all our Goodreads Authors; it seems to run about 50-50. When you read books, is it always one at a time or can you switch between multiple books?

SGJ: You know, it used to be that I could only read one at time. I just don’t have enough head space to maintain two narrative threads. But lately—last three years, I guess—I’ve been really into audiobooks. I’ll listen to an audiobook in the truck or on my bike. But I’ll also be reading a book whenever I’m sitting down. My brain seems to compartmentalize the two things. As long as they’re not both, like, detective novels.

GR: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about with the new book, anything you’d like to get across to your readers?

SGJ: One thing, so this is a slasher story, really—it’s about an avenging spirit coming to kill people. My issue with slashers has always been about the final girl, when she faces up against the killer. In most slashers, it tends to become a muscle match—who can swing the machete the hardest. She doesn’t get to use the characteristics she’s been developing her whole life. She has to trade in being a woman for being a man in a ponytail.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. So with The Only Good Indians I was trying to make my stab at letting the final girl retain her own identity and win the day with compassion, rather than muscles. I’m not the first person to do it. Neil Gaiman did it with Black Orchid. It’s kind of a superhero story, but instead of two people punching it out on an asteroid—like we expect with comic books—it ends with two people having a rational, meaningful conversation. I remember thinking: What is going on here, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen! But it totally works.


 

Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians will be available in the U.S. on July 14. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Fiona (new)

Fiona Simpson Is the guys books available in scotland they sound great, do like a thoughtful scary book.


message 2: by Jacqueline (new)

Jacqueline I wasn't sure about this book after skimming the summary on some book list, but after reading this interview I'll give it a try. It sounds like a good read.
Stephen Graham Jones seems like a pretty chill dude and NGL he's got a hot nerd thing going on.

I'm really happy to see such a big increase in indigenous voices in fantasy and horror lately. I'm reading Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline and it's so good. Looking forward to picking up Jones' book as soon as I'm finished.


message 3: by Shelley (new)

Shelley Wildgrube I pre-ordered this for Kindle and can't wait to read it.


message 4: by Latasha (new)

Latasha i really liked it!


message 5: by Justin (new)

Justin Just preordered my Kindle copy!


message 6: by Meg (last edited Jul 17, 2020 01:41PM) (new)

Meg Read one of the short story collections and it was super bomb, looking forward to this one now!


Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* It looks great, will pick it up when I have the chance. Have seen some friends on Twitter speak of it

I haven't heard of The Deep either, that looks great too


message 8: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Awesome! This is right up my reading zone right now - I've just started this book, I have The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires on my nightstand to read next, and The Deep is very high on my to-read list too.


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