A few months ago, this novel blew up bookstagram – everyone was reading and reviewing it and, almost universally, seemed to be loving it. I am not really a horror person. In fact, I am the opposite of that. I’m a giant scaredy-cat and had trouble sleeping for weeks after watching The Ring in high school (and, even farther back than that, had real fear watching The Mummy as a child). So yea, not a brave reader over here. But the reviews were just so good! And then I got access to the audiobook, through libro.fm‘s ALC program. And it was spooky season. And November is Indigenous Heritage Month in the US. And…I caved.
“We’re from where we’re from. Scars are a part of the deal, aren’t they?”
The Only Good Indians chronicles the aftermath (like, 10 years later) of a violent and disturbing hunting incident for four friends of the Blackfeet tribe. Some have managed to move on/move past better than others, but a vengeful entity from that day is tracking them all down, one by one, anyways. Because in the end, they will all reap the violence they sowed years ago.
Let me just repeat, one more time, that I have not ever been a scary/horror story sort of person. My tolerance level for thrillers/fear is about as nonexistent as my tolerance for spicy foods (which, let me tell you, is something I regret much more on a daily basis). So take it with that knowledge when I say I felt alright reading this book. There is quite a bit of violence and gore, let me be clear on that (against both humans and animals), but the heart-racing, too-scared-to-sleep, impending sense of doom and personal harm, feels that have come with other horror reads/movies from my childhood, didn’t get me here. Maybe I’m growing up and now I can read more horror? Or maybe this novel just didn’t have as much of that, as a style. I honestly don’t know, because I really have nothing to compare it to. I honestly felt more edge-of-my-seat, waiting-for-the-hammer-to-drop, reactions with a recent contemporary lit read, Real Life. Maybe being an adult means you’re scared of different things: less supernatural fear and more the terror of reality. Anyways, back to this book…I think depending on what terrifies/horrifies you, there are elements of this book that absolutely meet horror criteria, like I said: blood and gore, murder, violence, weird/creepy types of violence, (minimal) psychological stress/mind-games, and just a hint of the “it’s coming for me, run away, I can see it getting closer, it’s gaining on me,” type vibes. But I felt like it all balanced together in a way that there was never an overwhelming focus on one or the other type of horror and thus, taken all together, they sort of balanced each other out and helped make each more palatable (for lack of a better word).
Another aspect of this novel that was thematically central and, I think, mitigated the effect of the classic horror pieces, is the cultural insight and social commentary. Jones provides a really fascinating look at Blackfeet (and some Crow) culture, traditions, history, beliefs, laws, legends, etc. and I know for a fact that my interest in learning about/from that took some of the impact out of the horror. In fact, I was really into the way the legends and cultural respect played into the unfolding of the horror situation. It’s a very specific sort of vengeance being sought, by a very specific monster/spirit/entity, with very specific goals, based on the traditions and rules the four friends chose to flout when they were younger. And it’s a horror-plot that would/could only exist within those cultural boundaries. Similar to the mythological aspects of any culturally-specific story, like in Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sixth World series (Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts), Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and many others, the fantastical elements and magic and supernatural exist within that specific population’s belief system. Anyways, I love that type of fantasy story-telling, so I think those similarities drew me strongly to this narrative, despite/regardless of the horror parts of it that were played up for the benefit of the genre.
In addition, throughout the novel, Jones references the many historical injustices against Indigenous peoples in America, as well as indicating clearly (without sugar-coating and with very matter-of-fact language), the present-day socioeconomic situations that are a direct result of that history. It’s done in a way that both condemns the circumstances, but that also recognizes strength and adaptability and humanity within it.
A few quick notes on the writing and general literary pieces. I thought the pacing was really interestingly done. Some of the revenge plot lines happened fast and some took much longer to unfold. It was inconsistent, perhaps not my favorite style, yet worked pretty well despite that. The writing itself had a cadence to it that was also pretty unique. I’m not sure I could put words to an accurate description of it, as it kind of changed with the particular parts of the revenge that were in focus: some building and waning with psychological breakdown and others more hectic with unknown assailants and different kinds of in-the-moment violence, some at a more breakneck pace with chase scenes and running-for-your-life vibes. I enjoyed that the writing adjusted with the part of the story we were in. And then: the ending. I loved it! I don’t know what I was expecting, but it absolutely wasn’t that. It was heart-racing terror and wonderful moments of cycle-breaking and true fear and hope for the future and a definite aura of weird-creepy-dread all mixed up and it just felt right. I love when an ending slots in exactly right like that.
Basically, I am not sure how much you can trust my review, since this is a very new-to-me genre. There were parts of this novel that I loved and parts that were more just ok. But I flew along with the story and was definitely into this tale of cultural betrayal, revenge and healing. I don’t think I’m a convert to horror, but I am excited that I was able to read this and sleep afterwards, so I look forward to trying some other, light, books in this category and see how I do with them. There’s a few that I’ve had my eye on, but was afraid of. So maybe this is, at least, the start of a slightly larger toe-dip into a new reading arena!