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The Only Good Indians - Textual Relations February 2021 Reading

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is a 2020 horror novel.

From the back cover:

A tale of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in violent, vengeful ways.

About the Author:

Born and raised in Texas. In Boulder, Colorado now. Forty-five. Blackfeet. Into werewolves and slashers and zombies. Would wear pirate shirts a lot if I could find them. And probably carry some kind of sword.

Feel free to comment here as you read the book but spoilerpop everything. After the 20th of the month we'll open it open to a spoilerific discussion!
 

John

(he/him)
I listened to the first 5 minutes of the audio book, and liked the tone. It had a Cormac McCarthy matter-of-fact drawl to it. I'm going to find an actual book and read along.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
Okay, so from the prologue and the table of contents I can see that we're going to be jumping through the perspectives of the four childhood friends. I loved the Home Improvement sequence at the start of the section - it did a great job of being simultaneously spooky and unsettling, easy to visualize, and clearly set the stakes. Something is hunting these four childhood friends, based on something they did that clearly spooked them. I don't know if I'm reading too much into it, but I liked having Peta save Lewis. From the prologue it felt like Jones was setting expectations for a very different domestic situation for Lewis, and having Peta be the competent, athletic one is a great pivot.
 
I'm excited as horror is a genre I essentially haven't read at all. Without doing a book club like this I wouldn't even know where to start.

I read House of Leaves and The Girl with All the Gifts a couple years ago but other than that I've only read Dracula and a couple Lovecraft and Bradbury stories.
 

John

(he/him)
I used to read everything Stephen King put out, but dropped off in the last 20 years. I've read a few since then, but not regularly.

I bought the ebook, and am looking forward to reading more once I have time on the weekend.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
Oh damn! Oh fuck Lewis what are you doing?! I was ready for horror I was not ready for paranoia. Also, did anyone else think of Piers Anthony when Lewis started talking about the genre fiction book he lent out?
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
Yeah those books definitely sounded like Piers Anthony. It was incredibly disconcerting when Lewis started outlining the plot of the fourth book he'd lent, the whole rebirth thing, only for that to actually happen.

I'm going to work backwards a bit from here, to try to build up to the point I want to make.

The effectiveness of Lewis' growing descent into paranoia was really heightened by the newspaper clipping at the end of the chapter. Without that, you're kind of left with the question of what exactly was real in that last week and what he'd been hallucinating. In the clipping, he's dead, and four bounty hunters get totally wrecked by something he was carrying with him, to the point where law enforcement basically falls back on "makes no sense, sweep it under the rug". Which doesn't excuse what Lewis did, but re-contextualizes it - is it really paranoia if something is actually out to get you? If that thing's threatening your surroundings, twisting them against you?

But there's also an element of tragedy, in that Lewis caused this problem for himself by refusing to tell Peta about That Saturday for a good decade. He excuses it as her being a vegan, and not wanting to hear, but I think it's pretty clear that's more about him than it is about her. He's bottling this up inside, refusing to process or engage with his feelings, walling off this part of himself to maintain a sense of power over it. And when it finally gets loose, that's what leads to his spiral into manic paranoia and increasingly absurd conclusions.

That desperation to maintain a sense of power is what makes good horror, as a genre. The conventions aren't actually that different from action or adventure; the difference is where our viewpoint is. Who has the power relative to our viewpoint? Lewis and the boys hunt that herd of elk, stalk them, ambush them, panic them, slaughter them and their family with weapons the elk can't understand. We see that from the perspective of Lewis and it's upsetting but normal. Lewis gets stalked by a... Ghost-elk? She ambushes him, she panics him, she slaughters him and his family with weapons he can't understand... And that's horror because we're seeing it from Lewis' side.

Where it gets really clever is how Jones leverages cultural trappings. Lewis and the boys weren't supposed to be there That Saturday. They broke the rules. And they're punished by being estranged from their traditions. They spend the lead-up to the hunt talking about how much it sucks to be "the Indian without an elk", and now they're not allowed to hunt anymore. We don't know how Cass or Gabe have handled it, but Ricky and Lewis both responded by leaving their traditions behind entirely. Ricky took his whole family's hunting weapons with him. They're out of place. But their whole world is out of place; off the rez, they're in a world of white men who can hunt them, hurt their bodies or hearts or minds, ruin their lives with unfounded accusations, threaten their livelihood...

Which brings me back to the core of horror and Lewis' story. Horror exposes that "power" is simultaneously contextual and an illusion. Lewis and the boys sin on that Saturday because they want to show that they've got power, that they're Real Blackfeet despite everything, so they trespass, they open fire indiscriminately, they kill someone they shouldn't have killed. Lewis seeks control by denying what he's done - he runs away with a vegan white girl. She's good for him, don't get me wrong, but he's still seeking control. Even down to his dog (you've got to stay chained up in the yard), his bike (scratch-built), his eating habits (always over the sink, no crumbs), and that spotlight by the hearth that won't turn on (!!!). But without a firm foundation, seeking control, exercising power, invites catastrophe. And white men have built a world that's always denying him a foundation. So... Catastrophe, for everyone from his dog to him to the bounty hunters.

It's really good!
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I finished it!

There's a set of Book Club discussion questions at the end that I'd very much like to go through.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I''m good with that. I think you're going to have to let the rest of us catch up to you though!
 

FelixSH

(He/Him)
Yeah, I still had to finish a Discworld book and just read the first chapter today. Will take some time, but I'm looking forward to actually have a dicussion about a book, for once.
 

Paul le Fou

ShrimpCerealTopangaHusbandIsAMeTooMilkshakeDuck
(He)
I just picked this up today and have gotten two-ish chapters in so far. I'm doing the thing!

Elk, man. Those elk. Huh!
 
I just finished this. Horror is probably still not a genre I'm going to seek out but I'm very glad I read this. Denorah fucking rocks, and I loved her line about her father living on as long as she keeps dribbling the ball behind her. What a powerful thought of realizing she can show off and be strong.

Oh damn! Oh fuck Lewis what are you doing?! I was ready for horror I was not ready for paranoia.

I was not ready for that level of visceral horror so suddenly. Especially since it was the women and the dogs, something about the tone made me assume it would just be attacking Lewis, not everyone else.

Also, did anyone else think of Piers Anthony when Lewis started talking about the genre fiction book he lent out?
This Goodreads discussion claims the author has said he made it up, which I'm honestly kind of surprised about.

Yeah those books definitely sounded like Piers Anthony. It was incredibly disconcerting when Lewis started outlining the plot of the fourth book he'd lent, the whole rebirth thing, only for that to actually happen.

I'm going to work backwards a bit from here, to try to build up to the point I want to make.

The effectiveness of Lewis' growing descent into paranoia was really heightened by the newspaper clipping at the end of the chapter. Without that, you're kind of left with the question of what exactly was real in that last week and what he'd been hallucinating. In the clipping, he's dead, and four bounty hunters get totally wrecked by something he was carrying with him, to the point where law enforcement basically falls back on "makes no sense, sweep it under the rug". Which doesn't excuse what Lewis did, but re-contextualizes it - is it really paranoia if something is actually out to get you? If that thing's threatening your surroundings, twisting them against you?

But there's also an element of tragedy, in that Lewis caused this problem for himself by refusing to tell Peta about That Saturday for a good decade. He excuses it as her being a vegan, and not wanting to hear, but I think it's pretty clear that's more about him than it is about her. He's bottling this up inside, refusing to process or engage with his feelings, walling off this part of himself to maintain a sense of power over it. And when it finally gets loose, that's what leads to his spiral into manic paranoia and increasingly absurd conclusions.

That desperation to maintain a sense of power is what makes good horror, as a genre. The conventions aren't actually that different from action or adventure; the difference is where our viewpoint is. Who has the power relative to our viewpoint? Lewis and the boys hunt that herd of elk, stalk them, ambush them, panic them, slaughter them and their family with weapons the elk can't understand. We see that from the perspective of Lewis and it's upsetting but normal. Lewis gets stalked by a... Ghost-elk? She ambushes him, she panics him, she slaughters him and his family with weapons he can't understand... And that's horror because we're seeing it from Lewis' side.

Where it gets really clever is how Jones leverages cultural trappings. Lewis and the boys weren't supposed to be there That Saturday. They broke the rules. And they're punished by being estranged from their traditions. They spend the lead-up to the hunt talking about how much it sucks to be "the Indian without an elk", and now they're not allowed to hunt anymore. We don't know how Cass or Gabe have handled it, but Ricky and Lewis both responded by leaving their traditions behind entirely. Ricky took his whole family's hunting weapons with him. They're out of place. But their whole world is out of place; off the rez, they're in a world of white men who can hunt them, hurt their bodies or hearts or minds, ruin their lives with unfounded accusations, threaten their livelihood...

Which brings me back to the core of horror and Lewis' story. Horror exposes that "power" is simultaneously contextual and an illusion. Lewis and the boys sin on that Saturday because they want to show that they've got power, that they're Real Blackfeet despite everything, so they trespass, they open fire indiscriminately, they kill someone they shouldn't have killed. Lewis seeks control by denying what he's done - he runs away with a vegan white girl. She's good for him, don't get me wrong, but he's still seeking control. Even down to his dog (you've got to stay chained up in the yard), his bike (scratch-built), his eating habits (always over the sink, no crumbs), and that spotlight by the hearth that won't turn on (!!!). But without a firm foundation, seeking control, exercising power, invites catastrophe. And white men have built a world that's always denying him a foundation. So... Catastrophe, for everyone from his dog to him to the bounty hunters.

It's really good!

I just wanted to say that I really like this analysis. Great post.

There's a set of Book Club discussion questions at the end that I'd very much like to go through.
I''m good with that. I think you're going to have to let the rest of us catch up to you though!

Would you mind posting these soon? My copy doesn't have these and is due back at the library in three days. I'm guessing there are things I'd want to look up to discuss these questions. I can write up my thoughts separately and then add them when we have open discussion after the 20th.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I'll let @Egarwaen post them (spoilered please) I haven't finished the book yet and don't want to read the questions yet in fear of spoiling something!
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I finished the book yesterday. So I can go ahead and write in the questions now. @Violentvixen

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The story opens with a dark and pessimistic headline that rings true by the end of the prologue. What do you think of Ricky's prediction? Do you believe what he saw that night or was it a figment of this imagination? could he have changed the outcome?

2. Lewis is haunted by one afternoon of hunting with his friends, instead of all the other hunts he's been part of. What about that hunting trip was unique? Do you understand how it was a violation?

3. Lewis believes he is being pursued by the spirit of the young mother elk he killed. How does this recent string of bad luck chip away at his sanity? Discuss the combination of factors that push him over the edge. Would these circumstances have driven you insane?

4. Lewis convinces himself that Elk Head Woman has infiltrated his life first as Shaney, then as Peta. What convinced him each time? Did you expect him to kill them both? If so, at what point did you realize he would go that far?

5. As the story unfolds, it seems less and less likely that Ricky and Lewis were imagining that an elk was after them. What did you believe was happening at this point in the narrative?

6. Discuss reading the chapters as told through the Elk's voice Why do you think the author chose to include this point of view? What fresh insight does it provide? How did it change your understanding of the first few chapters?

7. Having already heard Lewis's account of the a night ten years ago, how does hearing Elk's version of events change your perspective? Does it make revenge justified?

8. We've had little access into the world Lewis and Ricky left until the novel moves to the Blackfeet Nation. Discuss what you learn about the reservation form Gabe and Cassidy?

9. As the story progresses, the chapters continue to be told from the perspective of a pivotal character but with one significant difference: moments from the Elk's perspective are now interspersed. Discuss this narrative choice. How does it affect your view on the unfolding events?

10. On page 156, Gabe mentions emptying his dad's freezer of the last bit of elk meat from their hunt ten years ago and feeding it to the dogs. How does this moment tie into what is happening now? How does it foreshadow what is to come?

11. Describe Denorah. Discuss how she ties into what is happening with Elk Head Woman and why she is involved in what happened ten years ago.

12. As the three embark on the sweat, they reveal more about life as a Blackfeet, both past and present. Discuss the challenges they face and their differing methods of dealing with them. What, if anything, was surprising or unexpected about their experiences and their conversation during the sweat?

13. When Elk Head Woman sets her plan in motion, things unravel quickly for Cassidy and Gabe. She has no remorse for anyone who gets caught in the crossfire. Discuss how everything from one angle implodes, fut from her standpoint goes like clockwork. Do you this this level of violence is warranted? Is this revenge or overkill?

14. Denoarh and Elk Head Woman go toe-to-toe in the basketball court long before the true game beings. Why does Elk Head Woman draw this out? Imagine you are in Denorah's shoes. Could you run, fight, and endure for as long as she does?

15. Denorah brings the saga full circle in the end. How does she influence the outcome? How do her actions compare to the choices her father made? What is the relationship with her parents? The day's events have significant ripple effect in the tribe? Why is Denorah's story passed on?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Stories, lessons, and legends are passed down from one generation to the the next. Discuss the them of generational knowledge and how is it is an undercurrent for each character and influences their decisions. How has the history you've inherited influenced your life? How does it influence these characters'?

2. Everything that happens throughout the novel is possible only because, on some level, the characters believe that it is. Did their culture and upbringing influence that? Discuss what you believe about spirits, the afterlife, and what is possible or impossible. How easy or difficult was it for you to suspend your disbelief?

3. Early on, we learn the full meaning behind the title: The Only Good Indians. Discuss the meaning behind this insult and the author's choice to use it as the title. Does it five power to the saying or does it take it away? Discuss the significance in the context of this novel, as well as on the world you live in.
 

Mommi

Miss or be made.
(She/Her)
Think I'm noping out after the dog bummer early on. This story is not for me.
 
Think I'm noping out after the dog bummer early on. This story is not for me.
I would as it gets worse. I pushed myself to read this and I'm glad I did but I don't like how gross and unsettled I felt for the rest of the day after being exposed to so much violence. I knew horror games and movies bother me but wasn't sure about books, definitely still bothers me.
 

Mommi

Miss or be made.
(She/Her)
I can do horror if it's otherworldly and the bad stuff is happening to people. When it's too real or when it involves animals I it's too sad. And it's pretty clear by chapter 5 that that's the intersection this story occupies.
 

John

(he/him)
Just finished Chapter 8. No big comments on the horror/animal/story stuff yet, but did have some personal thoughts it dredged up.

I spent a lot of time in Farmington NM, working at a power plant located on the Navajo Nation. It brought back a lot of feelings of the sense of inequality I'd see there. 90% of the employees were Navajo, but the vast majority of the management was White, as was pretty much all the IT department. Driving through the res, you see so much poverty, and tons of people walking/hitchhiking either because they don't have vehicles or they lost their licenses. The non-Native people never had issues though.

I hung out after work with a few Navajo coworkers from time to time. I'd have a couple beers, then get some food and drive back to my hotel after my buzz was mostly gone (I was in my 20's and dumb). Their idea of a couple beers was 6-8, with a few shots sprinkled in there. Afterwards they would debate about who was driving this time, and then head to one of their homes to finish off the night with a bottle of something. They usually made it back to work by 6am the next morning.

It hasn't been the point of the book so far, but I appreciated Jones making a point of Lewis not going down the alcoholic road. He did just find the bloody rubber boots, and my theory is he did the deed himself, so he's not out of the woods yet.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
Maybe we should break off a couple of the discussion questions and do them in batches once more folks have finished?
 

John

(he/him)
I finally finished The House That Ran Red section. I don't know if I'll be continuing on.

The gross violence was too much for me, and I skimmed most of the stuff with Shaney and Peta's deaths. I thought the newspaper clipping was a little too, I don't know, trite? Like all the paranoia/insanity that Lewis was describing couldn't have happened in a rational world, but then Jones inserts the "but what if it was all true, oh ho ho (twirls moustache)" stinger at the end.

I'll try another chapter and see how it goes.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I can do horror if it's otherworldly and the bad stuff is happening to people. When it's too real or when it involves animals I it's too sad. And it's pretty clear by chapter 5 that that's the intersection this story occupies.

Sorry this didn't fit for you! I hope you will join us next month! Most of the books are not horror!
 

John

(he/him)
I read a couple more chapters, and am getting back into it. I'm at page 196 of 312, and if I devote some time today to it I should be able to make it.
 

Paul le Fou

ShrimpCerealTopangaHusbandIsAMeTooMilkshakeDuck
(He)
I'm at exactly 50%, it seems - Currently in "Sees Elk." Denorah saw the girl who looked a lot like her - coincidence? lol - and Cass is setting up the sweat. Considering the section is titled "Sweat lodge massacre" it doesn't seem like the ceremony will go particularly well for several people here.

I wasn't quite sure about Lewis's story until he started getting paranoid about his wife, then Shaney (or, even then I wasn't entirely sure, but it was definitely uncomfortable . But even so, I didn't at all see his going full batshit and murdering her coming; that really pulled me back in quickly. And then when Peta fell so soon afterwards. He technically didn't even murder Peta, but pulling her teeth and then vivisecting her is, y'know, Not Great of him. I thought he'd gone fully delusional until the deer calf was confirmed by the newspaper article (and then of course the next section started with her) so now I'm back in the boat of not knowing where this is going but definitely intrigued.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
Y'all ready for SPOILERS?! We open up discussion tomorrow! I'm looking to digging into this all with you!
 
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