Stephen Graham Jones and I go way back. Long before I ever wrote anything myself, I, like many others, was inspired by transgressive books from the likes of Mark Z. Danielewski, Monica Drake, Will Christopher Baer, and yes, even Chuck Palahniuk. It was Baer, specifically, that led me to a message board called The Velvet, where a devoted group of readers and writers shared book recommendations and chatted about horror and literature, and pretty much anything else of interest to its members. The Velvet had been founded around a merging of fans devoted to the work of three authors: the aforementioned Baer, Craig Clevenger (author of the cult favorite, The Contortionist’s Handbook), and none other than Stephen Graham Jones.
At the time, I had become a member so that I could request help in tracking down copies of Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy. But almost immediately, I swiped a copy of Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones, and became absolutely enamored by his already diverse, prolific range of work. I started buying everything he had published, and never looked back.
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In the years since I first discovered The Velvet, the board has closed, Baer disappeared, and Clevenger has continued to work on a still-unpublished masterpiece…but Jones has never slowed down. His genre-blending body of work has earned him multiple accolades and awards: a Bram Stoker Award, an NEA fellowship, an Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, four This is Horror Awards, and he has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and World Fantasy Award. And Jones is still churning out a bibliography that’s the envy of most, remixing nearly every horror trope with his uncanny ability to subvert fear itself.
Jones's latest book, The Only Good Indians, set for publication on July 14, 2020, is a perfect blend of horror and heritage. Weaving elements of a slasher film with that of a literary meditation on facing the consequences of our actions, Jones introduces us to a group of Blackfeet Native American men who are being hunted down by a she-elk monster. But right when you think the story might be a mythical take on the film It Follows, Jones continues to reinvent the slasher formula, keeping the reader guessing. This is Jones at his absolute best.
However, if you’re just beginning to explore Stephen Graham Jones’s vast literary world, much like I did back during The Velvet days, we'll need to rewind and offer you some preliminary recommendations as a jumping-off point. The following Stephen Graham Jones books are prime examples of the author's ability to utilize, invert, and invent horror tropes in frighteningly effective ways.
The Least of My Scars
One of the most claustrophobic novels you’ll ever read, this work of psychological horror almost never made it to bookshelves. Jones wrote it and left it, untouched, while he moved on to other projects. When author and editor J. David Osborne founded his independent press, Broken River Books, he reached out to Jones to see if he had anything he was working on. Jones pulled Least of My Scars from his vault and the rest, you could say, is history.
This book is (hopefully) about as close as you’ll get to being stuck in a room with a serial killer. The killer in question is William Colton Hughes, who’s been locked in an apartment, Oldboy-style, by a crime lord hellbent on tapping into the killer’s talents. You can imagine what transpires next, but that’s the catch: Jones knows exactly what you’re expecting and lures you in, only to take the story in directions you could never anticipate.
The Last Final Girl
As the title suggests, the trope being dissected and inspected from the ground up here is the “final girl,” otherwise known as the female character in a slasher film who confronts the killer, survives, and ends up being the one that tells the story. Think of this read as a smarter The Cabin in the Woods; we’re talking metaphysical horror in the best possible way.
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Lindsay Baker is a “final girl,” having survived the heinous slaying of her friends by a killer wearing a Michael Jackson mask. But the murders are where the book begins, not ends. Lindsay involves her friends Izzy and Brittney in her reconstruction of the chain of events in hopes of being, as the title suggests, the “last final girl.” This is a stylistic exhibit of Jones’s encyclopedic eye for horror cinema, complete with screenplay language.
Time to get weird. Like weirder than weird. In a nutshell, Flushboy is about a 16-year-old boy who works at his family’s business: a drive-through urinal. But there’s so much more to the story. It’s angsty and ambitious, the kind of novel that only someone keen on writing for the thrill of the unknown would write. Jones takes the reader through one shift with the flushboy as he is forced to deal with flooding urinals, juggle gallons of warm urine, and even gets caught up in illegal criminal activities and mafia drama. This is Jones demonstrating his range; where most writers would stop at one urinal joke, he takes the concept and turns it into an entire epic novel.
This was the first novel I ever read of Jones’s and for that reason, I’m a bit partial. Written using multiple perspectives, past and present, Jones renders the perspective of Doby Saxon with stunning clarity. Life on the Blackfeet Indian reservation is unlike living anywhere else: Doby survives numerous suicide attempts and witnesses the death of one of his friends. When he manages to survive a near-death experience himself, Doby discovers the hundred-year old story of a Native American agent who served the U.S. government.
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The letters that Doby finds tell a pivotal tale of forgotten history, wherein the agent’s decisions may have singlehandedly affected generations of Blackfeet Indians. In this novel, the reader witnesses another side of Jones’s work; he explores humanity from a historical standpoint and parses out the timelessness of human empathy. I already said I was biased, but this is one story to devour and indulge in the mystery.
Mapping the Interior
Mapping the Interior won the 2018 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction—and with good reason. This is a propulsive mindbender of a novella, a first-person descent into the perspective of a 12-year-old boy coping with loss. While wandering around his house late at night, the boy glimpses someone stepping through a doorway; maybe a ghost, maybe something else entirely.
When the boy follows the figure, he finds that his house is much bigger and more malleable than he ever realized. The house morphs like memory seizing the moment, causing him to relive, doubt, and suffer through his own past. Like anyone trying to make sense of the impossible, the boy decides to map the layout of the house and discovers that the closer he gets to completing the effort, the closer he and his loved ones are to danger.
Mongrels is seemingly a werewolf story, and at its core it certainly is—but Jones’s novel deviates from the trope by humanizing his werewolf subjects. Our young unnamed protagonist lives with his Aunt Libby and Uncle Darren, who are both in denial about being werewolves, and shelter the young boy from the truth. Believing themselves to be outsiders, or “mongrels,” they view themselves as people that society has shunned, rather than the other way around.
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Of course, the boy eventually discovers the family secret, and begins to truly explore and embrace a nomadic lifestyle and his werewolf heritage. It’s a coming-of-age story that could have easily fallen flat while it navigated well-traversed narrative territory. However, Jones’s protagonist becomes every bit the heart of the novel, and is the very reason Mongrels transcends horror and becomes a parable for self-discovery.
Featured author image via Gary Isaacs and the website of Stephen Graham Jones