To brand Stephen Graham Jones as merely prolific is to sell the author short. Sure, Jones has published over 20 books—and likely has a few dozen more brewing in his dark imagination—but what really sets his work apart from the rest is his range. Jones can take any horror trope and turn it upside down, making it wholly original.
Jones’s latest book, The Only Good Indians, takes what might be your typical horror thriller and upends it. Four Native American men are stalked by an illusory enemy, and in a masterful shocker, Jones doesn’t save the “twist” for the end. Instead, he gives it to you near the beginning, startling you into turning the pages. The New York Times called The Only Good Indians “gritty and gorgeous,” while Entertainment Weekly declared it “one of 2020’s buzziest horror novels.”
Today, Jones releases The Only Good Indians. In anticipation of this thrilling new addition to his oeuvre, The Lineup sat down with Jones to discuss his inspiration for the novel, the ins and outs of his writing rituals, and what’s next on his plate.
It’s been a few years since your last novel—Mongrels and the novella, Mapping the Interior—was it intentional? You have been so prolific, consistently putting out amazing work at a rapid pace, that this lapse actually caught me off guard!
I was moving from one publisher to another, so a lot of shuffling of manuscripts, yeah, which led to some delay. I think I wrote...let me see...either five or six novels between Mongrels and now, though? And one novella. Some scripts too. A comic book or two. So, I mean, I definitely can't stop writing, don't ever see a day when I do. But when I signed on with my new agent in 2014, the first thing she told me was that I was going to be doing less books, and that it would be good for me. And she's completely right. I trust her. I mean, I don't really want to be at the rudder of my career, right? I just want to do what I do, which is make stuff up and try to do that in pretty enough sentences, and maybe scare a person or two along the way. Let them laugh, too. I try to leave all the big decisions to people smarter than me.
How did you come about the concept surrounding The Only Good Indians?
After Mongrels, I realized that it had been a while since I had a slasher published—last one being The Last Final Girl, I guess, not counting stories—and I was missing them. Werewolves are forever my favorite creature, but the slasher will forever have my heart. So, I just started writing slashers. The Only Good Indians is one of them. I knew I needed a group of people who'd done something wrong, and then a spirit of vengeance to come punish them, so, having not much actual imagination, I just dialed back to all my years hunting elk, and Lewis and them were right there waiting, had been all along, I guess. As for why this is up in Montana, it's that The Only Good Indians shares a story-thing with Mapping the Interior, so I couldn't let them drift too far apart, else I'd have to explain that drift.
The latest from Stephen Graham Jones, available on July 14, 2020:
The Only Good Indians
A tale of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition, the latest novel from Stephen Graham Jones follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives.
I’m a sucker for "writing ritual" discussion. Do you have any long-standing rituals? Anything that’s worked particularly well for The Only Good Indians?
My only ritual for writing is to try my best to “unritualize” it. In my estimation, staking out writing rituals—this lamp, that time of day, dog or cat over here—is just stocking yourself with excuses not to write. I did used to have a certain hat I preferred to wear while writing at home, I guess, but it's been lost now for years in that Days of Our Lives sand, and I never got another hat for writing. If I have any ritual, I guess it's…music? Playlists? I mean, I can write without them, of course, but I prefer to have something super familiar blasting in my ears, scaring my internal critic back into the corner so I can get some work done.
Actually, let’s make it a two-parter on writing rituals: Any "wind-down" rituals—things that help relax and come down from writing—that you favor?
Oh, yeah, I guess I do have that kind of ritual. I like to go do something physical after a writing session. Lately it's blasting up and down a trail on my mountain bike, but it's also been pool, hackysack, basketball, archery—something with my hands, something that doesn't require the same kind of thinking and feeling that writing requires. Oh, too, another wind-down I love love love is scrolling through eBay and Craigslist for trucks I'm never going to buy. I know people talk about social media not having stopping cues, so people just burn their lives up looking and looking. I do that too, but it's at trucks I don't even really want that much, just want to look at and think about, and maybe text one of my brothers about, to see if he's ever seen one with this package, that paint, those rims, whatever.
Being called the “Jordan Peele of horror literature” is quite apt and, I bet, flattering—what are your thoughts on modern horror film, including how we're finally seeing a lot more filmmakers blurring the lines between horror, thriller, drama, and even romance?
Horror's always been the kind of snowball that rolls other genres into it, right? I mean, just horror horror horror without any pressure release valve or contrast or punctuation or even just a break—how do we then even recognize the scary parts, right? Talking movies, and I guess fiction as well, my favorite is horror that doesn't forget to laugh. And it's not an accident that Peele and Krasinski, say—and someone else I'm not dialing up right now—are doing the horror that's really connecting with people. Their comedy training and experience probably plays a part. A scream and a laugh are just two sides of the same coin, I mean. Don't get one without the other. And, the gags in each are built the exact same: tension, higher tension...RELEASE.
Jones's 2016 Bram Stoker Award finalist:
A spellbinding and darkly humorous coming-of-age story about an unusual boy and his family, who live on the fringes of society and struggle to survive in a hostile world.
You’ve written about final girls, serial killers, contract assassins, zombie bake-offs, and more. What horror tropes have compelled you lately? Any you're looking to explore or experiment with in the future?
I need to do a haunted house novel, yeah. Haunted houses are also my favorite.
What frightens you the most? On that note, anything in particular that you’re tired of seeing in books and film?
People with dog heads scare me silly, reduce me to nothing. Thus, Mongrels, yeah. If you're being honest, you write what you're scared of. Which—slashers. What I'm afraid of there, of course, are...what are MY just desserts for all the wrong I've done? What spirit of vengeance do I have dogging me, waiting for the perfect time? As for what I'm tired of...you know, with horror, the way I know to stay away from a film, anyway, is if it's being marketed as a "slow burn," or if it's "deliberately paced." Took me a bit to learn this, too. Lots of disappointments. And, not saying some of those don't work. The Lodge was so, so good, I thought, and The Eyes of My Mother, say. Loved it. Given the choice, though, I go for the hyperkinetic, the loud, the fast, the funny. Ready or Not, The Hunt, Tragedy Girls, The Cabin in the Woods, The Final Girls. In novels, though, "slow burn" can be great, as that's code for "dread dread dread," which is how horror usually works best on the page, as jumpscares and terror are way tricky to pull off when the reader is controlling the pace. Rather, you have to seed images they don't know are crossing the barrier, and then stealthily water them for the next couple hundred pages…
Any particular fun and/or memorable publishing stories from your many years working with indies and what-not?
Way back when, FC2 days, I was hitting a string of bookstores in Florida, and the publicist, who was also my editor for whatever book it was—this is how it works with indies—was shuttling me around, and right before an event, I realized I'd left my book in the car. She gave me the keys, I ran out, and we didn't realize until after the signing portion, when everybody was gone, that I'd locked the keys in the car. Which is a thing I still do, will always do, can't seem to help. So we were stuck in that parking lot for a good while, and there was no bathroom, and at the time, all I could do was apologize. But with nearly 20 years between now and then, I wonder if I'd even remember that parking lot if I'd actually been responsible with the keys.
One of my favorite novels of yours, Demon Theory, has been out of print for some years now. Any word on it having a new life in the form of a new edition?
My plan, which I guess I am just now saying, is to get some publisher to run my 1999 version of it, which is its original state. I finished it in November ‘99, even skipped hunting that year to get it done—so no meat, but a novel. But then in December and January, large official chunks of House of Leaves started surfacing, forcing me to kind of change Demon Theory around so I wouldn't look derivative. But it did anyway. Took five more years to get it published. No: six. Man. Some hearts you just accidentally bury your heart in, right? I keep that novel close, so I can still be alive.
The very first book I’ve read of yours was Ledfeather. I had heard about it around the time I discovered The Velvet message boards, a community centered around fans of your work, as well as William Christopher Baer’s noir novels and Craig Clevenger’s equally haunting work. Do you keep in contact with Baer or Clevenger? Have you seen any of the fans from the Velvet years continue to buy and follow your work?
Yeah, still friends with a whole lot of them, and am even doing some stuff with one of them. Still see them on Twitter a lot. Still will talk to Craig every once and again, and Chris is making sounds like he might be surfacing again with a book. I so miss The Velvet, though. That whole bulletin-board time, I mean. Wish one of us would have thought to archive it.
Jones's eighth novel, published in 2008:
Set on a Blackfeet Indian reservation, the life of one Indian boy, Doby Saxon, is laid bare through the eyes of those who witness it.
What are you working on now?
Just wrapped a—surprise—SLASHER. It [was] off to three people for lightning reads, as [of] May. It's my most Demon Theory I've done since…Demon Theory, I guess. If it lands right—I mean, okay, I was about to lie. I was going to say maybe I'm done with slashers for a while, but c'mon. I have at least two solid ideas for more, and a file that goes forever of other slashers I mean to write. I'll be doing them for a good while yet. And, yeah, I haven't done any werewolf stuff since Mongrels, but that doesn't mean I'm done with werewolves. I've got the next two books of that sketched out already. Someday, someday...
Featured image: Tara Gray via Stephen Graham Jones's official website