Stephen Graham Jones’ 2020 The Only Good Indians is a standalone horror novel.
Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe don’t talk about their last hunt together. The hunt in which they segued from triumphant success to horrific excess. Best never to mention their encounter with the elks. Easiest for Ricky, since he died under peculiar circumstances outside a North Dakota bar, but the others are pretty good at keeping mum as well.
Ten years later, the surviving trio discover that while they’re done with old business, old business is not done with them.
Lewis is the first to notice the hints that something has taken an interest in him. The entity stalking him not exactly subtle about letting Lewis know his time is up. Instilling paranoia and fear in its prey is half the fun.
Lewis isn’t quite sure how the entity — Elk Head Woman — is manifesting, or why it is manifesting just now, or how it followed him away from the rez to his happy little household with Peta. He doesn’t have to guess what is pursuing him. Having overenthusiastically slaughtered most of a herd of elk, the four young men discovered they’d maimed a young elk they should have spared. Worse, their attempts to put it out of its misery went … poorly, and to cap it off, the elk was pregnant. There are rules for hunting and in their adrenalin-fueled eagerness, they’d broken most of the rules badly enough to ensure supernatural repercussions.
Lewis may have made a dumb decision in the past ‚but he isn’t a stupid man. As the Elk Head Woman picks away at the loose threads of his life, Lewis searches for the means by which his returned victim is manifesting. Unfortunately for Lewis, apophenia can be a stalker’s tool. How easy to lead Lewis towards logical-appearing, self-destructive decisions that leave him isolated and wanted for murder.
Having dealt with Lewis, Elk Head Woman’s attention falls on Lewis’ former reservation and his two surviving friends.
The four transgressors get it coming and going in this: as they discover, they are subject to supernatural consequences for transgressing Blackfoot rules about hunting. At the same time, they’re also forced to deal with all the challenges facing Native Americans who live in the US. For example, a Blackfoot on the run for murder isn’t going to get Burger King takeout after getting arrested.
There are lots of dead pets in this. There are lots of dead everything in this. The hunters annihilate a herd. Elk Head Woman is the sort of completist who will target anything or anyone that might be precious to the hunters. Even making eye contact with Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe is risky. Elk Head Woman does not care about the concept of innocent bystanders or proportionate reprisals. Maybe the four hunters who set all this off should have thought about proportionate behavior.
Lewis is a bright guy, which is less of an asset in this context than one might expect. It does not take him long to work out what is stalking him, and why they waited ten years for their revenge. (Hint: make sure your rituals of expiation actually get completed, rather than trusting third parties to do their bit.) Unfortunately, those same smarts make him easy to manipulate: hand him misleading clues and let him connect the dots, which is despite early appearances, he is not the primary protagonist.
Horror isn’t my thing but this was skillfully written. It entices readers to care about characters who, by virtue of being in a horror novel, are very poor insurance risks.