...And We Will Plunder Their Prose

Plundering The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

February 16, 2021 Ferrett Steinmetz Season 1 Episode 1
...And We Will Plunder Their Prose
Plundering The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones
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...And We Will Plunder Their Prose
Plundering The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones
Feb 16, 2021 Season 1 Episode 1
Ferrett Steinmetz

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones 


Books By Ferrett Steinmetz, Your Humble Narrator

Intro/Outro song: Strong Spirits, by Static In Verona

Feedback Welcome At [email protected]

  • I've never done this before
  • Please be gentle 
Show Notes Transcript

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones 


Books By Ferrett Steinmetz, Your Humble Narrator

Intro/Outro song: Strong Spirits, by Static In Verona

Feedback Welcome At [email protected]

  • I've never done this before
  • Please be gentle 

 It’s one of the classic rules of writing: Show, don’t tell.  

Except I think it’s a little more complicated than that.

I think the actual rule is, Show the things you want your reader to have an emotional attachment to; Tell when you want to convey facts. So if you want to let your readers know that Terrell works as a bartender, then just say that.  But if you want them to feel the effort of how hard Terrell works at being Cleveland’s best bartender, you’d better whip up a scene where he’s testing his knowledge of obscure cocktails using hand-written flashcards.  

So that’s the technique.  But why does showing work?  Well, I have a theory - namely, that readers feel more of a connection to the things they’ve worked to understand.  

If you tell your reader “Terrell’s memorized a lot of recipes,” that’s pretty straightforward – and takes so little effort for someone to understand that they’re just as likely to forget it.  But if you explain that Terrell’s sitting up in his grimy apartment until three in the morning, lights off so he doesn’t disturb his two roommates, endlessly flipping through his worn flashcards until he falls asleep…

Well, I’ve never told you that Terrell doesn’t have a lot of money, but you’ve probably pieced it together from the details – his grimy apartment, his two roommates, his worn, hand-written flashcards.  And from there, you’ve formed your own impression about Terrell – which is a stronger bond, because you came to that conclusion yourself.  

That process of understanding what a writer is showing mirrors how you form your own opinions about people!  Folks don’t introduce their friends like, “This is Nicki, she’s got trust issues that are pushing away the people she most needs to love, she’s probably getting a divorce within the year.”  You observe, and you conclude. So showing is encouraging your reader to get to know your characters on their own.  

As such, good writing is powered by your reader’s meeting you halfway.  Deciding to show and not tell is like a risky trapeze act, where you push a bar loaded with little details out towards your reader – and you trust that they leap out into the void to catch your meaning.  It’s that joyous spark of having understood what someone means without all that tedious telling.  

And no book I’ve read recently does a better job of lighting that spark than The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones.

Because if we’re discussing the idea of “coming to conclusions,” note how that starts right in the title!  It throws out half a phrase – The Only Good Indians – and if you know some old and honestly pretty racist sayings, you know the other half of “The only good Indian” is “Is A Dead Indian.”  Which makes you go, Okay, this is a book where some native Americans are gonna get killed before you’ve even read the back of the flap.  

That said, the official description of Only Good Indians is this: 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 a violent, vengeful way.

And violent it is – grabbing you by the scruff of the neck, because he keeps throwing out these half-a-details and letting you pick up on the other half.  Let’s dissect how he writes this low-key section, where one of the lead characters reminisces about an old friend:

BRIEF EXCERPT 

Wow.  I love that phrasing.  Stephen Graham-Jones could just say something like “he’s toting heavy elk across the border,” but instead you get that brief flicker of wondering “Why are the return footprints a couple hundred pounds deeper… oh.”  

I mean, it’s not a deep puzzle.  I should add that these moments of meeting the author halfway are usually not huge mysteries to be solved.  This isn’t a cryptic crossword level of challenge, though there are certainly writers who layer in details so deep that they require multiple readings to draw out.  What I’m talking about is a continual, light flow of the reader being drawn to conclusions, fitting together these little three-piece jigsaw puzzles to see the full picture before moving onto the next paragraph.  

That’s the way to keep a reader engaged!  They’re not just inhaling words, they’re occupying their brains to divine What did they mean by this and how does that work and Why did that person do that?  

But the danger with that is you can get too obtuse.  That’s downside of not spelling things out for people: there will always be some reader who misses what you’re leading up to.  There’ll always be some folks who’ll go “deep footprints, that’s weird” and move on without thinking about it too hard.  This isn’t a bad thing for footprints, but it is a bad thing if you’re hinting your character is a lesbian and they’re just – not – getting it.  

Which is why there’s value in telling!  Listen to that section again: how Stephen Graham-Jones told you what was happening up-front, and then gave you a vivid image of those footprints to let you feel the effort of all that poaching.  

The Only Good Indians is filled with these half-a-details, where Stephen Graham-Jones gives you some stark image where you’re left to work out what that visual actually means.  Which is so much worse when he’s describing gory conclusions – he’s not just discussing the blood on the floor, he’s discussing the squelching sound on the carpet as you walk into the room and… 

Oh.  

Yet Stephen Graham Jones also uses vivid imagery to help you connect to a character’s state of mind – let’s take this passage, one of the most highlighted segments in the book, where a character is reflecting on how he feels about not having children.  And it’s just such a brilliant piece of prose – here, let me read it for you: 

LONGER EXCERPT

The gatling gun of history. “Standing up into the gatling gun of history.”  My God, is that a vivid image.  And a lot of lesser writers might have just flat-out told you something like “He feels like he’s betraying his ancestors” – but by giving you such a colorful picture, you take that tiny leap into “What happens when you stand up into a gatling gun?” – and suddenly, you’re not only seeing it in your mind’s eye, but you are complicit in the concept.  You understand the numb horror of a man who has settled into a good life with a woman he loves, but who also has to live with the ingrained knowledge of all the sacrifices he’s rendered meaningless to enjoy this comfortable life.  

Yet one of the best parts of The Only Good Indians is scattered throughout the book so thoroughly I can’t point to a specific passage – but the inciting incident of this book, the event that starts a landslide of consequences that won’t hit these poor Indians for another ten years, is so tiny that it wouldn’t even register as the moment of crisis incident in most books.  

What happens is something when four bravado-soaked teenaged boys go hunting.  And if this was a Stephen King book, that incident would probably be a creepy aside – the sort of scary, foggy moment that flutters around the edges of Pet Sematary.  The secret they have kept trapped among themselves is bad - but is it worth losing their lives over?

Yet what these reckless kids dare each other to do on this trip is transgressive to them – it’s something where we might go “Oh, that’s nasty.”  But to them and to their culture, what they’ve done is a deep and unforgivable sin.  Their careless act leaves such a scar that it twists the arc of their lives, furrows them with regrets that drive them to drink, drives them from their home, drives them to take refuge anywhere they can find it.  It kickstarts a supernatural terror that will shred their families.  

I’m not gonna tell you what it is they did, because having that slowly unveiled across the course of the book is part of the fun.  But The Only Good Indians is a master class in staying close to the character.  Stephen Graham-Jones isn’t trying to convince you what they did is bad – he’s trying to convince you they think what they did is bad.  

Aaaaand he does.  

What makes The Only Good Indians such a blunt tool of horror is that Stephen Graham Jones is constantly leading you to conclusions – he’s guiding you through a thick wood where you can’t find your own way.  And occasionally he’ll wave you forward with a happy “Come on, it’s safe to go ahead” as he throws you half a thought.  And you grab that nebulous image, and follow it to its inevitable end, only to discover that you’ve wound up trapped in a very dark and isolated concept that you never wanted to think about it.  

Like his characters.  They too are trapped by bad decisions they made themselves.  Led on by their friends to do things they regret.  Taking actions they knew were wrong, but couldn’t stop, and now they have to pay the price.  

And if you can get your prose to mirror your character’s struggles with that level of precision, well… what you have is one hell of a gripping read.  

The Only Good Indians.  Well worth reading.  Pick it up.