Updated: Dec 12, 2022
In the course of writing two dozen mind-blowing, skin-crawling novels in as many years, Blackfeet novelist Stephen Graham Jones has thrown open the question of which particular Stephen now owns the horror genre.
Whether he’s crafting goosebump-raising teen hauntings like “Mapping the Interior,” the horrors of a son who struggles to run his father’s drive-thru urinal in “Flush” or the twisted coming-of-age mess of growing up in a werewolf family in “Mongrels,” Stephen Jones repeatedly tags us with smackdab prose, wicked humor and nightmarish circumstances of real and imagined immortality.
In his latest wild ride, “The Only Good Indians,” inspired by Jones’ own annual Montana Blackfeet elk hunt, four Native American childhood buddies are hunted down by the Elk Head Woman, a demon bent on revenge for what transpired after their botched elk hunt 10 years earlier. This and other SGJ sleep deprivation tales carry the flag for Rez Gothic, a growing publishing niche which uses fantasy, science fiction and horror to focus on the very real racial inequalities referenced Jones’ latest title.
Born and raised in Midland, Texas, the fun-loving Mr. Jones had a rough-and-tumble childhood that finds its way into most of his fiction. A 1994 Texas Tech grad who went on to earn a Masters from the University of North Texas and a Ph.D. from Florida State, he then taught at Texas Tech and the University of West Texas. His experimental literary approach to horror has landed him in the enviable position of both teaching and having his books being taught in lit classes before the age of 50.
He and his wife, son and daughter reside in Boulder, Colorado where Jones teaches as the Ineva Reilly Baldwin Endowed Chair at the University of Colorado.
Montana Press: How did you first discover fiction?
Stephen Graham Jones: You know, I started about age 11, I guess. I always would read bean cans and soup cans and stuff. I just had to be reading. I lived with my grandparents a lot, and they always had copies of Readers Digest, and I would inhale those cover to cover. I just had to be reading, I don’t know why.
MP: And novels?
Jones: I was over at one of my uncle’s house one day in West Texas and he said, ‘Hey, I notice you’re always reading. Come with me.’ And he took me down the hall to his linen closet, opened it up and that was his library. There were hundreds of books in there, all old adventure stuff, Conan the Barbarian and Louis L’Amour Westerns, and he said, ‘You can take three of these books, and when you read those three, you can bring them back and get three more.’
I worked through his closet three books at a time like that, so I kind of cut my teeth on Westerns and action books. I didn’t even discover horror for probably three more years. The 1980s were the golden age for horror; everybody was trying to be Stephen King and I didn’t even find him until I was probably 17. with ‘Tommyknockers.’”
MP: Do most of your students seem somewhat baffled to find a horror-writing lit prof?
Jones: Yeah, six years ago that was probably the case. The first day of class in my writing workshop, I always announce to the class, ‘You’re going to write one genre story in here, whether its horror or science fiction,’ and I would usually have at least one but usually not more than three students stand up and walk out because they were like offended that I was going to make them go in the gutter like that. But the big sea change has been that in the last few years, the students come to class to do genre; that’s all they want to do is write genre, whether it’s horror or science fiction or fantasy or whatever. Now I probably attract the students who have that interest. Hardly any of them want to be Alice Monro or Raymond Carver anymore.
MP: Was teaching an easy transition for you?
Jones: (Laughs) No, I never wanted to teach. I mean, I grew up only wanting to be a farmer; I would lease a tractor and be a custom farmer. That’s what you do if you don’t have land. But just by a series of missteps, I ended up taking a semester in college and I just got hooked and just worked my way through. But all through grad school, everybody else was getting teaching experience and networking and trying to place papers and such, and I never did any of that because I always knew I was going to go back to manual labor once I got my degrees.
So when I graduated with my Ph.D. in 1998, I went back to the warehouse, I was working the warehouse in Texas, having a great time, but I hurt my back really bad. That meant I had to get a desk job, so I looked at the papers and ended up at a Texas Tech University library. At the library, I got talking with some of the faculty in the English department, and it turns out they had a job opening that paid better than the library, so I tried out to be a professor.
MP: “The Only Good Indians” literally throws the reader right into the evolving horror story of four Native elk hunters who have more than horns on their hands. How did you untap this horror story?
Jones: I’ve been hunting elk on the reservations since I was 12 or 13, so that’s a draw. I think “The Only Good Indians” starts in two places, though. One, I guess a little more than two years ago, my wife and kids and me moved into a different rental house and this new living room we were in had this weird light that just would not behave; it just seemed to be under the control of switches that came on randomly all the time. So I was up there one day on a ladder trying to work on it and of course I had to turn the ceiling fan off, and I looked under the ceiling fan blade and I thought, what if that flicker ray allows me to see something I shouldn’t see. That’s kind of where the premise came from.
“The Only Good Indians” starts is in 2008, when I moved from West Texas up here to Colorado. I still had a lot of elk meat in the freezer from the previous year’s hunt and I couldn’t transport that much meat, so I had to go door-to-door just giving away packages of butcher-wrapped elk meat. And I felt so bad about that because when I take my elk, I’d done what I always do and told my wife we were going to use all of these, but then I didn’t know what happened to that meat. Everybody I gave it to, up and down the street, maybe they ate it and maybe they didn’t, you know, so maybe my promise wasn’t good. That’s kind of the core of where “The Only Good Indians” comes for me.
MP: Your annual elk hunts bring you to Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation. Does it differ markedly from your Texas or Colorado hunting spots?
Jones: I’ve been enjoying it my whole life. Montana and Wyoming always stay the same. I usually go back in July for Indian Days for the big powwow the third weekend in July, but with COVID, I didn’t go back this year. Whether I’ll go back in November to hunt, I’m not sure yet. I’m not sure if I’m hunting in Colorado or Montana this year.
MP: When it comes to publishing, your books came out on nearly as many different imprints. Has that posed a challenge as a budding, best-selling novelist?
Jones: As far as building an audience, I think you build an audience faster when you work with the same publisher to market your stuff. I’ve always helped publishers and that’s been very intentional because the trick with publishing houses is that they always want me to basically publish the same book that I published last season, with just the variables changed. And I never want to do that. I always want to write all across the shelf: horror, science fiction, crime, literary, weird stuff. I want to do everything, and publishers never want me to do that; they always say, ‘Well, we only do this, and we think you can only do this.’ And so I would always do one book with them and then break it up and go somewhere else.
But the last two years, I’ve settled down to doing mostly horror, and now that I’m with Simon & Schuster, they’re cool with that; they want me to do horror. I think they’ll let me spread out, too, if I want, but I think the next three books I have with them are horror, so I’ll be doing that for a while. I’m totally happy to do that, as well. I’ve found a way to kind of satisfy my impulse to innovate but still deliver the content that I want that’s close to my heart.
MP: Unlike the Stephen King era, the horror novels that you and others are writing today are really out there. Does it feel like fresh turf to you?
Jones: Yeah, I think that’s the way you keep a genre vital. You have to take a lot of different forms. When every book has to be like stamped out and look exactly the same, then I think the genre quickly withers or freezes or starts to die. But a lot of the horror writers coming up now started out in the indie press, whereas in the Eighties, writers who were getting into the mass-market horror boom had to go immediately into the deep end, which is the commercial end, which is a lot of eyes and a lot of attention. That process can grind the corners off of a piece and make it look like all the other pieces.
A lot of us coming up now, we spent years publishing on the indie scene, and on the indie scene you kind of have more freedom; you have less eyes watching you and spend more time finding your voice and your mode and how you can do it. I think we kind of just feel those impulses and do things in our weird ways, even though we’re on a larger stage now.
MP: What’s your take on Rez Gothic, the industry phrase for Native American fiction? Is that a good buzz word for what you do?
Jones: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t even know that was a term until somebody forwarded me a screen capture from Instagram. Number one, it’s a catchy term; that’s the first requirement. I think it’s descriptive in a good way. The marketplace and the corporate establishment want American Indian fiction to talk only about identity politics, issues of representation and history and tragedy and everything. They want it to be literary, and they want it to always be somewhat autobiographical. But that’s really casting us as extras in a John Wayne movie; we’re not those kind of Indians anymore, and I think we can run out and do horror and science fiction organically.
So things like Rez Gothic rising, I think that’s wonderful. It just establishes that we can claim whatever field we want to; we can go to whatever bookshelves we want to and we don’t need permission.
MP: Quick pivot to the racial reset currently underway in our country. It’s not surprising that Native Americans are wrapped up in that in a very good way, given the Supreme Court ruling that half of Oklahoma, including Tulsa, belongs to Native Americans. How is that affecting your life and work?
Jones: I have a novel from 2002 or 2003 called “The Bird Is Gone,” and in it, the tribes and nations exploit a legal loophole in the conservation law and make Indian Country out of the whole Great Plains, instead of just Oklahoma. So when the Oklahoma ruling came through, people were writing me to say that “The Bird Is Gone” is no longer fiction.
I’m so glad that this stuff is going on. I think if Indian America can just keep its eye on issues of sovereignty and repatriation and adherence to treaties, and not get too distracted on issues of representation and positive or negative representation, then we can get something done; we can move forward.
I feel like oftentimes we end up arguing about whether a singer wears a headdress at the Grammys or something like that. And yeah, they shouldn’t be doing it, of course, but when everybody says they shouldn’t be doing it, what have we really won, you know? It kind of makes us look like we’re oversensitive or something. I think we should be focused on worrying about legal stuff, which is going to help us more in the long run.