Release: May 19, 2020
Stephen Graham Jones’s new book shows the unfolding fate of four close friends, American Indians of the Blackfeet Nation, who seem to have run afoul of something in the spirit world. I say “seem to” because the author is skillfully strategic in how he unpacks the story and how he presents reality (blending a hard-edged reality of life for Indians on and off the Reservation with the surreal in a way in which the reader isn’t quite sure what’s real.)
This is horror, and it chills and terrifies as horror readers might hope for, but it’s not just horror. (By that I mean it’s not the gruesome elements that make the book, they just make it more visceral.) The story builds characters that one is fond of and can empathize with, and it even sneaks in a moral (which is the best way for a story to have a moral.)
We learn about the demise of the first friend, Ricky, in a prologue — an end that everyone believes resulted from Ricky getting beat to death by some modern-day cowboys outside a bar. There is a ten-year jump cut, and the first half of the book tells us about Lewis, who has moved off the reservation and is living with a pretty non-Indian woman that everybody – including Lewis – realizes is out of Lewis’s league. Lewis is increasingly losing his mind. We know that, but what we can’t be sure of is whether it’s the run-of-the-mill kind of losing one’s mind, or whether it’s the kind of crazy that is the only reasonable response to an even more insane world.
The remainder of the book tells us about Gabe and Cassidy, the two friends who’ve continued to live on the reservation and are still in close contact. Gabe, we learn, has a failed marriage that resulted in one child, a girl with prodigious talent for basketball. He’s prone to over-drinking and was issued a restraining order to keep him from going to his daughter’s ball games – an order that fails to keep him from attending but succeeds in getting him to tone down his expressions of pride and support. Cassidy is shown as the responsible one, but one is led to believe that is the recent result of a relationship with a woman, Jo, who has had a calming influence on him. Jo’s success in straightening out Cassidy creates a strain in the bro-mance between the two friends.
I don’t read much horror, but was hooked by this book. The characters are developed and interesting enough that one isn’t just waiting for the moments when the axe drops (that’s an expression, don’t expect actual axe-induced fatalities.) In between, one is enrapt with questions like whether Gabe can thaw his relation with his daughter, and whether the next generation will end up better off, worse off, or the same as that of the four friends. Throughout there’s this issue of the characters having one foot in the past (traditional Indian tribal life) and one in the modern world, and that is an uneasy and unappealing spot to be in – too little of the community and confidence of the tribe and too little of the wealth and well-being of modernity.
I highly recommend this book for fiction readers.