CU Boulder's Stephen Graham Jones' literary horror continues to win awards and fans
Stephen Graham Jones' novel The Only Good Indians began with a flickering overhead light in his family's home in the Gunbarrel neighborhood of Boulder, Colorado.
"That light wasn’t beholden to any switch," he says. "It was coming on at random times, freaking us out."
One day he hauled out a 14-foot ladder, planning to exorcise whatever gremlin bedeviled the light. As he balanced near the top, fingertips holding him steady, he glanced down through the blades of the ceiling fan swooping near his knees, gaining a perspective most never see.
"What's the flicker rate of motion in film, 26 feet per second? 24? I wondered what I might possibly see if that fan were turning at precisely the wrong speed," recalls Jones, Ivena Baldwin Professor of English and Professor of Distinction at the University of Colorado Boulder.
What Lewis, a Blackfeet Indian working for the U.S. Post Office, sees in the novel is a brutal, haunting vision from his past, the pregnant cow elk he and his teenage friends killed in violation of both the law and tribal tradition.
"The only real difference between the living room and the last time he saw this elk is that, 10 years ago, she was on blood-misted snow. Now she’s on a beige, kind of dingy carpet," Jones writes.
The vision so startles Lewis that he nearly falls and breaks his neck. He continues to see the disturbing image and eventually identifies it as the spirit Elk Head Woman, who seeks revenge for the long-ago slaughter of her unborn calf.
The story that follows was inspired not only by Jones' ceiling-fan perspective, but also an incident from childhood when an uncle stopped him from shooting a grizzly bear and even the "Friday the 13th" series of horror films.
"I wanted to move Jason Voorhees"—the iconic, hockey-masked cinematic killer—"to the reservation and see how he'd fare, but with a different mask," he says.
The creepy, sometimes gory, tale of mystical revenge quickly caught the attention, not just of horror fans, but the literary establishment.
"This novel works both as a terrifying chiller and as biting commentary on the existential crisis of Indigenous peoples adapting to a culture that is bent on eradicating theirs," Publishers Weekly wrote in a starred review.
The Only Good Indians became a New York Times bestseller and won a host of awards: the Los Angeles Times’ Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction and the 2020 Bram Stoker Award for best novel from the Horror Writers of America, the Shirley Jackson Award and two awards from the American Library Association.
And on Dec. 1 Jones accepted the prestigious 2021 Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award given by the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Established by best-selling author David Baldacci, the award recognizes work that “best exemplifies or expresses a uniquely American voice, much in the way that Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does.”
Vampires get most of the spotlight and attention. They’re seen as these tragic, aristocratic monsters. ... But I definitely prefer werewolves. They’re the blue-collar monster."
"It was a big surprise," Jones says. "To me, the real award was making the final ballot. Horror doesn't usually swim far upstream in the literary world. To actually sneak in and steal away with it is even more surprising."
But critics have noted that Jones' work explores everything from psychology to identity politics and the contemporary American Indian experience from within the bounds of genre.
An enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana, Jones was raised in the small community of Greenwood, surrounded by the endless open landscapes of west Texas' oilfields. Growing up, he saw oil work and cotton farming as his only realistic career opportunities. Well, that and becoming a werewolf.
"I found these books that told me all the different ways you can become a werewolf," he recently told Wisconsin Public Radio. "Supposedly, if you drink water collected in the paw print of a werewolf, you could become a werewolf."
Jones became a voracious reader on his own time, plowing through a cache of National Geographic and Reader’s Digest magazines and borrowing paperback Westerns by Louis L'Amour and sword-and-sorcery tales of Conan the Barbarian by Robert Howard from an uncle. His mother noticed and offered to pay for one semester of college.
"I thought, what the heck?" he says. "I put off cotton farming for a bit."
He enrolled at Texas Tech University as a philosophy major. While hanging around a hospital waiting room for three days, he wrote a short story and turned it in for a composition course. Jones won the first of his long string of awards after his instructor entered it in a contest. With one semester to go, he decided to double major in English. After receiving his BA, he earned a master’s degree in English from North Texas University and a PhD from Florida State University.
When he returned to West Texas, he took a library job at Texas Tech, where he got his first teaching gig and continued to write. He began publishing short fiction in 1995 and his debut novel The Fast Red Road was published in 2000. Since then, he’s published scores of novels, chapbooks and story collections, including the gritty 2016 werewolf novel Mongrels.
"Vampires get most of the spotlight and attention. They’re seen as these tragic, aristocratic monsters,” he says. “But I definitely prefer werewolves. They’re the blue-collar monster."
In 2008, he joined the English department at CU Boulder.
"CU has been great," he says. "It's kind of hard for genre writers to find a home in the academy."
He quickly plugged into the horror, fantasy and science-fiction community that has long thrived on Colorado's Front Range, producing such genre giants as Connie Willis and Dan Simmons, and now counts more recent superstars such as Carrie Vaughn (MAEngl’00) and Mario Acevedo as friends.
Jones' next novel, an as-yet untitled haunted-house tale, will be published as an Audible Original in the spring and Don’t Fear the Reaper, a sequel to his 2021 slasher novel, My Heart is a Chainsaw, is due in August.
Jones says he can’t imagine not writing.
"I write because, for a few pages at a time, I can make the world make sense," he says.