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July 14, 2020

Stephen Graham Jones's Playlist for His Novel "The Only Good Indians"

The Only Good Indians by  Stephen Graham Jones

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Stephen Graham Jones's novel The Only Good Indians is one of the most engaging works of literary horror I have ever read.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"This classic tale of revenge horror oscillates among eerie moments, violent action, and an overarching sense of dread ... there is an intensity, a breathless desperation that lurks just under the story's surface, giving the sense that everything that is about to happen, no matter how terrible, is inevitable and cannot be stopped. It is also a heartbreakingly beautiful story about hope and survival, grappling with themes of cultural identity, family, and traditions ... One of the most anticipated horror titles of 2020, Jones's latest does not disappoint. While fully entrenched within the genre, its well-developed cast, lyrical language, and heightened suspense will have broad appeal."

In his own words, here is Stephen Graham Jones's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Only Good Indians:

The Only Good Indians is a hunting novel, a basketball novel, a slasher novel—it’s my heart on the page, pretty much. Four guys out after elk one Saturday make a bad decision, and that comes back to haunt them—and hunt them—ten years later. And not only them, but whoever they care about. Justice in The Only Good Indians isn’t necessarily blind, but it does carve a pretty wide arc.

For every novel I write, I get a playlist together—maybe everybody does this? Anyway, what the playlist does for me is keep the first few minutes of every writing session from being ‘warm up.’ These songs in this order pulls me face-first into the tone and register and emotional landscape of this piece, so I can make more of these ten or twelve minutes I’m stealing from the day. When that first song cues up, I’m smack-dab in that story space all over again. For The Only Good Indians, though, I have no idea what I had cued up. Sometimes I save playlists and sometimes I delete them. I’ve still got a lot of them for novels that will never be published, but then ones that I might need, for, say, a post like this, they’re gone, man. No trace at all, and even less memory of them.

Still and all, you know how movie soundtracks will sometimes have “Arthur’s Theme” or whatever—tracks associated with a character? I’ve got a bit of that for The Only Good Indians, and maybe more besides:

“Bodies,” Drowning Pool. First time I heard this it was a fan-made video, I think—just a supercut of Jason Voorhees’s many-many victims, with Drowning Pool providing the guttural score, and screaming to “Let the bodies hit the floor” over and over, and then some more besides. “Bodies” is the perfect accompaniment for about any slasher. It’s my go-to. It’s the first song that spins up in my head for The Only Good Indians as well. Because it’s a slasher novel, yeah, but also because, you know: there’s gonna be plenty of bodies hitting the floor . . .

“aBoriginal,” Frank Waln. There’s a verse in here that’s as perfect as any verse from any song. It’s that one that starts “It’s two thousand and thirteen, our chiefs are all shot / digital blankets give us spiritual smallpox.” If The Only Good Indians ever turns into a television show, I’m going to make a case for some of this Frank Waln song being part of the opening credits. It could be as cool as that series of images that opens True Blood, with Jace Everett’s “Bad Things” playing. No: it could be better.

“In the Dome of Heaven,” The Randall Family. This is from Diane Glancy’s Dome of Heaven film. That voice, that haunting piano, man. Yeah, this song’s supposed to be about the Oklahoma David Frizzell and Shelly West sing about, but, listening to it, I’m in the Montana of Dan Seals and Marie Osmond, the one Red Steagall sings about—the Montana I know, I mean. And this song just says “I must be in the dome of heaven” over and over, pretty much, but some songs, that’s all they need: one perfect line. I once drove thirteen hours with a Whitesnake tape stuck in my player. It was a good trip, flipping back and forth from the A-side to the B-side, but I’d have been just as happy had it been this song, looping and looping. I might have taken the long way, then.

“Good Ole Boys Like Me,” Don Williams, which surely was on that playlist I lost for The Only Good Indians. I say surely because this song shows up on a lot of my novel-writing playlists. It centers me, if that makes sense. It reminds me where I’m from. When Don Williams gets to that part where he says “When I was in school, I ran with the kid down the street / And I watched him burn himself up on bourbon and speed,” I always have to close my eyes and breathe deep, thankful to have made it through. Those four hunters in The Only Good Indians think this is their song, too—that they made it through unscathed. Like Don Williams says, yes, they were washed in the blood. But there’s more coming, guys. Sorry.

“Dark Star,” Crosby, Stills & Nash. Not “Young” yet, I don’t think. This, to me, is Lewis and Peta’s song—Lewis is one of those four hunters. Peta’s his wife. And they’re good together. They’re great together. “Let the memory of the evening / Be the first thing that you think of / When you open up your smile.” Lewis is Peta’s dark star, and Peta is Lewis’s dark star. Whatever a dark star is. Hope it’s something good and not terrible. I want to give the two of them at least that.

“Feed Jake,” Pirates of the Mississippi. It’s a song about a good dog, and there’s a good dog in The Only Good Indians. “My best friend, right through it all.” I can’t even type the rest of this.

“Horses,” Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie. And I’ve never understood those scare quotes around Prince, there. Anyway, this is Will Oldham, and can he really do any wrong? Those stairstep piano keys that walk us down to where this song starts, to “I’d be riding horses if they’d let me,” that’s as good as it gets. And just the . . . the plaintive hopefulness of the persona singing this song, it’s so pure. The person singing this song knows that there’s a more real version of himself somewhere in his chest, and that there always has been. Just, no one’s ever seen it. This is Cass’s theme.

“Young Hearts Run Free,” Candi Stanton. This is a song for, or from, someone who’s interior life is at complete odds with the face they present to the world. This is the song playing in their head when they close their eyes, that they swear allegiance to, that they know is going to be their anthem from here on out. This is the song they’re never going to betray, consequences be damned. But then they open their eyes, and see the world looking back, and nothing changes. Again. This is for—or from—the fourth hunter, or maybe the first: Ricky Boss Ribs. I really like that guy.

“Train, Train,” Blackfoot. Which, okay, isn’t Blackfeet like the novel, but the world’s constantly calling me ‘Blackfoot,’ and when I was a kid I didn’t really know the difference, so, you know: close enough for a playlist? And, man, Rickey Medlocke’s vocals on this one, they walk that Roger Daltrey razor line, and his granddad’s harmonica, man, it flat gets it. More important for The Only Good Indians: I wouldn’t doubt that me listening to this song on forever repeat is why trains play a part in the story. And who knows, that lead singer’s name is the name of one of these four hunters, so who knows . . .

“Souljacker,” The Eels. The title here, of the song, of the album, maybe suggests that this is the theme song for the slasher in The Only Good Indians, but: nope. This is Gabe’s song—he’s one of the four hunters. That line Mark Oliver Everett delivers like only he can—“You little punks think you own this town / Well someday someone’s gonna bring you down”—is maybe the most Indian line from any song ever. In one of my novels there’s a guy who’s 16/15ths Indian. He’s so Indian he hunts deer with tennis balls. That’s Gabe right there, in this novel. I can’t get away from him.

“Gimme Shelter,” Fergie, singing on stage at Madison Square Garden with Mick Jagger and Bono and, October 29 or 30, 2009. If final girls sang, this is one hundred percent how they would do it: coming in late in the story, leaning into that mic, and just blasting everyone else off the stage, and then holding that stage for the rest of the song. This is how it’s done. This is how you own an arena of people, and make them think that, on their best day, their very best day, they could maybe do something half this good. That’s what final girls do, too.

“Butterfly Kisses,” Collin Raye. This is a dude singing about his daughter—a heartbreaker, don’t listen if you’re not ready—but, to me, this is exactly how a certain woman in The Only Good Indians feels about her child. To say it another way: grief is a hole you can try to fill with rage, and blood. For a while, it might even feel like it’s working. And in the moment, man, it probably feels absolutely like the only thing there is anymore. People maybe wonder why slashers wear masks, but that’s easy: It’s so you won’t see their pain.

Stephen Graham Jones has been an NEA fellowship recipient, has won the Jesse Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, four This is Horror Awards; and has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. He is the Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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