by A.E. Santana
For horror lovers, reading Stephen Graham Jones is a staple, like reading Stephen King or Clive Barker. His writings often transcend genre, implementing what some may consider literary form and technique into horror, crime, and science fiction. An author of over twenty books, numerous short stories, and comics, Jones has won a Bram Stoker Award and the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction. He has also been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. A fan of horror—especially the 80s slasher films—from a young age, Jones has elevated the genre with his personal experiences, notably as a member of the Blackfeet Tribe.
Just in time for spooky season, Kelp Journal catches up with Jones to discuss crafting horror, slashers, and his newest, critically acclaimed novel, The Only Good Indians.
[Kelp Journal] You’ve been writing horror for years and been ingesting it for even longer. When did you first fall in love with the genre? How has your relationship to horror evolved?
[Stephen Graham Jones] I’ve never been asked that, how it’s evolved. I think I got hooked in eighth grade. I got to running with a group of eighth graders who were into slashers. So, every Friday night, we’d get six or eight clamshell slashers and go to a friend’s garage, way out in the trees, and put them in a little VCR, and we had a little TV and a couch. We’d all pile on the couch and watch it. About two in the morning, my friend’s dad would get deep enough in the bottle that he’d come put his Freddy glove on and scratch his claws on the outside. And that would terrify us. That feeling of running away through the darkness, swaying my back because I knew I was going to get stabbed, but also smiling and crying at the same time. That combination of feelings that I think I got addicted to. Specifically, I think that’s when I got into slashers. As for how it’s evolved, I’ve kind of gone behind the curtain, so I can see the levers and pulleys and stuff. When I was on the outside looking in, I used to think those horror people must be scary. But now a lot of my good friends are horror writers and horror filmmakers, and I’m finding that the horror crowd is one of the most supportive communities that I am involved with. So, I think that many years ago I had the stereotype that to write horror you have to live horror, but I don’t think that’s really the case at all.
[KJ] In other interviews, you’ve talked about horror films as big influences in your work. Are there also books or other writers that have influenced your writing?
[SGJ] The writer who has probably influenced my horror the most? I guess there are two writers. One is going to be Stephen King; of course, we all cite Stephen King. He taught us that you have to care about the characters before you put them through the meat grinder. Just putting cardboard cutouts through the meat grinder doesn’t matter. It’s got to be people that I invest in, that I root for, that I care about. That’s what I learned from King. Also, what I learned from King is if you think you can’t scare them, then gross them out. I think that’s a great angle to have. The writer that I’ve turned to the most, though, at least for horror stuff, is probably Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer. His stories are often about not trusting the reality that the characters think they’re perceiving. That, to me, is terrifying. And that’s kind of what the whole “The House That Ran Red” portion of The Only Good Indians is built on, that kind of paranoia.
[KJ] Horror often deals with fears that permeate everyday life and society. Your stories give significant examples of this. How do you handle writing these deeper themes in horror?
[SGJ] With horror, what I’ve learned is I’ve got to write about things that scare me first. Sometimes what scares me is what scares everybody else, and sometimes it’s not. Then I have to write it in a way that does affect people and give them a new scare. Like right now in this COVID pandemic, contagion or infection is probably a big anxiety a lot of people have, of course. I don’t think I have ever written a novel like that or a story like that, but I have written stories about people who catch an idea or fear from someone, and that snowballs in their own mind and avalanches down over their lives.
[KJ] While most people may see horror as an excuse for gore and sex, you have an interesting outlook on the slasher genre—that these stories have an overarching theme of righting wrongs. Can you talk a bit about how you came to this philosophy?
[SGJ] How I came to it was just by soaking in as many slashers as I could. At some point, I realized that slashers are about balancing the scales of justice. Something happens in the past, and now a spirit of vengeance has risen to punish the guilty. The spirit of vengeance usually gets carried away and wants to kill all camp counselors instead of just the guilty camp counselors. That’s kind of the fun of the slasher. But it starts out that so many of the kills in slashers are righteous because these people who did it should not have pulled that prank they did and left a victim behind ten years ago.
[KJ] You’ve mentioned in other interviews that The Only Good Indians follows a slasher formula, but was there anything you changed from what might be considered standard for slashers to better suit either your image of the book or maybe what the story was demanding from you?
[SGJ] I messed with the final girl a bit, because the final girl in most slashers has to have an arm wrestling match, basically, with the slasher at the end, and it becomes a contest of muscles. I always feel that the final girl is cashing in her identity as a woman a little bit in order to invest in this situation—like who can swing the machete the hardest. So, I thought, maybe I’ll see what happens if a woman, a final girl, tries to use compassion instead to win the day. That way, she gets to hold on to her identity too.
[KJ] Talking about female identity, you used a female antagonist in The Only Good Indians, which we don’t see in a lot of slashers but is a major twist in the first Friday the 13th movie. What similarities do you see between Elk Head Woman and Pamela Voorhees?
[SGJ] Yeah, Pamela Voorhees. I never thought about that, but they’re both trying to right a wrong. Pamela Voorhees’s son, Jason, dies in 1957, and she comes back—how many years is it in the Friday the 13th mythology, probably twenty years?—to punish the counselors who were neglectful of their charges, but it’s really just Jason who is the one they were neglectful of. So, she’s carving through them, as you do; she is a spirit of vengeance, after all. And of course the spirit of vengeance doesn’t have to be supernatural, it just has to be somebody who wants justice. That is what she’s doing. She’s stalking and slashing. That’s basically what Elk Head Woman is doing, stalking and slashing. And for good reasons. At the same time, though, Elk Head Woman kind of exceeds her purview. She starts going after people who weren’t in the original guilty party. So does Pamela Voorhees. The specific counselors who let her son drown were fifteen years old in 1957; twenty years later, they’re not on the campgrounds anymore. And she’s like, everyone who wears that counselor shirt must go down. They’re guilty by association. And that guilty by association thing is a dangerous dynamic to think when you have a machete in your hand.
[KJ] You also turned the stereotype of slashers on its head by having a female antagonist go after male victims. Did this happen organically or was it something you wanted to explore?
[SGJ] I definitely wanted to explore that. I wanted to explore two things with that. I wanted to see what if the targets are male and what if they’re not seventeen years old. And it was fun to pit them against a woman. Elk Head Woman has experienced this trauma, and now she’s out for what looks to us on the outside like vengeance, but looks to her and feels to her like justice. Slashers are often rightly indicted for just carving through women—woman after woman after woman—and I don’t really want to push that agenda if I can help it.
[KJ] The section centered on Lewis gives off amazing “Tell-Tale Heart” vibes with his guilt eating away at him. What do you think about guilt as a theme in your novel?
[SGJ] Guilt is kind of like the thing that pivots Lewis, and maybe these characters in general, into a paranoid state. He sees everything through guilt glasses. And there’s a distinct possibility, in the early-going parts of The Only Good Indians, that it’s all just his guilt, projected. It’s finally, after all these years, spilling out, and he’s losing it.
[KJ] Yes! Especially, there is a passage afterward, where Elk Head Woman is narrating, and she talks about how easy it was to twist that particular person to get him ready for her to attack.
[SGJ] But at the same time, of those four initial hunters, it’s only Lewis who feels guilt. Gabe feels no guilt. It’s just another day in the field for him. Ricky kind of knows it was wrong, but he’s like, eh it’s just elk. Cass is somewhere in between those two.
[KJ] That leads us to my next question. In slashers, everyone seems to be guilty in the eyes of the antagonist—like a killer free-for-all—but do you think the four original targets in The Only Good Indians were all equally guilty?
[SGJ] Ah, that’s a good question. It’s Gabe's idea to go down there, but I think it’s Lewis who sees the tracks, so it’s a hard call. What I wanted to explore with them and their culpability, what I wanted to push was, we’ve all done something ten years ago that we probably shouldn’t have done. It’s maybe not on that level of these guys’ crime or their trespass, but we’ve been mean to somebody, we’ve cut somebody off in traffic, we’ve been mean to a family member when we were having a bad day, we’ve broken up with a boyfriend or a girlfriend in a bad way or for no real reason, whatever it is—and we’ve changed since then. In the ten years since then, hopefully we’ve changed. These guys have changed as well, but are they still responsible for the wrong they’ve done? What I wanted to do with The Only Good Indians was have the reader fall for these characters and believe in them, such that when Elk Head Woman comes for them and doesn’t just slap them on the wrist but cuts their heads off, more or less, I wanted the reader to question if they really deserve that. They’re basically good guys, but they made one mistake. But that one mistake has become the thing around which Elk Head Woman has built her identity, because she’s done nothing but think about that for ten years.
[KJ] Speaking of Elk Head Woman and her growing desire for what we may see as vengeance, I personally found Elk Head Woman to be a sympathetic antagonist. When writing monsters or nonhuman entities, do you try to humanize these characters to make them more identifiable?
[SGJ] It’s probably a story-by-story thing. I’ve written another slasher since then, in which the slasher doesn’t have the same hooks for us. We don’t necessarily get on the slasher’s side as much. In this case, because of how I built Cass and Lewis and Gabe and Ricky and how I was pushing the idea that maybe they’re not that bad of guys, it was necessary to see into Elk Head Woman’s head and understand her motivation. I don’t think that’s always the case. I think it just is sometimes.
[KJ] There are some stomach-turning scenes in The Only Good Indians, but the novel also hits hard on dread and psychological terror, such as Lewis’s descent into madness or the paranoia caused by the Elk Head Woman’s relentless stalking. What’s your method in merging visual and gory scares with these intellectual fears and anxieties? How do you piece it all together?
[SGJ] I guess, I probably use the visceral scenes as punctuation marks at the end of the dread. I think that’s the proper way to do it. If you stay to the dread—the slow on-ramp to terror—if you stay to that after the big spike of seeing somebody’s insides on the wall, or whatever it is, it’s going to feel like a disappointment. So, you got to build up to it slowly with dread, which is fiction’s special province. Then you got to do that cinematic thing of putting the blood on the wall, which is tricky to do. You have to activate all the senses. You have to stage it in a way where the reader is surprised by it. So, you have to lull them into a sense of security and then hit them with a left hook or something.
[KJ] So, talking about crafting scenes, was there any scene in The Only Good Indians you found yourself rewriting because you didn’t find it hitting the right note, as in, it wasn’t terrifying or emotional enough?
[SGJ] The last long scene, or the last scene which was long, or chapter, I guess, of “The Sweat Lodge Massacre,” which is all kind of done over Elk Head Woman’s shoulder. I wrote that one a lot of different ways. I wrote it in sections at first, with each character having their own section, and that didn’t run together well enough. Then I wrote it jumping heads within the section, and that didn’t work. I did it two or three other ways as well, and I was doing a lot of different stuff with names and naming in that section too. Finally, I just had to normalize it all and run it through Elk Head Woman. That seemed to be the most effective way to get it done. But it took a lot of tries to figure it out.
[KJ] If you could face off against any slasher villain, who would you pick? Why?
[SGJ] Well, I guess it would have to be a human one, because I don’t think I have a chance with the supernatural. I don’t have a chance with Jason, and I’ve got to sleep, so I don’t have a chance with Freddy. Michael used to be sort of human, but now you can’t beat Michael. Well, this is kind of supernatural, and it’s kind of Dee Snider’s response too (from Twisted Sister), but . . . I always imagined that Chucky would not really be that scary because you can just kick him across the room, so, yeah, even though he’s technically supernatural, he’s who I guess I’d pick to try to go up against. Which is to say, I’m probably dispatched in the first five minutes . . .
A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who grew up in a farming community surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. A lover of horror and fantasy, her works can be found in Demonic Carnival III, Weird Ales Vol. II, and other horror anthologies. She is the paranormal/true horror editor for Kelp Journal and was the drama editor for The Coachella Review. A.E. Santana is a member of the Horror Writers Association and a founding playwright for East Valley Repertory Theatre in Indio, California. She has been a moderator for several horror panels, including “No Longer the Scream Queen: Women’s Roles in Horror.” She received her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Riverside’s low-residency program. Her perfect day consists of a cup of black tea and her cat, Flynn Kermit. www.aesantana.com @foxflur