In the latest virtual session of the Authors Guild's From Manuscript to Marketplace program, held November 9, Blackfeet horror author Stephen Graham Jones held a candid conversation about the process of publishing his newest book, The Only Good Indians (Saga Press). Speaking over Zoom with members of his publishing team—including Saga editorial director Joe Monti, marketing and publicity manager Lauren Jackson, and his agent, B.J. Robbins—Jones discussed the realities of writing, publishing, and promoting his book before entering into a more nuanced conversation about how his book's title subverts a hateful phrase and the interconnectivity of horror and racism in today’s climate.
Jones is no newcomer to the horror scene, having published more than 25 works from his home in Boulder, Colo., where he lives, teaches, and, he says, accidentally turns planned novellas into full length works. Fortunately, his decision to expand his planned novella The House That Ran Red into what became The Only Good Indians got the stamp-of-approval from Robbins, who pitched it to Monti at a writer’s conference. “I love Stephen Graham Jones!” was Monti's reply. One week later, the novel was acquired by Saga.
The Only Good Indians, which received a starred review from PW and was recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 must-read books of 2020, tracks the lives of four young men who, during a hunt, commit a crime against an elk and their own Blackfeet Nation tribe. After walking away from the incident, they find themselves haunted by a mysterious entity bent on revenge, and realize that there are just some things one can’t take back.
What intrigued Monti about Jones’s novel was how it addressed reviving the horror genre. After seeing Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Monti said, he realized that “this is the way we’re gonna be able to talk about race and class and culture with a level of immediacy that other genres can’t”—and he believed Jones’s book nailed it. But Monti wasn’t the only one from Saga who saw the connection. Jackson was hooked from the prologue, going on to read the book in the course of a few days and immediately dubbing it “the Jordan Peele of Horror Literature.”
Jackson argues that Jones's book is one of a number of recent releases to have proven that the horror genre isn’t as narrow as its reputation. Horror is a “statement about identity” in her view: “there are layers to these tropes, and if you really look deep, it’s saying a lot about who people are and what the world is like,” Jackson said, adding that “the tropes have a function [and] there’s something behind them.”
There’s certainly something behind The Only Good Indians. Take, for instance, the title. The team cycled through a few options before finally settling on the final title after Jones seriously considered the repercussions of using part of the derogatory phrase. Jones's intention, he said, was to take the wind out of the sails of the slur by using it here, and believes that the title works in that vein. “Every character in here,” Jones said, is “in their own way dealing with what it means to be a good Indian in 2020.”
Despite the book's nuances, Jones is still reluctant to tack such publishing industry marketing terms as “literary” onto his works. “The term literary horror insults the rest of horror,” he says arguing that this sort of reclassification is rooted in preconceptions of the genre that aren't necessarily accurate. Jackson echoes a similar sentiment. While she understands the challenge for publishers in striking a balance between being true to the core of a horror book and enticing a consumer not to write it off, Jackson wasn’t keen on falsely marketing The Only Good Indians with such terms meant to broaden the potential audience as “elevated horror,” “mystery thriller,” and “dark fantasy” based on the assumption that horror doesn’t sell.
In fact, The Only Good Indians did more than well without this creative marketing strategy, and has sold nearly 16,000 copies to date according to NPD BookScan. Having been pushed back from its original May 2020 publication date due to the pandemic, the book was released in August, riding the buzz generated by Saga's publicity and other recent horror releases, Jackson said, pointing to Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic in particular. Jackson said she was able to keep that buzz going via seasonal marketing and social media in October. Horror, Jackson said, had a moment this summer, and the new release date put Jones’ novel dead in the middle of it.
It’s not hard to see why. “Horror is a funhouse mirror that reflects our anxieties back to us,” Jones said. He added that, while the slasher novel is often seen as transgressive, it could actually be considered conservative from an ethical standpoint. “Slashers posit a world where wrongs are punished,” Jones said. “They insist upon a fair world and, I think, in the last few years, we have seen a lot of unfairness in the world, so we go to our happy wish-fulfillment place, which is the slasher which is a fair world.”