The Spike and Valley of Horror: A Conversation with Stephen Graham Jones

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I first met horror writer Stephen Graham Jones in 2018 when he visited my MFA program’s reading series. I had read a few short stories and books of his before then, but it wasn’t until I interviewed him for the series’ radio show that I learned he also has the best taste in movies. We talked about slashers, vampires, and the importance of Philip K. Dick, but he won me over as a lifelong fan when he said that Ginger Snaps was one of his favorite werewolf movies. I knew right then that this man was the truth. Saying he’s a master of horror isn’t giving him enough credit. He’s a master of narrative, suspense, and his command of the written word will have you mesmerized.

Jones’s latest novel, The Only Good Indians, follows four American Indian men from the Blackfeet Nation who battle a terrible force bent on revenge for an elk hunt gone wrong. The novel includes all the scares and gore that horror fans love but is balanced with rich and complex characters that will satisfy any literary buff.

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of over twenty-five novels and collections, and there are some novellas and comic books in there as well. Stephen’s been an NEA recipient, has won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, four This Is Horror Awards, and he’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. He’s also made Bloody Disgusting’s Top Ten Horror Novels. Stephen lives in Boulder, Colorado, and his most recent novel, The Only Good Indians has been causing quite a buzz in the literary world.

I had the great pleasure of talking to Stephen over Zoom about The Only Good Indians, slashers, and why some people are so averse to the horror genre.

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The Rumpus: I noticed a lot of people ask you why you write horror, but I wanted to ask why not horror? Why do you think people are so quick to interrogate the horror genre and why writers choose to write it? Why do you think like people’s eyes go wide when you say you write horror?

Stephen Graham Jones: That’s a really good way to ask that question because when people ask why do you write horror, they generally are asking, why are you so weird? Why do you choose this weird stuff? And I think the reason people don’t choose horror is because there seems to be a prejudice in place that if a story or a piece of fiction provokes a visceral reaction, like if you jump away or you throw the book, or you get physically ill or whatever it is, that that’s cheap. That it has to be a cerebral satisfaction rather than a visceral reaction to be high art. I don’t agree with that, of course. I think that’s the specifically fun part of writing horror. It provokes a visceral response that the audience isn’t necessarily willing to give, you know? But it gets it from them. It gets it from them anyway.

Rumpus: Yeah, I completely agree. I think that that initial jolt you feel when you see something or read something scary, you can’t manufacture that I don’t think. And that’s one of the things that I know draws me to it.

Jones: Yeah, and it’s so honest, too. I think a lot of the feelings that you get from it, and I’m not going to talk bad about other genres, but the reaction of being physically ill or being too scared, that’s just such an honest reaction. It’s created in a moment and I think that’s amazing and beautiful.

Rumpus: I think so, too. I kind of crave that feeling. It’s almost like an adrenaline rush. I think that that kind of answers this next question, but what why do you personally love horror? What does the genre give you that others don’t?

Jones: This is kind of a story answer, but back when I was, I don’t know, maybe five I’d guess, I had a stepdad who would take me out on the highway in his Trans-Am. I’d hold his beer for him, and we just go up and down the interstate super-fast. There’s this one place we’d go sometimes, this Caliche pit that is a big white hole in the ground where they mine out this chalky stuff they use for roadbeds. One day he took me there, and we were standing on the lip of this far drop, you know, like sixty feet. It was a deep, deep hole. Deep and wide. And he said, “Here, Stevie, hold my beer.” So, I hold his beer in two hands, and he said, “Watch this,” and he pivoted on one foot, and fell right off that cliff.

Rumpus: What?

Jones: Yeah, and I distinctly remember standing there holding up that big, tall beer and crying because I was alone. I didn’t know what to do. I needed somebody to be there and I didn’t know what had happened to him. I was terrified. And then a few minutes later he taps me on the shoulder and he’s laughing because about twelve feet down on that cliff face there was a ledge you can grab onto if you did it just right, and you could hand-walk over sideways and then climb up where it wasn’t so steep. So, he had pulled that joke on me. I think that rush of pure unadulterated terror, followed by relief, got programmed into me at that age. And I think that might be where I got turned on to horror. To the spike and the valley of horror, if that makes sense.

Rumpus: That also helps me see where you get inspiration for some of your characters. That almost seems like a move Darren might make in Mongrels. Or maybe Gabe in The Only Good Indians.

Jones: Yep. That’s them.

Rumpus: That’s a great segue into my next question. The Only Good Indians follows this group of four friends who commit this terrible act that comes back to haunt them ten years later. What inspired you to write the novel in that structure where you’re following the four of them, plus the other character perspectives that we get along the way? Who was your favorite character to write?

Jones: I’ll answer this backward. My favorite to write would be Denorah because she’s so good at basketball and, in my mind, I’m that good at basketball. When I’m on the court, people are like, don’t pass the ball to Steve. He’s just going to do something stupid with it. But in my head, I’m the one who has the ball in the last three seconds and I’m making the impossible shot. So, she was probably my favorite to write.

As for why it’s structured as it is, you know, initially, that prologue with Ricky outside the bar was not the opening. That originally came about, I don’t know, halfway through the second big part of the novel, but when I was revising, I noticed that Ricky’s piece wasn’t locked in place. It could go ahead or behind, and the story stayed the same. So, then I kind of went back to my slasher structure, and in a slasher, they always start with some person dying for some reason in mysterious ways. So, I just kind of tilted the novel over to the left and Ricky’s piece slid up to the front and became a prologue.

Rumpus: You’re so right. The opening images of slashers are usually some girl getting chased or dying in some gruesome way, but here we see Ricky in that role.

Jones: Right. As for why the story is told in these three parts, you know, when I was first writing this, I thought it was a novella. I thought it was just going to be Lewis and Peta in the house with an entity of some sort that was from his past or possibly just some projected guilt or paranoia or something. Then I got to the end of that novella, and I wrote the last line and I realized I can either do this last line, or I can do another last line. The other last line opens it up into a whole novel. So, I texted my agent, and I said, “Hey, I just wrote something, it can be in a novella, or I can turn into a novel, what you want me to do?” She replied that a novel is easier to sell. [Laughs] So, I did the other line and turned it into a novel. I think if I was planning to write this, I probably wouldn’t have done it in three parts like that. When I got to the Sweat Lodge Massacre, the second part, I expected it to end there, and it opened up again. The novel just kept surprising me. It kept opening up in ways that I wasn’t anticipating and that’s why it ended up structured as it is.

Rumpus: Without giving away any spoilers, there’s a scene towards the middle that’s pretty unnerving and visceral. There’s also a scene very close to that one where we see the elk woman comes into this world. I personally found that scene terrifying yet beautiful. Can you talk about crafting those kinds of scenes that stick in a reader’s mind; those scenes that both terrify and astonish?

Jones: When a scene like that works in horror, it’s never actually about that scene. It’s always about the mounting tension and dread leading up to that scene and the delayed gratification that scene is satisfying. Because you’re right, that comes probably about forty percent into the novel and until then, you go up to the edge of terror but then Lewis backs off because he’s not sure what’s going on. There has been all this “almost, almost, almost,” and then you finally get this payoff and if you do that payoff right, you’re activating a lot of senses. You get to overwhelm the reader with sensory input just on the mechanical side and you can also slow time down a little bit to dilate the moment. That lets the reader really live in it and—they don’t want to live in it, but I think horror doesn’t give them a choice.

Rumpus: Going off that point about the reader not wanting to live in what you’ve given them when you’re writing something that might cost your reader, what is it that makes you trust that your reader will trust you? What makes you trust that you can write these scenes that are terrifying or visceral and your reader won’t put the book down?

Jones: I think it’s if you can get the reader in love with the character enough that they’ll push through the part they don’t like, that they want to resist, either on moral grounds or on physical revulsion grounds, moral disagreements, whatever it is. I say “care about the character,” “in love with the character” but I should also say that the reader needs to seriously care about what happens next, too—that’s part of caring about the character, to me. You want the reader to say, “I’m just going to read it to find out what happens after this,” but then you hook them again, and you just keep hooking them the whole way through.

Rumpus: The last section of The Only Good Indians is a slasher, especially with our final girl—and, by the way, I love that Gabe calls her “Finals Girl.” I was like, I see what you did there.

Jones: You have to leave candy for the true fans, you know?

Rumpus: Exactly! That’s exactly what that was. Candy for us slasher fans. One of the quintessential parts of a slasher is the final girl and you can create a unique one with Denorah. What do you think goes into making a final girl?

Jones: You can’t start with her being complete. She has to start out not the badass that she’s going to become. With Denorah, she’s deadly on the court, but she’s never fought anything like this before. At first, all she can do is just run away, but in every final girl’s slasher cycle, at some point, she has to quit running and turn around and face her monster. What I was trying to do with Denorah is, and you know this as well as I do, is that final girls in their final battle with whoever their slasher is at the end, it tends to come down to a contest of muscles. Well, maybe not Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street. She uses her wits, but it’s usually some version of an arm-wrestling match. I feel like when a final girl uses muscle to win the day, she’s adopting traditionally male characteristics. That to me feels like a failure because she’s having to cash in her identity. I thought, what if she uses compassion instead? What if that’s her special power? What if she’s able to hold on to who she is and still resist the slasher?

Rumpus: Since we’re on the topic of final girls, I think that final girls and their slashers are sometimes two sides of the same coin. Like, you mentioned Nancy using her wits in Elm Street and Freddy is extremely witty. I think the slasher and final girl can play off each other. Was there anything you took from the Elk Head Woman to help craft Denorah or vice versa?

Jones: I think there is a relationship there. I think you’re right about them being two sides of the same coin. Denorah on the court is pure ferocity. Pure rage. She is going to win and assert her dominance over whoever her foe is and I think Elk Head Woman is bitten by that same bug. She has become rage.

Rumpus: For my last question, I’d like to ask if you ever write with a specific audience or person in mind?

Jones: You know, I think I do. You know that scene in Being John Malkovich when he’s in a room with a lot of John Malkovichs? If you’d asked me this twenty years ago, I would have said that I write for a room full of me, but I think that’s kind of dangerous. I think that creates a loop where everybody gets my jokes, you know? That’s not helpful. What I’ve finally settled on is I write for my enemy. Which is to say, I write for someone who is not going to be charitable. Someone who’s going to try to find weakness in every part and exploit it. That way, I always have to be guarding against misinterpretation, weak mechanics, poor prose, everything. It makes me watch myself a lot closer. I think it’s turned me into a stronger writer. Maybe not a better person, as I’m now thinking the worst of some imagined reader, but? If it gets the story down even one percent better, I guess that’s a trade-in that’s maybe worth it. In the short-run at least.

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Photograph of Stephen Graham Jones by Gary Issacs.


Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl's Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Tor Nightfire. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. Her short story, “The Nightmare Man,” will be released in Shiver: A Cold Weather Horror Anthology in January 2021. More from this author →