Horror buffs are well aware of the common tropes related American Indigenous Horror in a variety of both film and literature. When analyzing these works two main themes emerge: Native spirits seeking revenge on the White man for taking their land, or greedy and ignorant corporations building on top of “ancient Indian burial grounds.” Nevermind that “ancient Indian burial grounds” aren’t actually a thing in indigenous cultures. Thanks to Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (1978) and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) readers have been terrified of accidentally stumbling upon sacred grounds for decades.
While these tropes have endured in some of the most beloved horror of all time (with the exception of Poltergeist (1982), that was just a regular old cemetery and not even an ancient one) several indigenous author’s are crafting new tales of terror based on the actual traditions and beliefs of their respective cultures. You won’t find a haunted house or an ancient burial ground in any of these titles, but you will find deeply textured stories that are as frightening as they are unique.
The Only Good Indians (2020) – Stephen Graham Jones
With 22 published novels under his belt Stephen Graham Jones is not a new voice in speculative fiction. He has published various novels and story collections across the genre, although most of his current works are considered horror. Despite such a vast catalog Jones was not particularly well known outside of genre readers until the publication of his multi-award winning novel The Only Good Indians in 2020.
The novel explores the lives and relationships of four friends whose life of poverty growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana forces them to eschew sacred tradition in favor of feeding their families for the winter. Ten years after their fateful hunting trip the four men have gone their separate ways. Some trying to escape their heritage and others never moving beyond the reservation. Unfortunately, echoes of what they did that day have followed them into adulthood. An unknown entity begins stalking not just the men, but their families as well. Hell bent not just on revenge, but on taking back what it lost on that cold and bitter day.
Kari James hates her mother. At least, that is what she tells herself as a way to cope with the feelings of abandonment and betrayal that come from knowing her mother walked out on her when she was only two days old. Leaving her with a father who was unable to pick up the pieces and slowly destroyed himself until a drunk driving accident leaves him with a traumatic brain injury and incapable of caring for himself or his young daughter. Now as an adult, with a lifetime of tragedy and trauma, Kari has turned her back on anything to do with her mother, including her native heritage.
That is until she is handed a bracelet that once belonged to her mother. Once Kari’s skin makes contact with the bracelet she is besieged with visions of her mother crying out to her for help. Something monstrous begins stalking Kari as well. As much as Kari wants to continue to believe that her mother left her by choice she knows that something far more sinister was at play. If Kari ever wants a moment of peace again she will need to uncover the truth about what happened after her mother walked out the door 36 years before.
This journey will force Kari to face some hard truths about her life and seek out those who may know what actually happened all those years ago. Unfortunately, not everyone wants the truth uncovered.
Bad Cree (2023) – Jessica Johns
Bad Cree revolves around the concept of grief and how it can literally eat you alive if allowed to fester and grow. Mackenzie believes that if she flees her family home she will evade the grief that has blanketed them since the death of her beloved Kokum (Cree for grandmother). Almost 1,000 miles away from her family Mackenzie hasn’t returned home once in the three years that have passed since she fled. Not even for the funeral of her sister Sabrina who died unexpectedly the year before.
Since news of Sabrina’s death Mackenzie has avoided all contact with the members of her family. She firmly believes that dealing with her grief alone will free her of the misery she knows awaits her back home. Then the dreams begin. Dreams in which Mackenzie is lost in a frigid and snowy forest. Dreams where Sabrina’s heart is being eaten by a murder of crows. Dreams that follow Mackenzie into her waking world.
To make matters worse, three crows have been steadfastly trailing Mackenzie ever since the dreams began. It is not until Mackenzie begins receiving text messages from her dead sister that she realizes she cannot survive this alone. Hoping to escape the dreams haunting her, Mackenzie soon finds that being home has only made them worse. Something is out there and whatever it is, it wanted Mackenzie to come back home. With no other choice Mackenzie must enlist the help of her family and indigenous community in order to destroy the thing stalking her before it can claim her as its next victim.
American Indigenous Horror, Not a Single Trope to be Found
Every one of these tomes provides a unique and layered story centered around the traditions and beliefs of the author’s indigenous heritage. They each touch upon the myriad issues facing indigenous people today. Poverty, addiction, hunger, lack of opportunities, and the apathy surrounding the disappearances of indigenous women.
The revenge and violence depicted in them is not meant to send a message about the treatment of indigenous people throughout history. Instead the threats come from within their own communities, cultures, and beliefs. Each book provides a vivid portrayal of what life is like for a variety of indigenous people today. There are glimpses into the cultures represented by each of the authors and overarching themes of the importance of family, spiritualism, and nature. The monsters lurking in these stories are far more terrifying than anything you might find in an ancient burial ground.