Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Reading: October 2021


Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indian has kept popping up, algorithmically recommended to me on Amazon, Goodreads, social media, and you name it. However, anytime I considered it, mixed reviews pushed me in another direction. However, after the book won Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award for best novel earlier this year,  I decided I'd give it a try. I, for one, enjoyed the book tremendously. 


As far as horror goes, there is something, a spirit, an entity, a creature seeking retribution throughout the novel, haunting several characters. The spirit serves as a monster of sorts, and if one evaluated the book just as a creature horror, or a malicious ghost story, I could see how it might fall short. However, where the book stands out for me is in the incredibly detailed context.


The story takes place among Indigenous American characters. Much of the plot occurs on Indigenous reservations and among Indigenous communities. But even more stunning was the microscope on modern Indigenous identity. In many ways, the story exploits stereotypes in order to call them into question. For example, in an early scene (spoiler), the haunting spirit claims its first victim outside a rural bar. However, the world, and even people who knew the victim, accept it as another case where an "Indian" got beat to death by whites outside a bar. The situation is spoken of as if it were a fact of life or as if he shared the responsibility because he should have known better than to be there.


The book delves further, criticizing how the outside population views and treats Indigenous Americans and how outsiders picture life on a reservation. Yet, it also examines the dynamic inside those communities and how members judge one another, as in the case when one character leaves the reservation to live with a white woman. It becomes clear that living in their own communities is difficult for these people, but leaving means facing stereotypes in the larger world and enduring judgment from the family and friends one leaves behind. It's all very layered and poignant to the problem of what it means today to embrace that identity.


I felt like the conflict with the vengeful spirit also served as an allegory for turning one's back on cultural customs or "the old ways." Characters grapple with this, and ultimately it is by not honoring old traditions that the events were set in motion that unleash the deadly spirit.

The book is character-heavy and is as much about cultural dynamics and interpersonal relationships as a scary story. But to me, it was a thought-provoking journey with a decent eerie story woven in. 


If that sounds appealing to you, go check it out.


What I've Been Watching: October 2021


Midnight Mass (Netflix, 2021) is the third horror mini-series Mike Flanagan has made for Netflix, and I enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, so I was eager to take a look. I also believe that of the three, Midnight Mass is the only one not adapted from another work.


The story takes place on a remote New England island within an isolated community. Much of the story draws from religious dogma and customs, particularly Catholicism, though Flanagan also stirs in a Muslim family and a few atheists to add tensions. If you like Stigmata or The Exorcist for that aspect of religions' spookier side, then there is a lot to appreciate in Midnight Mass. What it is not is fast-paced, but none of Flanagan's Netflix Horror has been that.


It's hard to describe the nature of the actual horror in the series without spoiling some surprises, so I'll try to walk a careful line. The series starts with one character's traumatic life experience and briefly introduces several characters' personal issues. Viewers also become familiar with the dynamics and inherent tensions among the sparse residents of the island. But, again, it is a little slow getting to the scary.


Furthermore, what ends up being the big reveal of the series is not too difficult to foresee if one pays attention and is a horror-aficionado. But don't let that make you think it isn't worth watching. On the contrary, the most fun in the plot is that once you've gotten to know the characters, grown to like some, pity others, and come to downright despise a few, and then you realize what's going on unsaid. You can imagine the reckoning coming, and it is rather enjoyable to speculate and then wait to see what fate is in store for each in the cast of characters.


ON a deeper level, I felt the story was critical of religion. I've seen an interview with Flanagan, where he seems to avoid that interpretation. However, the story does depict how a person's religious devotion can be exploited by another to push them to do bad things. Just think about the wars, cult suicides, and such people have used religions to make others participate. The series also critics religious hypocrisy and holier-than-thou behavior. If the story is not a criticism of religion, then I'm comfortable calling it a critique of how people misuse religion and how others are vulnerable to being controlled by those willing to exploit their faith. 


Let's call it a compromise and go check it out for yourself.

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