Stephen Graham Jones was one of the guest instructors at the 2016 Clarion West Science Fiction Writers Workshop. I first met him at a Tuesday night reading at the University of Washington Bookstore. Since he’s a Blackfeet Native American, I asked him what I could read of his work that reflected Native American themes. He suggested Bleed Into Me, his first short story collection.
It turned out to be the only book of his that wasn’t available to order on Amazon. A search turned up a copy in the Seattle Public Library system, so I reserved it and waited for it to arrive at my branch.
Bleed Into Me is a collection of literary fiction on the Native American experience. Some of the stories are short almost stream-of-consciousness vignettes, while others read more like traditional stories. Jones has a lean, honest style that tells the bare bones of a tale but leaves much for the reader to fill in. Some of his stories reminded me of the work of Sherman Alexie, only Jones’s stories are less comedic; they are darker, bleaker, and in some instances full of despair. The Native American experience, yes.
However, I felt my foray into the works of Stephen Graham Jones was incomplete. After all, during his reading and during a conversation we shared during a writer’s gathering, it was obvious that the fantasy/horror side of his writing was very important, perhaps even of paramount importance, to him. He loves the horror genre, particularly the subgenre of werewolf stories. That’s why he was a teacher at the workshop, and I have a feeling that writing horror is one thing that helps him cope with the unresolved bleakness and despair I found in his first collection.
So I decided to try out some of his more recent work, and I got hold of his fantasy/horror collection After the People Lights Have Gone Off. And yes, this is where it all came together. Not to minimize his earlier work, but the combination of his Native American background and his interest in horror and the macabre makes for some good reading. When he spoke and answered questions after the reading, he made it clear how much horror means to him. He’s one of those writers (like me) who can’t not write, who feels compelled to write as a calling, and in his case, horror is the means to let out whatever is screaming to burst free from his heart and mind.
As I mentioned, he is particularly enamored of werewolves, and his latest novel, Mongrels, from which he read, exudes his fascination with them. In fact, After the People Lights Have Gone Off has the werewolf story that turned out to become the first chapter of that novel, and it’s one of the strongest stories in the book. The other stories vary in intensity but are all entertaining.
So in attending the reading, I experienced a thrill every reader looks for: a great new author to read. Horror is not really my preferred genre for reading or writing, but once in a while an author comes along and compels me to make an exception. Stephen Graham Jones is one such writer.