Haunted Native America: On Theodore C. Van Alst Jr. and Shane Hawk’s “Never Whistle at Night”

By Eric Gary AndersonApril 8, 2024

Haunted Native America: On Theodore C. Van Alst Jr. and Shane Hawk’s “Never Whistle at Night”

Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology by Theodore C. Van Alst Jr. and Shane Hawk

FOR A LONG TIME, Indigenous representation in horror literature was limited to an undead collective attached to a particular location: the Indian burial ground. As a cringe horror trope, such nebulous undead Indians often take the blame for supernatural happenings that beset the real estate investments of non-Native people.

More recently, horror has been transformed by writers like Stephen Graham Jones, a Blackfeet author who invents memorable, living, three-dimensional Indigenous characters with given names, rap names (in The Only Good Indians, Amos After Buffalo’s rap name is Tone Def), werewolf grandfathers, slasher tendencies, and only the occasional, brief visit to a cemetery.

Throughout his career, Jones has pushed back against the idea that Indigenous writers should write primarily about Indigeneity. Jones envisions a haunted North America that is unquiet in various ways and for various reasons. Sometimes the ghosts and monsters are avatars of colonialism; sometimes they predate colonialism; sometimes their points of origin are hard to discern; sometimes they are an Elk Head Woman traversing a Montana winter landscape in basketball shorts; and sometimes they speak most powerfully to the characters’ own repressed fears and anxieties, their complicated relationships to family and communities, and other intimate ambiguities. Jones’s horror writing is complex in large part because it is so capacious, so deeply informed by Indigenous knowledge and experiences and at the same time so keenly attuned to non-Indigenous mass cultures. The more of his horror novels and short stories you read, the more you’ll see that Jones writes large-scale horror: there are many different forms of monster; these monsters surface in many different (though always concretely drawn) locations; and the spookiness raises big questions about race, gender, power, popular thought, and more.

In “Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer—And Maybe to Myself,” Jones urges emerging Indian writers to “[g]o on, get out there, traffic in the genres typically denied to Indians. That we’re not allowed to do fantasy or science fiction and the rest, it’s both stereotyping us and it’s primitivizing our writing […] Write where you’re not supposed to write […] Leave the whole bookcase red.” In fact, he tells the writer he’s mentoring, “If you are Indian, whatever ‘Indian’ might be, then whatever you do, that’s Indian as well.” Everything Indigenous people write is Indigenous writing and every horror story they write is Indigenous horror, whether or not it includes Indigenous characters or is set on a reservation or grapples with the dark legacies of 19th-century US wars against Indians or the broader, longer histories of colonial violence against Native people. Horror and other forms of dark fiction are perfectly useful vessels for the decolonizing work of leaving bookcases red and read.

The influence of Jones, whose first novel came out in 2000, hovers over the recent collection edited by Shane Hawk and Theodore C. Van Alst Jr., Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology (2023), like a beaming paternal gargoyle. His importance—as forefather, field-changer, contemporary, colleague, horror fan, person who stays up late telling spooky stories—is unmistakable; it’s impossible to imagine Never Whistle at Night’s existence without him. He contributes an introduction that affirms what the very existence of this 400-page collection makes clear: “[T]here’s more here than we thought.” For one thing, more Indigenous writers are taking up dark and scary things; the table of contents for this book includes writers who haven’t specialized in horror (Tommy Orange, Kelli Jo Ford, Mona Susan Power, and many others). For another thing, the dark and scary things in question are impressively varied. Indigenous horror fiction is clearly rising up, for reasons that Jones gets at in his foreword:

[Native people] tend to like our stories to end […] with bleeding over, bleeding across, haunting us […] [because] it feels kind of fake and wrong and all too American to throw up walls between what’s real and what’s maybe not real. So, telling ourselves stories about the world being bigger than we thought, big enough for bigfoot and little people, that’s really kind of saying to the so-called settlers that, hey, yeah, so you took all that land you could see. But what about all this other territory you don’t even know about, man?

Or, really: Why you don’t come over here into the dark with us, into that other land? We can show you a thing or two, maybe. About the way things really are. And about the way they should be. The way they can be. The way they will be again.

“The dark” is complicated. As Jones suggests, it’s a form of Indigenous knowledge as well as a recalibration of colonial assumptions about land claim and land access. It helps map what Blackfeet historian Rosalyn LaPier calls the “invisible reality” of a world that is bigger than you think and densely populated with Indigenously defined horrors and (for lack of a better word) supernatural elements in and on Indigenous land.

Still, as Never Whistle at Night makes plain, the real monsters of settler colonialism and the real hauntings of colonial trauma are present literally every day. Indigenous dark fiction is not escapist. The “so-called settlers” that Jones mentions never go away; in fact, they come in like a firestorm in several of the stories in this book. But the authors in this collection also have such sights to show us of “that other land” in its terrifying, exhilarating variety.

To see them, of course, we’re indebted to characters who flagrantly flout the injunction posed in the title of this collection. “Never whistle at night” sounds like good advice, but horror stories as a general rule take wing when characters do exactly what they should not do: split up, go down to the basement, look in a mirror, or chant the wrong thing at the wrong time and place. The title Never Whistle at Night perhaps looks back to that of M. R. James’s classic 1904 story, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” in which an academic skeptical of all things supernatural finds an ancient whistle in a hole in some stonework and—blows into it. And something responds. In Indigenous contexts, whistling at night similarly risks summoning evil or weird spirits who might attach themselves to the whistler and will, more likely than not, prove very difficult to shake off. But, as Jones points out, “There’s scary stuff in stories, sure, there’s stuff that keeps you up at night [and hopefully not whistling], there’s stuff that makes you watch the darkness you’re driving through that much closer. But there’s hope, too.”

Taken together, the 26 stories in Never Whistle at Night make clear that the scary stuff—the thing or entity or situation that might respond to a nocturnal whistle or make itself known by other means—takes many terrifying yet eerily hopeful forms. Many of these forms—ghosts, haunted and/or sentient houses, man-made monsters, werewolves, and creatures driven by unrelenting, ravenous hunger, to name but a few—are familiar. Some of the stories look directly at another familiar horror motif with pointed significance for Indigenous writers and texts: horrifying extractions—of blood, of teeth—that figuratively evoke extractive colonial invasions. Some of the monsters, like the title entity in the outstanding first story in this collection, Mathilda Zeller’s “Kushtuka,” are traditionally Indigenous; others are, to the best of my knowledge, stepping into the world for the first time in this anthology. The authors also do not shy away from other familiar genre modes such as body horror and gross-out horror, as in Cherie Dimaline’s gruesome “Tick Talk,” which features a giant expanding tick in one unfortunate character’s stomach. As the Dakota preteen narrator of Mona Susan Power’s “Dead Owls” points out, “Sometimes it’s convenient being Native—we’ve got a pretty high tolerance for weirdness.” I would very much like to hear more, though, about how the editors, Shane Hawk and Theodore Van Alst Jr., parse “dark fiction” and “horror” as well as “weirdness.” This book feels a bit haunted by the absence of an editorial introduction.

That said, the work the editors have done to gather together this lineup of terrific Indigenous writers and gripping new stories is extremely impressive. To spotlight just a few of the stories: Phoenix Boudreau’s “Hunger” offers up a gaunt, starving, voracious monster who no longer has physical form; its “hunger becomes its form.” This Wehtigo inhabits a fraternity brother and chases an Indigenous woman who recognizes the monster, and with the help of another Native woman, she takes it down while they chat about Reservation Dogs (2021–23). Brandon Hobson’s stylistically arresting “The Ones Who Killed Us” is narrated by a first-person plural narrator: a group of undead Cherokees who have been removed and whose soaring vocabulary includes “anechoic,” “fulvous,” “strabismic” (“his strabismic eye rutilant in the night”), “gredins,” “yampy grues,” and “steatopygous dunces,” as well as numerous Cherokee names and words.

The narrator of Norris Black’s “Before I Go” takes a solo camping trip to visit a rocky gorge where her fiancé fell to his death. But solo camping trips are a kind of whistling at night; the late fiancé visits her in a nightmare and crawls into her sleeping bag with her. And in another exhilaratingly spooky moment reminiscent of the blurrings of dreamworld and actual world in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), we’re told that “[i]t wasn’t until her heart had settled and the tears were wiped from her eyes that she noticed the unzipped tent flap fluttering in the night breeze and the scratches on the backs of her legs.” In Richard Van Camp’s “Scariest. Story. Ever,” an aunty is asked “to tell us the scariest Wheetago or Sasquatch or Aliens or Little People story you know. Tell us about demons. Scare us!” I dare you to read this story!

I loved co-editor Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.’s “The Longest Street in the World,” to my mind the strongest piece in a strong collection thanks to its hard-boiled yet funny voice as well as its central relationship between Johnny Lee Junior (an Indigenous real estate salesman) and the seemingly monstrous but also winningly teamwork-oriented Louis. I was also highly entertained by Power’s “Dead Owls,” whose young Dakota narrator not only watches The Shining (1980) in the movie theater in Bismarck with her Aunt Phyllis and a theater full of mostly Native people but also ends up body-slammed by the ghost of Libby (Mrs. General) Custer, who “has the strength of death” but who, as it turns out, is no more infallible than her husband.

Then there are the red Frankensteins. After the narrator’s queer brother is killed by a lover’s wife in Carson Faust’s “Eulogy for a Brother, Resurrected,” she concludes: “[W]e need to build him a new body from scratch if we want to bring him back.” So they do. In a similar vein, the narrator of Tommy Orange’s “Capgras” says that, “[i]n grad school, I almost wrote my dissertation on the parallels between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the United States government creating Native people as wards of the state.” And speaking of scientists, I very much enjoyed Darcie Little Badger’s “The Scientist’s Horror Story,” which bleeds into real-life horror when a grant proposal designed to help smaller, “unrecognized” tribes is denied.

This collection brilliantly celebrates the range and energy of Indigenous writing about haunted Native America. Some 20 years after Stephen Graham Jones moved beyond the ancient Indian burial ground and turned full-throttle to horror, Never Whistle at Night has arrived to say that the Indigenous writers from all over North America have joined him around the campfire to tell scary stories and leave more and more bookcases red. After all, as the haplessly named Lewis A. Clarke notes in The Only Good Indians, “Indians are spooky.” And, as Van Alst Jr. writes in the acknowledgments of Never Whistle at Night, “It’s something else to be a monster-made man in a world of man-made monsters.”

LARB Contributor

Eric Gary Anderson is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. His most recent work includes contributions to Studies in American Fiction, The Cambridge History of Native American Literature, Queering the South on Screen, Small-Screen Souths (in which he holds forth on The X-Files), and PMLA. He is co-editor of Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture (LSU, 2015) and of a special issue of Studies in the Novel on Indigenous young adult novels, and is currently churning new book projects on the Indigenous undead and on slasher ecologies.


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