Just in time for Halloween, one of the most notable names in the horror genre is coming to Aiken. No, it is not Stephen King, even though the work of our visiting writer is sometimes compared to the narratives of that revered figure in horror fiction. In fact, Stephen Graham Jones’ short story collection “The Ones that Got Away” was nominated along with King’s “Full Dark, No Stars” for the coveted Bram Stoker Award in 2010. Jones lost to King that year, but since he is only 40 and 25 years King’s junior, Jones has plenty of time to catch up.
Born in West Texas in 1972, Jones did not offer much early promise of a distinguished career. Indeed, he dropped out of high school and thought for a time that he could earn a living as a pool shark. It was only through the intervention of his mother that he eventually earned his diploma from an alternative school and subsequently attended college, majoring in both English and philosophy at Texas Tech. Years later, after earning a doctorate in creative writing at Florida State, he was back at his alma mater, this time on the teaching faculty. He is now an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
A Native American by birth – he is a member of the Blackfeet Nation – Jones does not like to be labeled, and this is also true of his body of work. Although he confesses to be “most comfortable” writing horror, Jones has made a name for himself in other genres as well, including experimental, Western, crime, detective and science fiction.
Jones is indeed difficult to pin down. For one thing, he is constantly writing and constantly publishing, turning out hundreds of stories to date and over a dozen books in as many years. The first, which evolved from his dissertation, was entitled “The Fast Red Road,” and it is marked by linguistic overabundance. Jones himself admits, “Initially my fiction was just stuffed, was overfull, was me trying to show everybody I was smart.”
Since then, he has pared down his style, making it leaner. His vision, however, still remains essentially dark. “Lying in bed at night, what I’m always thinking of is violence,” Jones confesses. “All the worst kind. And my heart gets beating so hard that I have to get up, write deep into the morning.”
His latest book, one that he claims is very close to nonfiction, bears witness to this claim. Entitled “Growing Up Dead in Texas,” the novel is predicated upon a fictional fire in the small town of Greenwood, Texas, a conflagration that “turns families on each other” and summons to the forefront “more secrets than your average graveyard.”
Although still a young man himself, Jones finds himself centering his narratives on protagonists even younger than he, characters that he admits are “mostly himself in disguise.” In his novel “All the Beautiful Sinners” (2003), it is deputy sheriff Jim Doe on the trail of a serial killer called The Tin Man; in “Demon Theory” (2006), the main character named Hale and six of his medical school friends return to the house where his sister disappeared years before; in “Ledfeather” (2008), it is adolescent Doby Saxon who uncovers unknown facts about a long-dead Indian agent.
All of these characters are part of the writer, who avows, “Every time I’d hit a wall, instead of wallowing around, indulging in indecision, being romantically tortured by writer’s block, I’d just reach in my head, plop a piece of my own life down. It leaves me no choice but to invest myself in the story.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. on the main stage of USC Aiken’s Etherredge Center, Jones will be sharing another piece of himself, this time on stage, as he reads from and talks about some of his latest work.
A highlight of the 2012-2013 James and Mary Oswald Distinguished Writers Series, now in its 27th year, the reading is free and open to the public. Seating is first-come, first-served.
Following the formal presentation, there will be a book signing in the lobby of the Etherredge Center; profits from the sale of Jones’ books that evening will benefit the USCA English Honor Society Scholarship Endowment.
Tom Mack received the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008 and currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken.