Let's talk about historical fiction writer Earl Murray's 1988 Native American horror novel, Ten Little Indians, but first check out that gorgeous Lisa Falkenstern cover which contains all the fine technique and craftsmanship that's absent from the book. Spoiler alert: this cover is as good as it gets. And where we're going, it won't get this good again.
10LI begins with a storm that apparently feels like "eyes and hands, all grasping and pulling at the mind until it stretched the very inside of the brain" which sounds exactly like how our local Channel 5 weatherman, Gene Showers, used to describe Spring thunderstorms when he was stoned on cold medicine.
As the storm grasps and pulls at their minds, nine-year-old Shayla Bennett rides up Eagle Hill Mountain, Minnesota in a car with her foster parents, George and Claudia Bennett, who are taking her into the chatty mountains as a reward for letting them dye her hair to hide her "Crow features." These mountains are obnoxiously expressive, shouting, "Come home..." to Shayla whenever they're not "crying." Then Shayla says, "Daddy, what if there's no road? What will you do then?" And George says, "Don't be silly, there's a — AAAAhhhhhhh!" and they drive off the mountain. Shayla has to drag herself to safety over the mangled bodies of her foster parents who wait until she's clambering across their smashed skulls to breathe their last right into her face and Shayla, "realized things had changed and from now on her life wouldn't be the same." She's not the only one.
Cut to: Leon Hill, anthropologist, doing an environmental impact study on Eagle Hill mine, drinking a nauseating mix of Jack Daniels and peach schnapps while wondering why the hell he's together with his girlfriend Liz who "had thick red hair and wore short dresses and spiked heels. And aside from her insatiable sexual appetite and bountiful body to enhance the pleasure, he saw nothing that could possibly cement their relationship." Everyone in the beat down town is waiting for his environmental impact study so that giant corporation, NOMCO, can reopen the old mine, which is why Leon hides the archeological remains of a Native American tribe that he finds so as not to hold things up. Then he finds the freshly killed Bennetts in their car, goes to get the Sheriff, and when he come back the Bennett's have magically transformed into desiccated skeletons.
"I hate skeletons," the Sheriff grumbles while the EMT throws up. Later in the book Leon, the Sheriff, and Shayla will all vomit many, many, many times. All that barfing was how authors let you know they were writing horror fiction back in the Eighties.
Meanwhile, Native American spirits are bringing Shayla food in her dreams and then she eats it and it turns out to be real food, and they build her a real house, and she's living pretty comfortably on ghost slave labor until she spies on the construction guys who were hired to winch her foster parents's car out of the ditch. They spot nine-year-old Shayla and decide to rape her because, well, this is a Zebra book and that's just the kind of thing that happens in Zebra books. Their plan doesn't reach maximum skeeviness, however, because they're both eaten alive by dozens of invisible monsters.
Shayla is stunned until Feather Woman, a mystical Crow ghost spirit woman and general contractor, tells her that these are the ancient and legendary Little People:
No, not those Little People. These Little People are tiny cannibals who lived in America before even Native Americans arrived and they are so crafty they're practically invisible. Also, they might be ghosts. And they're apparently licensed electricians and plumbers who can build houses for little girls whose parents drove off mountains. The mine NOMCO wants to reopen happens to contain the burial grounds of the Little People and Leon has a change of heart and decides he has to stop them. And Shayla decides she likes living alone in nature and so the book becomes becomes My Side of the Mountain with added invisible dwarf cannibals.
Ultimately, Liz sells Leon out to NOMCO so she can pay for all the conditioner her thick red hair needs, and Leon confronts the bad guys in a cave surrounded by a bunch of Little People mummies. Then there's an earthquake which causes some of the miners to run away and some to stay at their posts which Murray describes as "division of labor" and I don't think that means what he thinks it means. The earthquake knocks Leon out but then, "Leon finally rose to his feet, his head still groggy. He didn't know how long he had been unconscious, but it was late, and the entire town was blowing up." So that happens. Then the Little People mummies come to life and eat all the NOMCO officials, concentrating mostly on their hearts and livers which they burrow after with all the eagerness of an 85-year-old bingo champ at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Then poorly written and perhaps impossible things happen like the Little People rip off the heads of the two main bad guys, and the heads keep talking "as if not realizing they were dead" and then the Little People smack the two decapitated heads together and send them "cracking into pieces that flew onto the walls."
The mine collapses, and so does the local economy, Leon is declared mentally unstable so he can't get a job, and he's also in a wheelchair, but that's okay because it keeps Liz with him out of guilt. Sometimes he goes up the mountain and listens to the sound of Shayla singing because she seems to be a ghost now and part of the whole Little People construction firm. Whatever it is, Leon "knew full well things would never be the same."