The latest “oral history” from Max Brooks brings back Sasquatch horror
Over the past few decades, pop culture has done its best to defang Bigfoot. Movies like Harry and the Hendersons and a series of commercials make the creature cuddly, or a joke. And, despite the fact that Bigfoot allegedly weighs hundreds of pounds and stands anywhere from seven to ten feet tall, many Bigfoot believers claim it’s a gentle giant, easily spooked by humans. He’s become a big, soft Muppet, a Snuffleupagus hiding out in the wilderness.
Max Brooks isn’t having any of that crap. The author of World War Z, the massive blockbuster that helped make zombies scary again, sets out to do the same thing with Sasquatch in Devolution, an account of a high-end eco-settlement under attack by the apelike creatures. In the novel, the Bigfeet are vicious, intelligent predators who slaughter the humans after a natural disaster cuts them off from the outside world.
Brooks mainly narrates Devolution through the journal entries of Kate Holland, a stereotypical resident of Los Angeles’s West Side who moves to the settlement, called Greenloop, with her husband Dan. By the time Kate introduces the other residents, you’re ready for the Sasquatch to murder them all, Kate included. She’s shallow, judgmental, and couches her snotty comments about the others in passive-aggressive asides: “Is that mean? I don’t want to be mean. Just an observation.”
Fortunately, catastrophe hits Devolution before Kate has time to take more than a few yoga classes. Mount Rainier erupts, plunging the entire state into chaos, and it forgets Greenloop aftermath. The settlement loses its Internet service and its regular drone deliveries from Whole Foods. The people slowly realize they are on their own, without supplies, weapons, or even a shovel or a hammer. They’ve made themselves so environmentally friendly they’re at risk of becoming organic compost. “Siri, should we be worried?” Kate asks herself at one point.
But Kate develops from a cliché of entitlement into a smarter and tougher—and much more compelling—character under the guidance of Mostar, an older woman who lived through the Bosnian genocide. While the settlement’s tech-bro founder hides in his cabin, Kate learns to plant seeds, ration food, and take care of herself.
Refreshingly, the people don’t turn out to be the true monsters in Devolution the way it usually works in horror movies. Yes, the Greenloop residents are selfish and delusional at first, but they work past it. (Well, most of them. Some very much do not, and they pay a high price for it.) And yes, the collective idiocy of our government definitely leads to more deaths, in addition to stranding the residents in their little green corner of Hell. Brooks could have lifted some of the passages in Devolution detailing the multiple failures in the wake of the Rainier eruption directly from the federal COVID-19 response.
But humanity is not the problem here. The problem is what happens when humanity walks blithely into the wilderness, expecting Disneyfied chipmunks and sparrows.
That’s where the Sasquatch come in. The residents aren’t the only ones going hungry, and a nearby troop of the monsters discovers Greenloop to be a one-stop shop for tasty, free-range humans.
Brooks goes back to the roots of the Bigfoot legend to bring back some of its horror. Stories of Sasquatch preying on humans began with the original Native American legends of wild men and continue today. Teddy Roosevelt included a campfire tale of a Bigfoot who tore the throat out of an unlucky trapper in his writings.
And there are those who claim that the creatures are responsible for literally hundreds of murders of visitors to national parks and forests, which the federal authorities are covering up or ignoring. (One Bigfoot sighting in California in 2017 led to a lawsuit demanding that the state warn people of the danger. The plaintiffs later dropped the suit.) In interviews, people who have sighted Bigfoot say the Sasquatch has filled them with a sense of overwhelming terror.
Brooks works hard to make his Devolution premise plausible, packing the novel with facts and footnotes ranging from the carnivorous habits of primates, to the story of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, to mountain lion attacks on people. Some of the funniest moments come from his deadpan narration. But there’s no smirking, no ironic distance, when the bodies start to pile up.
As a result, the conflict between the people and the beasts is genuinely thrilling. The pages fly by as the battle moves to an inevitable final showdown, where the humans are completely outnumbered and outmatched. That’s where we find out if we still have what it takes to live in a world without Instacart or Instagram.
Brooks may or may not actually believe in Bigfoot. But it’s clear he believes in us, in our ability to pull together, to cooperate in the face of impossible odds, and, above all, to survive. That’s the surprisingly uplifting moral of the story. If we can stop fighting each other long enough, we are capable of anything.
(Del Rey, June 16, 2020)