Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks
Max Brooks is in top form with Devolution, his first major disaster thriller after the acclaimed World War Z. I had expectations for the novel, given how stunning World War Z turned out, a tale that cemented itself into the well-worn zombie genre with oodles of sophistication. Like that tale, Devolution is about survival, not just the horrors that tear the world down. It’s about making a gut check and figuring out whether you will fold or fight when society itself crumbles.
The tale is structured similarly to World War Z which was told through eyewitness accounts of a global war. Devolution centers on the recovered journal of one of the characters who lived through the horror of being trapped in the Washington state wilderness after Mount Rainier erupts and cuts off her small eco-community. Surviving the winter becomes secondary to surviving against beasts thought only to lurk in folklore and legend. That’s right, Bigfoot is the boogeyman here, and what the creatures do to this small group of stranded homo sapiens is truly terrifying.
The story is all muscle, no fat – the couple’s arrival to their new home off the beaten path, the introduction of this eco-community as a new sustainable American way of life, the volcano disaster, and then the slow horrifying realization that the wilderness is bigger and darker than they ever imagined.
I love how the story sets the stage with the indictment of society with its willful destruction of the planet so that people can simply maintain their lifestyles. The Green Revolution promises a modern solution that delivers both comfort and sustainability. Americans can’t live without the former before committing to the latter. But we find out soon enough the reality that people can’t make nature adapt to them, they must adapt to it. There’s no middle ground. You adapt or die.
The book asks the reader to decide if the journal is part of a large-scale hoax or the most detailed account ever recorded of Bigfoot, an animal dismissed as the product of crackpot theories over the years. The author then does something even bolder at the risk of losing the reader’s interest – no survivors were found, just the journal, so we go into the story without having even the hope of an ending where the people we read about are still alive.
Without spoilers, there’s a reason for this, which I found out at the end, and Brooks brings it home full force with a satisfying conclusion.
The book’s title is clever and speaks to why Bigfoot hides and thrives still today, and the regular interludes in the book describe actual recorded behavior of primates in the animal kingdom. This lends credibility and creepiness to the horrors that play out. This book immerses you if you let it, and it serves as part cautionary tale, part survival guide, and part character study on society and what we individually are really made of.
I highly recommend it, especially to fans of Brooks’ other survival work, and for those who want to make that gut check.
The Spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Brooks sets up the narrative arc with creepy foreshadowing. There are interludes where experts describe certain animal behavior. You get one description of chimpanzees hunting in packs and disemboweling smaller primates. Gruesome and it lets you know what’s coming.
Brooks knows how to introduce the horror in slow drips. I remember the first encounter Kate, the protagonist, has with a Bigfoot. She thinks it’s a boulder in the middle of the road:
Then I saw the rock move. It shifted in place, grew, then disappeared behind the trees. I also thought I saw it change shape, lengthen, narrow, even spread out limbs like a tree. Arms? I rubbed my eyes, blinked hard.
Fast forward to some truly tense showdowns when there is no longer any doubt that these creatures exist. The sasquatches mangle one human to draw out the others and then when it fails, they, in horrific fashion, tear the man apart.
One of the monsters’ key tactics: rocks as artillery. The houses take a beating when cantaloupe-sized rocks shatter the mostly glass walls of the homes, exposing the humans even more.
The Alpha turns out to be a female, a monster behemoth, gruesomely scarred and relentless in her pursuit of her prey. All the other sasquatches show absolute deference to her and when she kills the community’s founders, it’s a squeamish scene that strikes a primal fear in you.
Kate claims her own status as the alphas of the human survivors when trapped in a bathroom, close to imminent death, she wraps a towel around her hand and lights it on fire just as the Alpha sasquatch shatters the bathroom door to make Kate her next snack. Kate punches her, putting her fist straight into the beast’s mouth for a barbeque surprise. Truly badass.
At the same time the humans use what was once a weakness with the glass exteriors to create a minefield of shattered glass to slow down the predators from getting to them inside.
It almost works but one of the bravest characters doesn’t survive a one-on-one showdown with a beast. Mostar is a survivor of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and she is the catalyst to get this American group to act early once she understands they are being stalked by something unnatural. At her end, she draws the beast in and stakes it through the heart as it smashes her with the weight of its lunging body.
There’s a lot of tactical play that takes place throughout the third act, and it’s absolutely delicious. The final showdown is screen worthy and plays out in vivid technicolor ultraviolence. Kate embraces her leadership role and the group makes an Alamo-type last stand where the humans finally unleash their inner killer instinct and bring to bear everything they have in their arsenal of homemade weapons and traps in a gambit to outlast the bigger, stronger tribe. It’s bitter to see the humans fall one by one in this battle of attrition, but there’s the knowledge that this is the only way. It’s truly a contest of survival in the basest sense – kill or be killed.
Kate’s boyfriend Dan is gruesomely stomped to death by Alpha after his melee attack with his custom coconut knife misses her heart, but Kate hurls herself at the beast in the very next heartbeat. Using her aluminum-covered shield to distract the monster, she drives “the Damascus blade through skin and muscle, heart and lungs.” It finishes off the matriarch and solidifies victory for the humans, all two of them.
In the epilogue, Brooks plants the seed of an idea in your head. We don’t actually know if Kate and her now surrogate daughter Palomino survived the winter that followed – we only have Kate’s recovered journal – but the narrator suggests several theories, the most interesting that some primal instinct took over Kate and she made it her mission become a predator herself and hunt down the remaining sasquatches so that those horrors would never come back. So, yeah, she’s somewhere in the wild, a stone cold killer of Bigfoot. It’s chillingly good and fits right into this tale of survival of the fittest.
4.5 of 5 stars.