Friday, August 7, 2020

"Devolution," by Max Brooks--Guest Fiction Review By: James Reinhardt

In 2003, author Max Brooks burst onto the scene with “The Zombie Survival Guide.” Right at the perfect cultural moment, catching a wave of revived interest in the zombie sub-genre after the release of “28 Days Later” and just before Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” revitalized the zombie movie for the 21st century. In 2006, in the middle of this renewed interest in zombies, Brooks published “World War Z,” an instant success spawning countless imitators and, like every successful book, eventually a movie. While most zombie media before WWZ took a smaller approach mostly focusing on a small group of survivors, WWZ looked at a zombie apocalypse on a global scale, offering multiple points of view as a UN employee gathered first-hand accounts of the zombie war.

Now, Max Brooks returns with a new horror novel, but this time decides to follow up zombies with something entirely different...

Max Brooks

If you remember from my last post on this blog, I’m a sucker for the paranormal and Cryptozoology, and in the world of Cryptids, there’s nothing—ahem—bigger than the big guy himself, Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, as some call him.

Bigfoot has grown beyond being a figure of the paranormal and fringe-science and has become something of a staple of American folklore, a sort of new world version of the European Green Man legend symbolizing both harmony with nature but also nature’s wrath. The big, hairy guy has also carved out a nice niche for himself in pop-culture, figuring in commercials, TV shows, and films. Depending on what you watch, Bigfoot is either depicted as a kindly gentle giant or a raging monster, with nothing in between, and there’s an entire sub-genre of straight-to-VOD “Bigfoot attacks” movies.

So when I found out that Max Brooks’ next novel would be a Bigfoot story, I couldn’t wait to see what the man who revolutionized zombie literature would do for Bigfoot. Bigfoot has quite a... spotty literary history, to say the least. There’s no shortage of pseudo-scientific Bigfoot books out there, most of which are just rehashes of Bigfoot eyewitness accounts mixed in with the author’s own theories, as well as outlandish “true” stories which read like lousy fiction that the author was hoping to pass off as real (much like “The Mothman Prophecies.”) There have been a few attempts at Bigfoot horror fiction, with mixed results, and of course, there’s an entire section of Amazon dedicated to Bigfoot erotica for the Kindle, if you’re into that sort of thing (no judgment here if you are).

So anyway, a respected author like Max Brooks taking a stab at Bigfoot was a big deal for me. Apparently, Brooks first developed this story as a film for Legendary pictures but then decided that he wanted to do it as a novel first (Legendary announced that it was once again developing “Devolution” as a film just days after the book was released). So how did Brooks’ fair at writing a horror novel about Bigfoot?

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Brooks paints a good picture of city folk who like the idea of getting back to nature but have no idea what that actually entails. This is a story about modern people looking to get in touch with nature while also enjoying all of the conveniences of modern life, only to find out how merciless nature can be. I really enjoyed how the characters in this book had not only to learn how to survive and adapt but also fight against an enemy that no human has ever faced before. Two of my favorite horror movies, Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” and Neil Marshall’s “The Descent,” are about normal people who must revert to their most primal nature in order to survive against enemies that have avoided the influence of society, and that’s very much the crux of this story as well. The title of the book, “Devolution,” very much refers to the characters in the story and how they must shed the trappings of modern society, and their own humanity, to survive.

I’ll also give it to Max Brooks—he did his Bigfoot research. The Sasquatches in this novel exhibit behavior that’s commonly detailed in eyewitness accounts like rock throwing, tree knocking, howling, and having an overpowering stench. “Devolution” also contains references to Teddy Roosevelt’s book “The Wilderness Hunter,” in which Roosevelt recounts tales he’s heard of Bigfoot. There are also references to the Ape Canyon incident, something that Brooks seemingly drew a lot of inspiration from, where allegedly miners shot a Bigfoot in an area around Mount St. Helens known as “Ape Canyon.” Then later that night, their cabin was set upon by a group of giant, angry gorilla-like beasts.

The big, hairy invaders are also all given distinctive looks and personalities, which I appreciated, though the Bigfoot in this book fall more into the “raging beast” category of Bigfoot. Brooks made a worldwide zombie plague seem plausible in “World War Z,” and he does the same with Bigfoot in this novel, taking great pains to make his Sasquatches seem like something you could encounter in the woods if you went hiking too far off the beaten path...

What I didn’t love about this book: 

While the Bigfoot in this book are given some depth and personality, I feel like the human characters could have used a little more of that. Most of this story is told through the POV of the character of Kate, detailing the events in her journal, and I feel like the choice to tell this story through one character’s eyes hinders it because a lot of the supporting characters get very little development. Horror stories only work if you’re scared for the characters in the story, and we get plenty of insight into the mind of Kate since she’s the one telling most of the story, but we only get her view of the rest of the characters. Dan, her partner, gets the most development after Kate, followed by Mostar, an artist with a past that gives her unique insight into having to survive.

Sadly, some of the additional side characters all blended together, to the point where I found myself having to refer to earlier in the book to remind myself who a certain character was. We never really get to know a lot of the supporting cast beyond surface-level character traits. While I feel like Brooks wanted some of his characters to come off as shallow and vapid, it leaves the reader uninvested in the story, when bad things start to happen. 

I also could have used a little more growth in Kate and Dan’s relationship. When we first meet them, Dan has grown emotionally distant, which has put a strain on their relationship, but as the story goes, Dan finds new purpose as the town’s “handyman.” Sadly, we don’t really see how this impacts their relationship as the latter half of the book focuses mostly on the conflict with the Bigfoot. Granted, a fight for survival against 7-foot tall apes takes precedent, but I would have liked a few more moments between the main characters growing either closer because of this conflict or it driving a bigger wedge between them.

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Author's Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The Quick and Dirty Synopsis:

In the aftermath of Mount Rainier erupting, a rescue team finds the remains of Greenloop, a once cutting edge eco-community, and among those ruins is a journal detailing a conflict with giant, hairy primates commonly known as Sasquatch.

Like Brooks’ previous novel, World War Z, most of this story is told in flashback, as a reporter presents the reader with Kate’s journal entries as well as interviews with experts giving additional context and background. Most of the story is told from Kate’s journal entries and how she and her partner Dan move to Greenloop looking for a fresh start. Things get complicated, however, when Mount Rainier erupts, effectively cutting off the residents of the eco-community from the rest of the world. The situation goes from bad to worse when a family of Sasquatch, displaced by the eruption, stumble across the community and soon start battling with the humans for resources.


This is essentially a “man vs. nature” story in every sense of the word. When we first meet our characters, they’ve moved to a new, green community that benefits from modern technology, complete with getting their supplies delivered via drone, and every home synced up to iPads. I mentioned earlier how “The Descent” is one of my favorite horror movies, and one of the reasons I love it is because it gives us a terrifying situation even before the monsters show up. Being lost in a massive subterranean cave is claustrophobic and intense enough, but adding in mutated monsters is just icing on the cake. “Devolution” is something similar where a volcanic eruption cutting our characters off from society presents us with a terrifying situation already, especially since we’re shown that our characters know nothing about nature or surviving without the crutch of modern technology.

Trying to ration and grow their own food is one thing, but now our poor, modern heroes must battle Bigfoot too? That’s where the story really picks up, and our characters genuinely have to “get back to nature,” and not in the “go for a hike and feel harmony” way, but more in the “become a primitive hunter” kind of way. The book isn’t subtle about being a cautionary tale about living off the grid when you have no idea of how actually to do that and makes several references to stories like Grizzly Man just to be sure you know.

One thing I appreciate about Brooks’ books is that they could very easily fall into the conservative “every man for himself” way of thinking. People seem to cling to the zombie sub-genre because they fantasize about themselves as the lone survivor cutting themselves off from society when things go wrong, but WWZ carried a message about the world coming together for the greater good, and “Devolution” does the same. While at first, our characters are out of their depth, they very quickly learn to adapt and come together to defend their community and each other. Both of Brooks’ novels carry themes about how humanity must adapt to survive, but how we have to stand united to do so.

Parting Thoughts:

While I wouldn’t call “Devolution’ a game-changer like “World War Z,” it’s still a reasonably entertaining, well done, and well-researched book. A lot of the human characters could have used a little more depth, and I think that’s what kept me from truly loving this book. That said, it’s still a fun little horror novel and an easy read. If you’re like me and are interested in a fun, Bigfoot story, then it’s worth a read, or if you just want a quick and easy summer read, this is the book for you. 

Overall I did really enjoy this book but felt that it needed a little more meat on its bones. I feel like there’s so much potential for a cool, well-done horror story about Bigfoot, Mothman, or other cryptids, but we haven’t had it yet. As much as I thought this was an entertaining story, it still feels like only a step above the “Angry Bigfoot Attacks” movies that you find on VOD or on the SyFy Channel on a Saturday night.

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