Bigfoot and Big Scares in ‘Devolution’

One of the greatest, most terrible, most amazing parts about reading is when you find yourself absolutely immersed in a book and nothing—not responsibilities, relationships, or reasonable bedtimes—can draw you out of it. Which is why I was flipping ebook page after ebook page at 1:30 a.m. as I raced to reach the end of Max Brooks’ Devolution.

That is one big foot.

Devolution follows Kate and her husband, Dan, as they seek a new start in Greenloop, an urban paradise nestled in the heart of the Washington State wilderness. Greenloop might be miles away from Seattle or Tacoma or any other civilized area, but amid the bird songs and wild blackberries, the eleven residents of the village enjoy high-speed internet in smart houses and get groceries by way of regular drone deliveries. The houses, maintained regularly by a visiting handyman, have burglar alarms, but who needs them in a place where everyone knows everyone and “being neighborly” is a way of life?

When nearby Mount Rainier erupts, the Greenloop residents are spared damage beyond a little cracked window glass—but they realize quickly that they are cut off from civilization in a far more real and perilous way than they had been before. With no drone deliveries or contracted handyman visits, what they have is what they’ve got, and as the world around them crumbles with the aftereffects of the disaster, they realize they are on their own and winter is coming on quick. But what could have been a harrowing-enough task of surviving some lean and frigid months takes a far more sinister turn when Kate notices something large watching her in the woods—and when she sees footprints in the ash that look human but are much, much too large. What’s worse is that the makers of those footprints are hungry, too, and Greenloop is right there for the taking.

Devolution‘s subtitle is A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, which is a promise, not a spoiler. It also hints at Brooks’ narrative choice in telling this story: Kate’s account is retrieved from a journal she kept from arriving at Greenloop to…well, that would be a spoiler. Those journal entries are supplemented with a forward, epilogue, and commentary from a columnist who also conducted interviews with Kate’s brother and a park ranger for the book, which are included in the book too, and to great effect. Each voice is clear and consistent, and sounds authoritative to the character it belongs to. The whole combination has a real smack of reality to it, much like Brooks’ excellent World War Z, a convincing if fictional history of a zombie plague.

The movie adaptation could have been a mockumentary! It would have been amazing! Instead we got a bland, zombie-themed action movie. So much storytelling potential wasted for Brad Pitt’s starpower. I will die mad.

That sense of reality doesn’t encroach on pacing, either. Again, I raced my way through this, especially when things started getting dicey. One of the toughest things to do in horror is show just enough of the threat to communicate its danger without showing so much that it removes the mystery of the extent of the threat before the final confrontation. The unknown is almost always more frightening than what we can see and do something about. Brooks pulls this off fantastically, even though the threat and eventual result are on the cover. As Kate’s feeling she’s being watched and the footprints get dismissed by her, and later her neighbors, I could picture all the ways things were going to go very badly, which gave me the shivers long before she sees her first actual sasquatch. The question of Kate’s reliability as a narrator, too, increases the tension as the plot progresses. And perhaps the thing that’s lingered for me most is the wordplay of the title: though the obvious reference is to the different evolutionary path taken by the sasquatches, seeing what happens to people as the pressure rises is perhaps the most chilling thing of all.

Devolution starts out bright and cheery, giving us further to fall by the end. And oh, how it does fall, careening to those final bloody pages. Whether or not you start reading this way too late and stay up to finish is up to you.

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