Author’s Note: A version of this piece first appeared at The American Conservative on August 28th, 2020.
In Review: “Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre,” by Max Brooks, 2020
By Luke Nathan Phillips
It is only human to be scared of the dark, although that doesn’t stop some of us from occasionally finding ourselves wandering alone around the woods without a light, on a moonless night, for no particular reason. The world changes in these sojourns. Your night-vision perks up, only a little, but discernibly. Your hearing does as well, and you realize just how loud nighttime nature is. You’re more sensitive to the texture of the ground beneath you, to smells you hadn’t noticed before; shadows seem to twist and turn as though alive, and if your mind’s overworking itself, you might feel you’re being watched. These kinds of nights, I repeat to myself that there’s nothing else out there following me, even as I quicken my pace until I’m back in the safety of a well-lit spot. Just in case, of course.
One of the mind’s-eye darkness-monsters I’ve feared since my youth as a Boy Scout in the Pacific Northwest has been, predictably, the sasquatch. The primal fear that some damn dirty ape might be stalking me amid the firs and hemlocks was never particularly well-defined, though, beyond the vague, hairy, hulking figure of cartoon lore. What, exactly, was I afraid a sasquatch would do to me, if I ran into one?
It is to this serial nocturnal wanderer’s great anxiety, then, that the inimitable Max Brooks has given us a vivid, visceral depiction of what a sasquatch might do to you. He vividly and realistically depicts his characters’ split-second reactions when, wandering around in the dark woods of the high Cascades, they see things in the night, but can’t be sure of what they saw, or that they saw it. It’s a feeling we nighttime wanderers have all had, and Brooks captures it eerily. That realism pays dividends; it makes easier the suspension of disbelief required for reading a ‘Bigfoot-Destroys-Town’ story, in this case a story that is not just believable or entertaining, but even morally compelling.
“Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre” is, more or less, what its name suggests. It’s a docufiction, found-footage-style account. Brooks informs us that he was tipped off by the brother of the missing Kate Holland to her last testament—a diary she’d kept when she moved to the tiny, idyllic, ecotopian town of Greenloop (population: 11) on the eastern slopes of Mount Rainier. Shocked by the journal’s contents, Brooks interviewed Kate’s brother, as well as the park ranger who led the first search-and-rescue team into the ashen ruins of Greenloop, where her team had discovered 18-inch humanoid footprints, torched homes, shallow graves, and the said diary. Brooks presents the journal chronologically, appending its entries with snippets of the interview transcripts and, interestingly enough, maxims on war from literary history and haunting quips on ape behavior from famous primatologists like Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall. For good measure, other old bits of sasquatch lore—especially the ‘goblin-beast of Idaho’ story recounted by Theodore Roosevelt in The Wilderness Hunter, and the Ape Canyon legend—make their appearances as well.
All these references are arrayed to present a modestly believable theory of the origins of the sasquatch, as a primate.[i] The real-life giant ancient ape of the Asian mountains, Gigantopithecus blacki, is cast as having been an upright walker, not unlike the smaller hominids with which it shared the earth. Those hominids, first Homo erectus and then us, Homo sapiens, evolved alongside Gigantopithecus throughout the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. When glaciation exposed the Bering Land Bridge tens of thousands of years ago, modern humans crossed from Asia into North America, and so did the apparently-not-yet-extinct Gigantopithecus—the sasquatches. As Kate’s brother muses, “what if… they weren’t just co-migrating along with us? What if they were hunting us? …What if we were stalking the caribou while they were stalking us?”
Early on, in a representative sample of the book’s sometimes maniacally black humor, a despondent and depressed Kate partakes in a welcome-to-your-new-home meditation session with one of the town’s founders. The rich, beautiful, tanned, British-accented, well-connected former model Yvette Durant, is a credentialed ‘psychosomatic illness therapist’ who daily streams virtual ‘integrative health yoga’ sessions to her fans around the world from their secluded, idyllic alpine paradise. After some breathing exercises and new-age gobbledygook, Yvette prods Kate into imagining rushing into the loving arms of ‘Oma,’ the ‘guardian of the wilderness.’ “Feel her energy, her protection. Feel her soft, warm arms around you. Her sweet, cleansing breath surround you.” Kate, entranced, asks if Oma is the same as Bigfoot or Sasquatch; Yvette explains that Eurocentric white men perverted the mythic gentle forest spirit into a hideous monster, “like everything else our society has done to what came before it.” In due time, Yvette does feel those soft warm arms and sweet cleansing breath, while Kate barely escapes them.
The symbolism here—an upper-middle class enclave whose residents seek to live in harmony with nature, suddenly exposed to the pitilessness and fury of the nature which they’d come hoping to live harmoniously with—is rich and delicious. Greenloop has, indeed, forgotten the gods of the copybook headings, and those old gods, soon enough, make themselves known.
Mount Rainier erupts, and as the lava flows slide to Puget Sound they kill thousands of Washingtonians. Thousands more are stranded in communities in the Cascade foothills. Refugees flee to Vancouver or Portland when they can; the majority, trapped in the Seattle megalopolis, soon devolves to food rioting and urban guerilla warfare while the U.S. military and local emergency services are mustered to render aid. Here, Brooks’s wargaming most closely resembles that of his earlier bestseller, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, in examining the social and political effects of unforeseen disasters. But this is all background noise, which Kate and the other residents of Greenloop listen to on the radio whenever they can catch a signal. The lava slides mercifully avoided Greenloop, but have blocked off all its access roads by which the townspeople might escape. And with Washington State and America itself in chaos, there’s no real hope that overworked rescue workers will notice a tiny, isolated, eccentric town deep in the mountains anytime soon. The denizens of Greenloop are low on food, unarmed, unprepared, and on their own.
That’s when Kate starts seeing things. Strange, rancid smells in the woods while she’s gathering berries, and the feeling that she’s being watched. A boulder down the road, as she paces along alone in the dark, seems to move. Strange howls in the night, unlike any she’s heard before. The shattered carcass of a mountain lion, surrounded by footprints. Nobody believes her but her long-suffering husband, Dan, and the sage-like artist Mostar, until the whole troop of sasquatches (yes, Brooks insists on using the technical term for a group of apes) investigates the town at night, the dumbfounded residents watching from indoors. Even then, some of the townsfolk—a retired professor, some vegan advocates, Yvette and her suave husband—convince themselves that the apes might be harmless, even friendly. “I seem to recall that most hominids are herbivorous in nature,” assures the professor. Then the first barrage of rocks comes, and Greenloop’s fate is sealed.
In a nutshell, the journal tells the story of a series of devolutions. First is the devolution of the natural order, as the volcano-displaced sasquatches return as apex predator and hunt the humans who’d technologically marginalized them for millennia. Then there’s the devolution of decadent, advanced civilization to chaos and barbarism—Greenloop is a high-tech, environmentally-conscious, socially cosmopolitan community of the sort you’d imagine Davos and TedX types to hawk as humanity’s inexorable future. It lies in smoking ruin at the end, its inhabitants devoured by primeval monsters, its pretenses burnt on altars of meat and stone.
Then there’s the devolution of human nature amid the breakdown of moral and temporal order; Greenloop’s posh, high-status funder-founders, the Durants, devolve into mindless, drug-addled wraiths as they lose control of the crisis and faith in themselves, and then are gruesomely consumed. Kate and the other suburban middle-class failures devolve, too; they lose their romantic illusions, learn to fight and kill the beasts, and tap into the primal, amoral side of the human spirit reducible neither to selfish genes nor to social constructs. Both transformations are devolutions, with different moral weights. The Cassandra-like foresight and eventual sacrifice of Mostar, who is heavily implied to be a Bosnian war refugee, and the hardiness and eventual survival of Palomino, who is heavily implied to be a refugee Rohingya child (Kate compares her eyes to Sharbat Gula’s,) cast further aspersions at modern elite western decadence. Those who carry tragedy within themselves are more fit to stave off tragedies than those who’ve never suffered.
The gratuitous blood and gore certainly helps drive the point home. Heads are pulled off, bones are smashed to bits, uneaten body parts are hurled at shocked survivors. Sasquatches crush human skulls with the balls of their humanoid feet, and rip out townspeople’s guts in carnivorous orgies. Nothing chimpanzees don’t do to smaller monkeys in real life, of course. The townspeople, meanwhile, bash out some of the sasquatches’ brains, and urinate on others’ corpses in front of their enraged fellow apes.
The line between man-vs.-beast and man-vs.-man is muddied and obscured, very effectively. The reason Mostar’s background as a survivor of ethnic warfare helps her and the town here, of course, is that the troop of sasquatches is an organized foe, capable of planning and executing strategies to achieve its hungry aims—and from rock bombardments to keeping human captives alive as rescue-bait, they do just that, to deadly effect. But the sheer savagery of the warfare—annihilationist rather than attritional, each faction seeing the other as either an existential threat, or an inferior and tasty dinner, to be destroyed entirely—brings it back to the world of the food chain and the natural order’s cruelty.
Survival, rage, hatred, revenge, things we like to think of as irrational, illiberal, and outdated in our cozy modern world, rule this fight. In plowing through the last few (admittedly overdone) chapters of climactic battles between wild man and wild ape, it grows less clear whether you’re reading about a hunt by one species of another, or a battle between vengeful equals. They’re not so distinct, at root. A quick reflection on wartime news from the disordered corners of the earth suggests that this is quite relevant to us today, even amid rival clans of homo sapiens alone. A quick reflection on the long Paleolithic history of human warfare, and its historical aftermath in the last 10,000 years, suggests that that is exactly the point Brooks wants to drive home.
This is not just an action thriller or a survival narrative or a psychological horror story. Beyond those, it is a sly reminder to we moderns of what, in the end, human beings are, whether we like to admit it or not. It serves Brooks’s general purpose—recall, he’s a fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute and the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center—in using speculative fiction for wargaming, and the education of strategists. The central concern of Devolution, indeed, is devolution—what human beings can become when order breaks down and violence breaks out. After all, the majority of wars in the last several decades, as well as many recent bouts of civil unrest and political turmoil, have been more about the breakdown of internal order than the relations of states and empires. The reader of Devolution is prodded into some uncomfortable questions. If I were thrown into that maelstrom, with sasquatches or with sapiens, could I survive? Could I really be civilized on the other side of that? Beneath all our order and civilization, are we really so unlike the killer apes?
And Brooks concludes the story with some interesting speculations on that. Kate Holland, it seems, survived the last recorded onslaught of the sasquatches, along with Palomino. Brooks and Kate’s brother speculate on their eventual fate, as their bodies were not found in Greenloop’s ruins. Did the sasquatch troop’s survivors regroup and strike again, carrying off and feasting upon the last two humans? Did Kate and Palomino strike off to make their way back to civilization on foot, only to freeze in the mountain snows? Did they, perhaps, make it all the way back to some refugee camp, and simply have not been identified yet?
Or did Kate’s devolution go further? “What if those poor dumb brutes flicked a switch in Kate that’s waiting in all our DNA?” What if Kate and Palomino, emboldened and awakened by some new primal fury, went out to hunt down the rest of the sasquatch troop, now that they knew how to kill them? What if “by some miracle they kept stalking those things, killing them one by one?” Primeval sasquatch genocide is a laughable thought on the face of it, of course, but knowing what we do about human nature, is it so hard to imagine?
The essential questions Brooks raises in Devolution are not far off from the questions analyzed by philosophers of human nature. Brooks’s quiet conclusions seem, on the surface, amenable to the evolutionary psychologists over at the Intellectual Dark Web, and in some ways they are (though for my money, Steven Pinker’s and Jonathan Haidt’s whiggish historical sunniness and faith in bounded rationality miss the deeper, tragic lessons Brooks conveys.) Devolution may appeal as well, for obvious reasons, to the atavistic and carnivorous likes of Jordan Peterson and Bronze Age Pervert, though Brooks’s choice of a female protagonist serves to confound those who’d impute reactionary ideas into his story. The majority of pantheistic environmentalists, of course, might broadly concede Brooks’s naturalistic pessimism, while rejecting its deeper metaphysical conclusions; one can imagine strained, hucksterish reviews analogizing the sasquatch attack to climate change or coronavirus.
But recall again Brooks’s job: he’s a military analyst, a fellow at various strategic think tanks. He tries to help American military planners think more clearly and creatively about the human terrain underlying political and military reality, to avoid the ideological straitjacketing and techno-determinism that have hamstrung our military planners in decades past. If sasquatch-attack survival-horror-thriller is not the most predictable way to teach that, it is certainly a creative and compelling way to do so. Devolution is not ultimately about how to best fight wars or defeat counterinsurgencies or promote peace. It’s instead a haunting reminder of what human beings are, in all our complexity and contradiction, and are capable of reverting to, lest we delude ourselves otherwise.
So be careful next time you’re hiking near Mount Rainier, or doing anything else in human society. There’s killer apes out there.
[i] Brooks goes so far as to invent a fictional textbook field-guide, Steve Morgan’s The Sasquatch Companion, and cites it liberally as a source.