Max Brooks is probably best known as the author of World War Z — the excellent 2006 zombie apocalypse tale that was adapted into a so-so 2013 movie. He’s back with another outstanding survival story, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, and Gizmodo got a chance to talk with him all about it.
Similar to World War Z, Devolution pieces together the events surrounding a fantastical disaster (instead of zombies, this time it’s Bigfoot!) that unfolds in a world that otherwise feels totally realistic.
One of our main points of entry is the book’s unnamed reporter character, who’s ostensibly putting together the facts around what happened to the inhabitants of Greenloop, an isolated, high-tech experimental community, in the wake of Mount Rainier’s sudden eruption. We also meet one of Greenloop’s residents, a young woman whose diary — detailing the post-eruption emergence of hostile forest apes — was unearthed in the aftermath. A lot of research goes into creating that kind of authenticity, as Brooks explains in our chat, but so does an enthusiasm for the strange and unusual.
Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: After World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, most people just immediately associate you with zombies. What made you want to take on Bigfoot as your next subject?
Max Brooks: Well, it’s definitely my next horror subject; after the zombie stuff I went out and did all these other things, I did The Harlem Hellfighters [graphic novel], I did some other comic books, then the Minecraft novel. But I think when it comes to Bigfoot — Bigfoot was a much older childhood terror than zombies. I got into zombies right around the time I went through puberty. That’s how I discovered zombies. I was trying to watch my parents’ cable TV and maybe see a shot of a girl with her shirt off, and instead, I ended up watching a cannibal zombie movie.
Whereas Bigfoot has been there since I was, oh god, maybe six years old? I just turned 48, so I’m of that generation which had In Search of… and all those other faux-Bigfoot documentaries. When you’re a little kid, you do not know those are fake! I was always terrified that somehow Bigfoot was gonna come crashing through my window. I always wanted to tell a good Bigfoot story.
What sort of kicked me in the arse to sit down and write the original idea was a book I had read called The Beast in the Garden — it was the true story of Boulder, Colorado and mountain lions, and how they had sort of turned their semi-arid ecosystem into a lush garden. The garden brought the deer out of the Rockies, and the deer brought the mountain lions. People were excited: “Oh, honey, get the camera, there’s a mountain lion in the backyard!” Whereas the authorities were saying, “These are carnivores, these are predators. They have to be relocated!” People were all, “You’re overreacting, this is such a great chance to live in nature!”
And sure enough, the mountain lions lost their fear of humans, and they got bolder and bolder, and started going after little dogs and then bigger dogs, then they started chasing people, and eventually a young, fit, strong high school kid went for a run and never came back. They found him a few days later with his face chewed off and his organs eaten. Humanity had rediscovered its rightful place in the food chain — and I thought that, to me, is a great starting point for our Sasquatch. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Sasquatch is either a benevolent guardian of the wilderness or an evil monster; it’s just an animal. And I wanted to start with that: the premise of humans trying to live in harmony with nature and realising too late that nature is not harmonious.
Gizmodo: The book’s main conflict concerns Bigfoot, but there’s also the Rainier eruption and a bigger story about how failing to prepare for disaster can make that disaster so much worse, on many levels. Did you ever think while you were writing that your book would be so eerily timely?
Brooks: No! In fact, this has been my problem from the business sense all along: I have no idea what the public is going to want, so I write for me. If I had any sense of what the marketplace wanted, they never would have fired me off Saturday Night Live! I wrote my first zombie book, The Zombie Survival Guide, back in the ‘90s, when zombies were as far off the cultural radar as you could get. But they weren’t, for me; I was always thinking, “What if there was a zombie plague? What would I do?”
So, I did not imagine [Devolution would be timely] — I wrote it because I wanted to write it. I’ve been vacationing up in the Pacific Northwest for years, and just…you get to SeaTac [airport] and there’s Rainier in the background, just waiting to explode.
Gizmodo: Given your experience in writing about disasters, are you surprised at the way the response to the current pandemic has been handled, or mishandled as the case may be?
Brooks: No. I’m sad and disappointed and angry, but not surprised. Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z sort of opened the door for me to start working with think tanks — the Modern War Institute at West Point is a military think tank, and in DC, the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security. So I’ve sort of been running in national security circles for the last 10 years, and I’ve sort of seen the rust and the rot and how deep it goes. I think we have the most historically incompetent captain of our ship of state ever, but the ship has had mechanical problems for some time.
Gizmodo: The survival narrative is something that you’ve returned to more than once in your work. What is it that draws you to this type of storytelling?
Brooks: You know, that’s my basic theme no matter what I write about — it could be zombies, it could be Minecraft, it could be World War I, it could be Bigfoot, but it all comes down to the same premise, which is “survival through adaptation.” To me, that’s always been my life. I’m very dyslexic, so school never came easy for me. I’ve always had to adapt in order to survive. Then, when I got out into the world, show business is hard for anybody; there’s a little extra level of adaptation when people are wanting Mel Brooks, Jr. and they’re not getting it — they’re getting Max Brooks. I had to be very clear about who I was.
So that theme of adaptation has followed me throughout my life, and I think that’s [true] for anybody if you’re living a healthy, normal, courageous life — you get to a certain point where you master the tools and the skills, and then the game changes, and you have to adapt again.
Gizmodo: Going along with that, Devolution’s main character, Kate, changes pretty radically over the course of the book as she’s put into these incredible circumstances. The theme of “humans are the real monsters” is one that horror has certainly tackled before, but Devolution taps into it very cleverly. What was your process like, in taking your own approach to that familiar theme?
Brooks: I start with a very simple philosophy with my writing, which is introduce a fictional threat but deal with it in a factual way. No magic bullet, no Deux ex Machina. It’s always gotta be the tools and the skills that we have right in front of us. How do we fight this fictional threat? That requires a tremendous amount of research that takes years and years, and a lot of the time that research guides how I write the story. While I’ve always been fascinated with Sasquatch lore, in order to write this book I had to go deep into genuine primatology. How do real apes hunt, and how do they eat? That, to me, was a big decider.
Also, I had to design the town of Greenloop — how would it really function? It is based on a real community in the Pacific Northwest which is not as high-end and not as isolated, but the premise is still there of urbanites trying to live in a rural setting. For the eruption of Mount Rainier, I had to interview scientists from the USGS and download their eruption map, and really study what would this disaster do, what would be the shock waves from this? All those sorts of real facts were my guardrails.
Gizmodo: What kind of Bigfoot-specific research did you do as part of your writing process?
Brooks: I’ve always been fascinated by Bigfoot, but having to study real primates — their strength, their speed, their social groups, their diet, their ability, certainly in the case of chimpanzees, to make war — that really set the scene. I wanted to set up the notion that, once again, these are just animals. If there was a species of great ape living in North America, how could it survive? How could it have avoided human contact? How could it have gotten here in the first place? So I tried to break all of that down. I also studied the real Gigantopithecus that it would be based on, because the idea [is] that this is a species of Gigantopithecus that has survived and adapted over hundreds of thousands of years in North America.
Gizmodo: The narrator of the book’s frame story makes mention of having written a list of favourite Bigfoot movies for Fangoria magazine — so this is my chance to ask if you have any particular favourite Bigfoot movies.
Brooks: That article in the book — that’s a real article! I can name you some favourites though. First one, definitely The Mysterious Monsters, narrated by Peter Graves, who [goes over the “evidence”] with a fine-toothed comb. When you’re a kid, when he shows, like, “Exhibit S: The visions of a psychic detective,” you go, “Oh my god! It’s real!”
Then, Snowbeast — it was a made for TV movie with Robert Logan, Yvette Mimieux, Bo Svenson, and it’s like, Bigfoot goes to Aspen. Legend of Boggy Creek, obviously, that was a very famous one. Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot — if you’re around my age, you remember there were actually ads on TV for this one, since this is back when they would put horror commercials on TV in the middle of the day.
I’d be on the carpet with my Star Wars action figures, and suddenly there’d be a commercial on for The Shining. So this Sasquatch commercial came on, and it was on for like a month. That scared the shit out of me when I was a kid!
Then there’s another one that I don’t think gets enough credit — it’s called Abominable, directed by Ryan Schifrin, and it’s Rear Window with Bigfoot. It’s about this guy who’s had a horrible climbing accident and he’s paralysed, and as part of his therapy, he has to go back to the cabin with his physical therapist. And he realises, looking out the window, that there is a Sasquatch creature attacking another cabin right across the way, and he’s powerless to do anything about it. Those are my top ones.
Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre is out June 16; you can pre-order a copy right here.