Writer Max Brooks hit pay dirt with his debut horror novel, 2006's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which helped light the fuse to an all-out craze of zombie-themed comic books, TV series, feature films, video games, and graphic novels for years to come.
The son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, Brooks presented a survivor saga set in the aftermath of a global deadhead pandemic. His New York Times bestselling zombie book would eventually attract the attention of Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment to adapt into a polarizing 2013 movie.
Now Brooks is back with his first new novel in 14 years as he treks into the mysteries of bigfoot lore in a terrifying tale of humans' technology obsession and our fragile relationship with nature.
Devolution, which hits bookstores on June 16 from Del Rey Books, begins with the violent eruption of Washington's Mount Rainier, which completely cuts off the idyllic, high-tech eco-community of Greenloop. Confident that help is on the horizon, residents figure they're safe for a couple of days without gourmet cheese, fresh fruit, Amazon drone deliveries, and high-speed internet.
But something lurks in the surrounding woods that makes wildlife flee for safety. As rescue becomes more of a remote possibility, Greenloop's pampered citizens start seeing shadowed glimpses of huge, humanoid creatures creeping closer and growing hungrier by the hour. When innovation becomes their only hope of salvation, will the ill-equipped group triumph or die?
SYFY WIRE spoke with Brooks about his childhood obsession with sasquatch, traveling into bigfoot country for research, Devolution's chance at becoming a Hollywood film, and whether or not he believes in the Cryptozoic beasts himself.
What was the genesis of Devolution?
Well, I'm from that late '70s, early '80s In Search of... generation that loves bigfoot. I grew up with all those faux documentaries like The Mysterious Monsters, with Peter Graves. When I was a kid, Sasquatch, The Legend of Bigfoot was in movie theaters. It was the only time there was a major Hollywood bigfoot film coming out and those TV commercials scared the s**t out of me.
I grew up in L.A. in a post-war, ranch-style home surrounded by trees with giant plate-glass walls. It was the first time in American history you could produce glass so cheaply that you could make walls out of it. So there I am, watching TV sitting next to a wall of glass, watching a bigfoot faux documentary where a giant fist smashes through the glass to grab a woman watching TV.
So bigfoot was definitely part of my childhood, way before zombies. Bigfoot was my primary fear. I've always wanted to tell a bigfoot horror story. Ten years ago or so, I pitched the idea to Legendary Pictures and they loved it and bought it on the spot. They hired a screenwriter and a director but it never went anywhere. I'm kind of glad because it was going in a direction that wasn't my original vision, so I asked Thomas Tull — when he was still running Legendary — if I could have the novel rights back. And God bless him, he let me run with it.
Has publishing the book ignited new interest in getting Devolution made into a Hollywood movie?
Yes, now Legendary is excited again to make a film, so we'll see what happens this time. And I'll be involved in the adaptation, much more so than last time. In the last 10 years, we've really ramped up our race to create a society based on comfort instead of resilience. That's really what I wanted to drive home in the book. It's the notion of these people who are living at the top of the pyramid when suddenly the pyramid flips and they're at the bottom. They're untrained and unprepared and never even thought that this amazing world of telecommuting to work and drone deliveries could suddenly just vanish, and they're stuck in the middle of the wilderness and winter's coming and they have no idea how to survive.
What do you like best about telling stories in oral history form?
A lot of times it's where my mind naturally goes. For World War Z, that was the only way to tell it. How do you tell a giant story? For me, after reading Studs Terkel's The Good War, I thought there was no better way than an oral history. For this book, I wanted to have a found journal because it leaves mystery open as to what had happened. It turns the community of Greenloop into the lost colony of Roanoke.
Much of your writing career has been in comic books and graphic novels. How does your love of that medium affect your novel's narrative and your creative process?
For me, whether I do a comic book or a prose novel, I think it depends on which is the best way to tell the story. There are some stories that need to be visual. With The Harlem Hellfighters, that's a story of black soldiers in World War I, and their blackness defines them, it defines their life and how they're treated. So you've got to see that every page. You have to be reminded of what color their skin is because they were never allowed to forget that. Whereas if you tell it as a novel, I think it would be easier to forget and to just get lost in their hearts and their minds.
Can you explain a bit about the novel's themes: our fixation with modern technology and society's fragile relationship with nature?
One of the key themes in the book is our obsession, our fetishization with anthropomorphizing nature. The point of the book is that these are urban people in a rural setting trying to adapt nature to them, instead of the other way around. And there's no respect for nature and no understanding that when you live out in the wilderness, you're a guest in nature's house and you have to live by its rules. This urban notion of living in harmony with nature is bulls**t, because nature is not harmonious. That comes from having tamed the wilderness.
Another inspiration for the book was Timothy Treadwell, The Grizzly Man. The idea that this ex-junkie from Venice Beach, who had never been anywhere near bears, suddenly got on a plane and flew to Alaska every summer, broke the law, and lived in the nature preserve with the bears, and took it upon himself to be their savior. Without trying to understand anything about them. He'd give them names like Mr. Chocolate and hang out with them and there was absolutely no respect. The arrogance, the hubris, the belief that "I am the master of all I survey." Whether he knew that or not is clear. And... he got eaten by a bear. That is the urban response to nature, that it's a garden. But it's not a garden, it has its own rules. So that's a really important theme.
Just like the theme of tech. We used to believe in science as a way to make life better. But then it just became a way to make life more comfortable. For me, the watershed moment was Steve Jobs, who was crowing about how you could watch The Office on your iPhone. Which would have been great if this were the 1990s. But it wasn't, it was in the darkest days of the Iraq War when Americans and Iraqis were dying all because of oil, and instead of trying to find a clean-burning alternative to petroleum that was destroying the world, this huckster, this carnival barker, was telling us we could watch TV on a phone in our pocket. That was the disconnect.
I wanted to put that in the book, as these people who are living at the top of technology, without any backup plan, who never consider that something could go wrong. I believe in going forward, I'm not a Luddite. We should eventually get to Star Trek, but you need seat belts, you need airbags, you need crash tests, you need fire escapes, you need smoke alarms. You need some measure of physical security because things are going to go wrong.
What were your favorite sasquatch/bigfoot movies growing up?
Okay, number one: The Mysterious Monsters, then The Legend of Boggy Creek, Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot, and Snow Beast. I literally have so many bigfoot movies on DVD you can stack them up to the ceiling [Laughs]. My favorite recent one is Abominable. It's a Rear Window movie. It's a great premise and it's shot like a real movie with a great score.
Where did your Pacific Northwest research take you and what did you learn about bigfoot legends?
My research for the book had to be based in fact. I didn't go too deep into the sasquatch lore, I went as deep as the history of the sightings. Most of my research was real primatology because the premise is: If we had a species of great ape living in North America, how could they survive? I enjoyed learning about Gigantopithecus, [which] my bigfoot is based on, and about primate evolution. So Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall were as important to me as Grover Krantz or Dr. Jeff Meldrum.
I had to go to the Pacific Northwest because I had to find a place on Google Earth. In order to find Greenloop, you had to start with the eruption of Mt. Rainier. To do that I interviewed scientists from the USGS. I downloaded their map of the potential eruption. They have a prediction of when Rainier goes, where lahars — the liquefying snow and ice causing boiling mudslides — will travel to, so that map was my guide for where I'd put Greenloop.
Then once I had established it on a map I had to physically go there to see if my characters were able to walk out. The big nightmare was to write the book, go to a book signing, and have somebody stand up in the audience and say they're actually from that area and you can totally walk out. It's the easiest thing in the world. What surprised me is not only can you not walk out, you can't walk in. I tried driving on the back road to get there, but there's trees growing up through the road and giant bubbles of Earth. That is some really treacherous ground.
After everything you've seen and learned, are you now a bigfoot believer?
Well, I'm a total skeptic, but one with an open mind. I will not believe in bigfoot until somebody shows me a carcass or a bone with some serious carbon dating behind that. However, there is no scientific reason for a great ape not to exist. There are still large swaths of North America that are vast and empty. Take away road and rail and air travel, and this is a really big continent and there are a lot of places where things can hide.
Devolution arrives in book stores and online from Del Rey Books on June 16.