Author: Jeff Long
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: July 1999
First things first, it should be said that The Descent, the book by Jeff Long and The Descent, the 2005 movie have nothing to do with one another. True, they are both about a descent (duh) into the inner earth and encounters with a previously unknown race of unpleasant humanoid denizens within, both are horror stories, and both are absolutely fantastic. But neither one is based on the other, at least not as far as anyone is admitting. This particular review, however, is for the book, originally published in 1999, not the 2005 movie.
Jeff Long’s 1999 novel The Descent is epic horror in the truest sense of the word. In some ways it is most similar to such post-apocalyptic horror classics as Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song: the central premise around which the novel centers are truly cataclysmic, world-altering events, and the story centers on a relatively small group trying to adjust to and survive in a world which has (almost literally) been turned upside down. However, on another level it is also quite similar to such classic sci-fi adventure stories as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Like these novels, The Descent can be read as political allegory turning a critical eye on such issues as modern day Imperialism and the nature of evil. On yet another level, a good chunk of the story is almost Military Science Fiction along the lines of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or the movie Aliens. If there is any level on which this novel stumbles it is in not deciding what it wants to be: there is so much going on that the story almost seems crammed full of too many good ideas to fit within the book’s 592 pages. But other than the fact that the high concept may have fit better within a trilogy, The Descent stands proudly beside The Stand, Swan Song, and Brian Keene’s The Rising as one of the genre’s best epic pieces.
The premise of the story is that hell really exists, and it is right under our feet. But where religion would have this region be a place of eternal damnation, where the wicked go after they die to be tortured forever by demons, in actuality it is an extensive series of interconnected caves and fissures deep below the earth inhabited by a twisted offshoot of Homo Erectus, made even more hideous by generations of inbreeding and mutations caused by the earth’s electromagnetic fields, natural radiation and poisonous gasses. Mankind’s past interactions with this brutal and ancient race is the basis for all religions’ depictions of a subterranean hell and the sadistic demons that live within, preying on and torturing any humans unlucky enough to end up in their domain. At the outset of the book a series of events leads to mankind becoming aware of this world below through a series of clever vignettes that also serves to introduce the primary cast of characters. Each is located in a different part of the world, and each has their own personal (and usually unpleasant) run in with the creatures inhabiting the underworld tunnels. What also becomes quickly apparent is that hell is rich with untapped resources such as gold, fossil fuels, uranium, and many others that have become scarce but vital for the world above. So, of course, governments start sending soldiers into the ground to claim these resources, all in the name of “Security” or “Science”. The nations of the world suddenly stop fighting each other, instead sending the majority of their armies underground in a race to exploit the subterranean resources before their enemies can.
At first it seems as though the creatures living in the underground have abandoned the tunnels, heading further underground to avoid human contact or perhaps that they are far fewer than the surface dwellers first thought, and are nearly extinct. However, after months of false security, the hammer falls. All at once patrols and expeditions stop coming back from the deeper tunnels, disappearing without a trace. Entire platoons from armies all over the world go missing all at once, decimating most nations’ military forces without warning and without any chance of striking back. World leaders are forced to admit to their people that they are suddenly at war with hell. As silly as that sounds in synopsis, these are not pitchfork wielding red-skinned cartoons, but a bloodthirsty, barbaric race of Neanderthal-like warriors who have been living off the dregs of humanity for thousands of years. They are dubbed homo erectus hadalis (as in from Hades, or Hades-like), or just Hadals (rhymes with cradle) as they are dubbed by the soldiers tasked with fighting them. Humanity is soon at war with them, trying to wrest from them control of the underworld and the resources therein.
On top of this purely military conflict, other forces are at work. On the one hand you have the Helios Corporation, the CEO of which is a failed presidential candidate, now hell bent (literally) on staking claim to as much of the underworld as possible in what amounts to a 21st century version of a land grab. Not only is he after the unimaginable wealth in raw resources that are in the world below, but he also seems to want to create subterranean country over which he is the one and only law; not only will the riches make him unbelievably wealthy in the world above, but he would be the undisputed dictator of the world below. On the other hand is a group of elderly scholars who have dubbed themselves The Beowulf Society. All of them are experts in their given fields who the world has passed by due to the their age, from such diverse disciplines as geology, anthropology, theology, political science and biology, to name but a few. The Beowulf Society have charged themselves with finding a peace between the world above and the world below, and accomplish this they have developed a seemingly insane theory: if there is an actual, historical hell, doesn’t it stand to reason that Satan exists as well? And if there is one charismatic leader for the entire underworld, doesn’t it stand to reason that finding and negotiating with this creature could lead to peace between the under and over worlds? Running on this premise, the Beowulf Scholars launch their quest on two fronts: the majority of them will use their collective intellectual might to scour the world in an attempt to find some clue as to how to contact this leader, while at the same time a smaller group infiltrates the Helios expedition on it’s journey through the underworld in an attempt to understand Hadal culture and language, and to look for Satan in his own realm. The end result are a series of converging narratives; the Beowulf Society’s hunt for Satan in the world above, the Helios Corporation’s Lewis and Clark-like expedition through the world below, and woven through all of it some very human tales of people trying to adjust to this very changed world.
The Descent has a little bit of everything, and that is both one of its greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses. The horror elements of the story are brutal and intense, the love story is emotional and believable, the adventure is thrilling and awe inspiring, and the science is understandable and believable… the problem is that Jeff Long is trying to fit all this into 594 pages. The end result can sometimes be a bit disorienting, as he quickly shifts from a detailed scene with believable dialogue and vivid descriptions, letting us see everything going through a character’s head, to suddenly taking a grand overview and summarizing weeks, months, or even years of time, all in the same chapter. It is like reading a history book summarizing the events of World War II that occasionally shifts to a novel about specific soldiers fighting a specific battle, only to swoop back out again and compress time and space once more. This method works fairly well, and gives the story a very epic feeling, but can be disorienting the more often it happens in a single chapter.
The characters and events portrayed within this narrative, however, are well wrought and believable. I won’t go into specifics here, because the characters and how they change and mature throughout the story is one of the better aspects of the novel. But I will say that Ike is one of my favorite characters in the genre. There are certain character archetypes that are staples of the genre, such as the prerequisite Jesuit priest and the hard-as-nails asshole of a Sergeant, but even these genre staples have their own unique twists in The Descent. Other characters, such as the blind Beowulf Society scientist/poet are clever additions to the cast playing off of the subject matter (blind old men as guides and prophets is frequent throughout classic literature; Homer was blind, as was John Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost; in The Odyssey, Odysseus is guided in the underworld by the ghost of the blind prophet Tiresias, Oedipus blinds himself and thus gains wisdom, as does Odin in Norse mythology, etc).
But as good as the characters are, the best aspect of the book is the believability of the narrative. Part of it is the vivid descriptions of the fantastic locales, each couched in believable science no matter how bizarre they seem: from a scene of a massacre encased forever in clear flowstone to an immense tower carved from beer stone on the edge of a phosphorescent subterranean sea, every scene is described in such as way so that you can believe such a place actually exists. But the most impressive feat is that Long makes the Hadal not only a believable enemy, but a believable people. He takes an anthropological approach that makes them no more unbelievable than the Native Americans of the new world must have seemed to Europeans hundreds of years ago: their culture is inimical to ours, they seem barbaric and frightening, but they are still just another tribe of humanoids trying to go about their lives the way they always have, even as the “human” culture destroys the world around them. Sure they have a tendency to kill and eat any humans they come across, but then again, I’m sure the indigenous peoples that European culture has eradicated over the centuries weren’t exactly impressed with our meet and greet policies either.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of places where the novel stumbles as well. The first we already mentioned, in that the story seems like it would have been better served as a trilogy, since there is too much going on to fit in the books not-quite-600 pages. In fact, the book did become the first book in what was supposed to be a trilogy (it was followed in 2007 by Deeper, but there has been absolutely no word about or from the author ever since), but that doesn’t alleviate the fact that it really should have been a trilogy in and of itself, trying to fit too much narrative into too few pages.
The other problem is a little more glaring, however; many of the characters take some rather far fetched intuitive leaps in order to move the story forward, including one conspiracy theory surrounding the shroud of Turin and several as how to track down Satan. None of them were on the level of “Let’s look up Satan in the phonebook and see who answers”, but a few of them came close. There are also a couple of insane plot twists in the book’s back end that you may stumble over. Luckily, none of them are so glaring that they damage the novel’s believability or the author’s credibility, and seems like Long had to include these leaps in logic in order to tie up the narrative in a timely manner (which brings us back to the trilogy issue).
All in all, however, The Descent is one of the best works in the genre, and one of the most original. Anyone who is interested in something a little different, or who enjoys cerebral mystery-military-sci-fi-adventure-horror-love stories (you know who you are!) should definitely check it out.