The Spirit is a short (but not particularly lean) novel about two ostensibly very different men coming together to hunt Bigfoot. In terms of genre topography, the novel owes less to traditional horror and more to the kinds of films that used to be made by people like Walter Miller. Think Deliverance, Rambo: First Blood, or Southern Comfort and you have the precise vibe of this novel. This is a book of low budgets, simmering male rage, and just enough insight to lend a sense of gravitas and poignancy to what could so easily have wound up feeling like a load of ludicrous nonsense.
The Spirit was first published in 1977 and is one of a number of weird-and-wonderful novels to have been re-discovered and re-released after receiving a positive mention in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. I mention this as awareness of the book’s publication history is really useful when trying to understand what it is that this book set out to achieve. Indeed, while The Spirit can definitely be understood as a Bigfoot horror novel, the book is a lot more interested in the men doing the hunting and how Bigfoot mythology is shaped and re-shaped by the needs of different sets of people.
The book opens with a brief portrait of Raymond Jason. Referred to throughout the book as ‘Mr. Jason’, Jason is one of those swaggering tough-guy businessmen who tend to pop up quite a bit in American politics: He talks endlessly about being a self-made man and how he doesn’t take any shit from anyone. However, while this muscular individualism may have made him rich it has not made him happy and now he is single, middle-aged, and desperately in search of something to fill the aching void within. On a whim, Jason agrees to become part of an environmental charity that allows him and a load of other middle-aged white dudes to camp in the middle of the wilderness and fly around in helicopters shooting tracking beacons at wild animals. One day, a member of Jason’s group stumbles upon Bigfoot and Bigfoot unceremoniously pulls his head off because he doesn’t like his head.
Furious, Jason tries to wade in and avenge his friend but his attempt to kill Bigfoot is thwarted by a Native American accompanied by a dog. With money to burn and apparently nothing else going on in his life, Jason decides to track down Bigfoot and uncover the identity of the mysterious Native American.
The Native American, it turns out, is a Vietnam vet named John Moon who returned to America with his mind in absolute pieces. Now schizophrenic and prone to bouts of aggressive dissociation, Moon believes that Bigfoot is his spirit animal and has devoted his life to following the creature around the country in the hope that making some form of contact will allow him to mend his broken mind. Little more than a homeless derelict, Moon spends his time protecting and feeding Bigfoot only for the creature to unceremoniously ignore him.
When I say that The Spirit is a novel interested in the Bigfoot mythology and the people pursuing Bigfoot, I mean that most of the novel is devoted to the confrontation between Moon and Jason. These two men, though ostensibly quite different, share a sense of spiritual desolation that they are trying to fill by communing with Bigfoot. The problem is that while the men are both obsessed, the ideas they use to understand both themselves and Bigfoot are so radically different that they cannot help but see each other as mortal enemies.
For Moon, Bigfoot is a divine spirit and the creature’s actions must be understood in terms of an enigmatic otherness born of its supernatural origins. For Jason, Bigfoot is a dangerous wild animal, the neurologically impaired result of a union between a human and a member of a previously unknown species of hominids whose numbers have long been in terminal decline.
The fact that The Spirit is more interested in Bigfoot mythology and the psychology of its primary characters means that you do spend a lot of your reading time waiting for Bigfoot to turn up. He’s there at the start of the novel and he’s there for the book’s frankly unhinged downbeat ending, but the rest of the novel is made up these weirdly mundane chapters full of Jason storming out of meetings with park rangers and Moon struggling to coexist with other humans.
Reading The Spirit, I was actually reminded of one of my favourite novels: Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys in that both books are about insanely masculine dudes trying to deal with feelings of existential horror and failing to do so because they struggle to see past the rim of their respective testosterone lakes. The problem with The Spirit is that while it’s a book that tries to do both viscerally unpleasant violence and existential character studies, Page isn’t good enough at either to pull off the job. Page lavishes attention on both Moon and Jason but neither character ever feels real-enough or complex-enough to merit the pages devoted to their musings; Most readers will get a pretty good grasp on Jason within a chapter or so of his first appearance and while Moon is drawn with a gnats more sophistication, Page’s use of mental illness to muddy the waters of motivation serve more to distract than to fascinate.
This lack of depth is particularly frustrating as I think there’s a lot that could be said about the various competing mythologies of Bigfoot and why different people might latch on to different sets of theories but Page is kind of content to have the Native American uncritically believe Native American stuff while the white dude spins utterly deranged ideas about how Bigfoot’s weird behaviour patterns can just be explained away through heavily-implied use of the R-word.
In truth, I think the problem here is that I like the idea of The Spirit a lot more than I like the book that Thomas Page wound up writing. I can imagine absolutely adoring a version of The Spirit in which Stephen Graham Jones explores the mind of a Native American who responded to the traumas of Vietnam by losing himself in the weird back-alleys of his own cultural heritage. I can also imagine absolutely adoring a version of The Spirit in which Peter Watts digs down into the genetics of hominid neuropsychology to find an all new take on Bigfoot. In other words, while The Spirit may be a lot of fun, there’s not enough conceptual gun here to carry the book: There’s not enough psychology, there’s not enough sociology, there’s not enough hominid physiology, and there’s not enough cultural anthropology. This is a book that needed to be either a lot dumber or a lot smarter as the book we got is a somewhat frustrating mess elevated by fleeting moments of joy and brilliance.