Jeff Long's writing career has been diverse: novelist, historian, journalist, and screenwriter. His books have received awards, including the Texas Literary Award, the Western Writers of America Best Novel Award, the British Boardman-Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, and the American Alpine Club's Literary Award, and several of his books have been made into films. His revisionist study of the Alamo, Duel of Eagles, sparked intense controversy and acclaim.
As a veteran climber and traveler in the Himalayas, he has visited Everest and Makalu, leading one expedition and guiding tour groups in Tibet. He first visited the Himalayas thirty years ago, and his novel The Ascent described both an Everest disaster and the larger tragedy of genocide in Tibet. In 1976, he served three months in Nepalese jails on smuggling charges. That exposure led to articles about the CIA/Tibetan guerrilla movement and the 1990 democratic revolution in Nepal, which have appeared in various magazines.
Jeff Long talks about his new novel THE DESCENT
How in the world did you decide to write about Hell?
In my novel, The Ascent, I set an American expedition loose on the north face of Mt. Everest. For this one, I essentially turned the mountainscape inside out and completely reversed course. Instead of a struggle for the highest point on earth, why not a struggle for the lowest point? Switching gears like that set my imagination loose.
I could have settled for a more ordinary tale about spelunking. Instead I decided, if you're going to descend, really descend. Journey into the ultimate abyss. Go to the real heart of darkness, into the underworld. The Descent bottom-feeds on our darkest fears. . . and transcends our remembered nature. Some of the oldest adventure stories in literature have painted a picture of what hell might look like. In The Descent, I serve it up in twenty-first-century style, with a tip of the hat to many influences.
Which influences are you referring to?
There were the obvious precedents, like Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost and Virgil's Aeneid, and I was helped tremendously by a brilliant "guidebook" called The History of Hell, by Alice Turner. Her book served as my guide in more ways than just scholarship on ancient concepts of the underworld. It also showed me what a provocative adventure hell could provide. And so I set about to conceptualize a grand journey. For the first few months, I didn't dare touch a pencil, much less start writing. I wanted to see where the ideas might lead on their own. I've written books and screenplays, but I've never worked that way before. I was like an architect letting an imaginary skyscaper build itself in his mind, and only then drafting the blueprint.
Except in THE DESCENT you're building an imaginary hell.
Imaginary, but credible. I could have cooked up a supernatural dungeon but preferred to build on what we know about the natural world. I wanted to display a real, geological place deep beneath our feet. Once again, I had help. Jules Verne was a great inspiration, as well as H.G. Wells. It wasn't just their incredibly original borrowing from the science of their day, but also their use of fiction to comment on social issues. Journey to the Center of the Earth was an adventure into what was then a brand-new idea called Darwinism and evolution. H.G. Wells used his Time Machine to examine the consequences of social engineering.
So, do you consider THE DESCENT a form of historical criticism?
I use The Descent to look at modern-day colonialism. Several of my earlier books, including The Ascent and a history of the Texas Revolution, Duel of Eagles, explored the ways nations conquer territory and peoples. With The Descent I saw a chance to ask the question: If we discovered a new planet, or say a new world outside our own planet, would we treat it differently from the way our ancestors invaded the Americas? My reading of history is that certain basic patterns don't change. I don't care whether it's Romans, Byzantines, Chinese, or Americans -- empires act alike. Faced with a land of new riches, the armies, governments, and corporate powers would rush in, claim territory, plant their flags, subjugate the natives, and exploit the resources.
How would you term THE DESCENT, a thriller, a horror story, a novel of ideas?
First and foremost, it's an epic adventure. It's also a mystery and a love story. In a sense, The Descent is a Western, too, engaging the subterranean wilderness on its own terms and seeking order in a lawless, savage environment. Like I said, it tackles the issues of conquest and exploration. In the spirit of Jules Verne -- and of Lewis and Clark, and of Zebulon Pike, and other military-science expeditions on the American frontier -- I launch a scientific expedition into the bowels of the earth.
What is your twist on these American stories?
Instead of looking for the Northwest Passage, my intrepid little party sets out to cross westward beneath the Pacific Ocean floor. To the expedition's unpleasant surprise, they discover that this tubular frontier of tunnels and caves is inhabited. Here are the fabled devils . . . a species that is monstrously separate from ours. I call them Homo hadalis, or hadals. But are they truly evil? Or are they simply defending themselves from human invasion? And how much are they like us? The expeditionaries view the hadals much the way Europeans viewed indigenous people here and in Africa and Australia, as inhuman savages. One thing is certain, the hadals have retreated from beneath the continents to the deepest, most remote hiding place, beneath the Marianas Trench. There they seem to be preparing an apocalyptic last stand . . . under a mysterious leader dubbed, naturally, Satan.
So there is a devil?
It is hell, after all. He provides the novel's great mystery. If there was a historic Jesus, why not a historic Satan? What would he be like? Forget the sadist with a pitch fork -- that's a cartoon. I tried to envision him as a real being, one who might still be alive. Would he be a philosopher-king, or a guerrilla leader like Mao or Geronimo, or a wanderer like Odysseus, or a dark prince like Hamlet? What about his capacity for evil? And what about ours?
In The Descent, I follow a think tank of elderly scholars as they try to profile the Great Deceiver. As the expedition picks its way through the subterranean labyrinth, the scholars revisit archaeological sites, libraries, and artifacts like the Shroud of Turin in an effort to compile a "unified theory of Satan." One hint, I borrowed from Milton's heroic Satan: He seems to be a rebel genius who has repeatedly made a perilous journey from the underworld to the sunlight.
Those are the mystery and adventure parts. What about the love story?
As the scientists and their mercenary escorts trek, rappel, and raft deeper, they're guided by Ike, an expatriate American. Once upon a time he was an eco-tourist guide and mountaineer, but then he was captured by the subterranean inhabitants while searching for his girlfriend in a Tibetan cave. He starts out as a sort of Orpheus searching for his lost lover. Not until years later does he find true love, though not with his missing girlfriend.
Among the geologists, biologists, and other scientists in the expedition, is Ali von Schade, a linguist whose specialty is proto-language, or the roots of human consciousness. She is also, incidentally, a Catholic nun, similar to those Jesuit intellectuals who studied tribes and cultures as the New World was being conquered centuries ago.
The deeper the expedition goes through dark tunnels, the closer Ike and Ali grow, despite their differences. Their love becomes a survival technique in itself. Ike and Ali's greatest challenge is to face evil in both its human and hellish forms.
You've mentioned Dante's INFERNO, which drew on characters and events in his own lifetime. Is THE DESCENT autobiographical?
I've sprinkled in a friend or two for fun. More to the point, I drew on some of my travels, especially for the chapters about Bosnia and Tibet. I was an election supervisor for Bosnia's first election under OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It was an amazing experience, partially in educating me about how fantastic NATO is at doing its job. During my time there, I interviewed everyone I could, including American soldiers at various camps.
As for the Himalayas, I first visited there thirty years ago, and I've returned a dozen times or so. I've led and climbed on expeditions to Everest and Makalu, and that gave me a sense of how real expeditions work. The social contract can get pretty tattered when you're in a pressure cooker at high altitude and in a dangerous environment. Personalities clash. Mutinies simmer. Little details take on enormous magnitude, things like a last candy bar or someone's snoring. So my experience in the Himalayas helped me paint a realistic picture of how my expedition force might really unravel.
While we're on the subject of autobiography, I should confess one thing. While my father, a geologist, used to take my brothers and me into the occasional cave, I am not and never will be a spelunker. In all honesty, the underworld I've conjured up in The Descent comes straight out of my worst nightmares.
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