There are many moments in the history of the United States that deserve every drop of ink that has been used to write about them. From The Alamo to the narratives of early New York and from the fate of early explorers to the gold fever days of California, the country’s history is packed with fertile ground for historical fiction. That being said, perhaps there is no story more deserving of reimagination than that of the Donner Party. Well, enter Alma Katsu and The Hunger, her retelling of the Donner Party’s chronicle with a supernatural twist.
There is something evil hunting, and haunting, the travelers who are part of the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Evil is vague term, but it’s also the only way to explain the unending series of calamities that have plagued them since they departed. Violence between them, dwindling rations, missed connections, seemingly ineffective attempts at moving faster, broken equipment, questionable leadership, and, worse of all, the mysterious death of a little boy have all added up to frayed nerves, anger, and fear. However, they push forward despite all the setbacks because the promise of what awaits them in the West is enough to keep them going. Unfortunately, things only get worse. Something is definitely out there, something fast and hungry, and it’s on following them all the time. As the members of the group watch their numbers decline, the secrets they thought they had left behind begin to emerge, and they only exacerbate their constant quarreling and mistrust, which eventually ends in murder. The Donner Party is in trouble, but none of it is worse than the thing in the woods, the thing, or things, that have been stalking them, threatening to pick them off one by one. Whether it’s a curse from the beautiful Tamsen Donner, a woman who many consider a witch, something that has always lived in that territory, a curse coming from the Native Americans in the area, or some wild, unknown creature of the woods, the fact remains that the ninety men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the mercy of it, at the mercy of the elements, at the mercy of hunger, and at the mercy of madness.
The Hunger works, and behaves, as two different novels. The first half is more or less just the story of the Donner Party. In fact, it’s more than that because Katsu offers a lot of backstory for the main characters. Then, once things take a creepy turn, they fluctuate between creepy and the straightforward present/past narrative that worked so well up to that point. AT the center of it are the members of the caravan, so the supernatural elements never overpower their story. Instead, it enriches it. By now, anthropologists, scientists, and historians have worked hard to give us a good idea of what went down, but Katsu takes what we know and fills in the gaps with strange sounds, alternate explanations, and a healthy dose of folklore and horror. The end result is a gripping novel that always stays in the realm of the plausible even when swimming in deep supernatural waters. As a bonus, the elegant writing doesn’t keep the author from providing explosive paragraphs containing descriptions that will make fans of hardcore horror very happy:
Hanging between two trees where the remains of a corpse: wrists caught tight with rope, shoulders stretched spread-eagle, head lolling on the neck, but below that—nearly nothing. The spinal column ended abruptly in midair, it’s vertebrae suspended like beads on a string. Nearly all the flesh had been stripped away from the bone. On the ground: long leg bones, cracked pieces of rib. The spot beneath the body was churned into a frenzy and black with old blood.
While is there is much going for this novel, perhaps what pushes it to the top of the pile is the balance between ugliness, desperation, and fear, and the heart, hope, and poetry that can be found in the writing. Katsu is not afraid of gore, extreme human pettiness, and the physical effects of starvation, but her understanding of human nature helps her write characters that hold hope even when the reader understands that salvation is impossible. Likewise, the author knows that dreadful events can be told using beautiful language, and the amount of poetry she injects into a silent, cold, depressive atmosphere is worth the price of admission:
It had gone quiet around them. The wagon party, at its height, had been over ninety people. Even with deaths, losses and departures, they’d still been like a moving village. Now, Tamsen glanced around at this diminished group of no more than twenty and felt just how shockingly small they wear, facing the mountains, and the winter, and the night. The silence was oppressive—no one even snored. The only thing she heard was the soft hiss of snowfall and the occasional sound of snow slipping off the waxed cotton overhead.
One thing I dislike about what folks call arthouse horror these days is the two hours of nothingness that set you up for the final message: humans are the true monsters. Katsu’s novel destroys this by telling you pretty early in the narrative and then showing, time and time again, how horrific humans can be, especially when stuck in dire situations. Then, she adds monsters on top of those monsters, and that addition makes human interactions as volatile as nitroglycerine. If you are as interested in the darkness that hides in the hearts of people as much as in whatever is making those sounds in the cold, dark woods in the middle of the night, then The Hunger is a must for you.
by Alma Katsu
G. P. Putnam’s Sons; 384 p.