The Donner Party tragedy — a horribly-gone-wrong 1846 emigration to California that ended with half the emigrants dead and the survivors having to resort to cannibalism — would hardly seem to need a ratcheting up of the horror via the addition of the supernatural. But that’s just what Alma Katsu has done in her Locus-nominated novel The Hunger (2018). And honestly, I’m still not sure I needed the supernatural aspect because Katsu has created an entirely compelling, immersively suspenseful account of this harrowing journey just out of the more mundane characters and environment.
The Hunger opens with a prologue, which is really a looking ahead in time, as a rescue group sent out in April of 1847 to find the “last known survivor of the Donnor Party tragedy” arrives to find the site “eerily quiet … no sounds at all, no birdsong, no splash of waterfowl” and “the entire site smell[ing] of carrion. The rich stench of decaying flesh.” Approaching the lone cabin, they note “what looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin,” leaving only a brave few to step up before the door, which then “opened on its own,” ending the chapter.
From that cliff-hanger we jump back to Nebraska, June 1846 as Charles Stanton is shaving before the wagon train sets out for the day. But even this routine domestic act is laden with a sense of the ominous as Stanton first recalls a line of his grandfather’s — “A wicked man hides behind a beard, like Lucifer,” — and then cuts himself so that his razor “was streaked with blood” and on his neck appeared a “line of crimson … a gaping three-inch slash.” A minor cut, but emblematic, he thinks, of the entire “damnable journey in a nutshell. One unexpected ‘mishap’ after another.”
Stanton’s POV is one of several Katsu employs, the others including Edwin Bryant, a former newspaperman looking to learn about Native American folklore; Tamsen Donner, the beautiful wife of the wagon leader who is rumored to be both a temptress and a witch; Elitha Donner; Tamsen’s step-daughter; Mary Graves, a thoughtful, innocent young woman who becomes close to Stanton; and James Reed, George Donner’s rival to head the party. Nearly all of them have a secret of some sort (Elitha, for instance, has begun to hear voices in her head), each of which will eventually be revealed.
As Stanton cleans up from his shaving accident, Bryant tells him he and a few others are going to ride ahead, no longer willing to move at the train’s dangerously slow pace, especially this late in the season, and asks if Stanton wants to join them. Before he can answer though, news comes of a young boy gone missing, and soon after that the child’s body is found (“or what was left of him”), badly mutilated in a fashion Bryant (who has some medical training) says is too neat and orderly to have been done by wolves; nor, he says, does it look like the work of Native Americans.
Things actually go downhill from that point on. Internal divisions, rivalries, and jealousies begin to divide the members of the party. Tempers explode, raising the threat of violence and then violence itself. Food begins to run out. The weather worsens. Bad route decisions are made. Their promised guide never materializes. Accusations of all sorts start to fly. Respite stops, such as Fort Bridger, aren’t the havens that had been hoped for. And underlying all of that is the sense that something is stalking the party even as it becomes more and more isolated from the world and grows weaker and weaker. Though, as is often the case in this sort of literary horror, the question becomes which is more deadly — the monsters outside or the monsters inside? Or are they possibly one and the same?
Katsu doles out omens and blows steadily and in increasingly intense form, ratcheting up the tension bit by bit: Elitha’s voice, an affair that may threaten the uneasy balance in the party, a shocking revelation inside an abandoned shack, bodies that appear to have been meant as sacrifices, a murder, an expulsion, a charge of witchcraft, an attempted rape, and eventually a drawn-out siege. Weaving in and out amongst all this is a restrained thread of the fantastical: Tamsen’s charms and herbal concoctions, Elitha’s voices, and the Indians legend of the “na-it” (the hunger) — a transformation that comes upon the stricken, “a bad spirit that can pass from man to man.” That last, which of course gives the book its title, is a wonderfully evocative concept, because while it comes from a Native American legend, Katsu makes it quite clear who that term really refers to. After all, one needn’t conjure up some sort of magical monster to find a creature that has an insatiable hunger to consume everything, wipes out all life in an area, destroys the ecosystem, feeds on its own, and is an implacably merciless, unthinking predator. That underlying symbolism throughout The Hunger adds a nice bit of depth to the scary story at the surface.
The unrelentingly claustrophobic tension of the wagon train’s journey is broken up by a series of letters from Bryant detailing his journey to track down a Native American legend akin to the Navajo skinwalker, as well as a series of flashbacks for the POV characters that explore their dark secrets and deepen their characters.
That characterization is sharp throughout, and it’s a testament to Katsu’s skill in both narrative plotting and characterization that we are suspended in fear and suspense even as, of course, we know what happens to these people. Despite that knowledge, one finds oneself desperately wishing for some way these people (some of them, at least), can avoid their fate. As if, after hewing relatively tightly to the facts of the Donnor Party’s journey (and Katsu does an excellent job with the historical details of that odyssey — whether it be the settings, the methods, the landmarks, or other such elements), the author will simply drop the whole historical accuracy aspect and spin us off into some sort of happy or semi-happy ending. But of course, that doesn’t happen.
In fact, Katsu’s vivid recreation of the journey, her sharp characterization, her insightful plumbing of the depths of human nature (as well as, occasionally, showing us its heights), and her masterful control of tension meant that, for me at least, the supernatural elements were the least interesting aspects of The Hunger. I’m also, I confess, not a regular reader of horror fiction. Those coming to the book looking for a lot of the occult might find this a slow opening (I can see some fans complaining she spends “sooooo much time on the history … “). I, however, thought the book was mostly perfectly paced.
That only changed somewhat toward the end, when things sped up a bit and, perhaps not uncoincidentally, the monsters made their first really direct appearances and attacks. But then, things slowed again, and those events led to two great scenes at the end. While the last bit of the novel, therefore, is a bit disappointing, it’s only in comparison to what has come before, is relatively brief, and gets us in short order back to several strong moments. The Hunger was, so far, my favorite of this year’s Locus finalists.