The Hunger

4 Stars

Alma Katsu
Published March 2018

*Review by Alexa*

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”

I first heard about The Hunger from the King himself, Mr. Stephen King.  I am a pretty big fan of Mr. King (some might call it an obsession, but whatever), so whenever good ol’ Uncle Stevie recommends a book I pick it up.  This book just has so much going for it: a supernatural retelling of the doomed Donner Party that’s been recommended by Stephen King?  Sign me up. Unfortunately, having all of that in its favor might have made my expectations a tad high. ***editor’s note: stick around until the end of the review to see how I feel now***

Snow kept secrets.  You’d think you were on solid ground, but it was just a matter of time before the ledge beneath you crumbled.

This book is pretty good, but it isn’t great.  To be fair, the second half is much better than the first, and the final fifty-ish pages are fantastic.  I usually enjoy a book with a slow burn, especially in anything resembling horror, but this book is just slow, minus the burn.  The prologue gives a great punch of dread and sets up the book well, but then it stagnates until the second half.  There are also a ton of characters with fairly elaborate backstories, but they are all fairly unlikable, with the exception of Tamsen and Elitha Donner and Edwin Bryant (the titular canary in the coalmine).  It’s not that I want to like every character, but I need to feel something for them one way or another.  Either I want to root for them or hate them, but most of these characters I just didn’t care about at all.  Their backstories and inner squabbles litter the book and add a decent amount of bulk without adding interest.

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Photo by Alexa

 

So, yes, the pacing is off and there is some extraneous story, but where this book really succeeds is the pervasive and building feeling of dread.  Starting with the prologue, the book maintains a thread of anxiety that I didn’t even realize was there until it started to reach its peak. By the end of the book, I was genuinely concerned to read the next page for fear of what I would find.  I went into this book with a decent knowledge of the actual history of the Donner Party, and yet Alma Katsu was still able to make me anxious to reach the end.  The book’s supernatural elements played a big part in that, and I’m impressed at how well they are placed within the story.  They made sense within the greater factual history while never overshadowing it.  Even though the concept isn’t a new one (something Katsu acknowledges within the book), it is used with finesse and makes the story one I wanted to keep reading.

Then the Lord must be mightily displeased with you, because he has led you into the valley of death.

I am also impressed with how well the actual history is handled—both how accurate it is as well as how seamlessly it is embellished or changed when the need arises—and, more importantly, how culturally sensitive the book is towards the indigenous peoples within the story.  Katsu is able to include the prevailing attitudes that existed towards native peoples without perpetuating them.  As a student of both history and anthropology (wow, how pretentious does that sound…sorry), I’m impressed with the amount of care that Katsu has taken in both categories.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed how Katsu uses the idea of ‘hunger’ as an analogy for a variety of human conditions, both visceral and psychological.  I love when horror/fantasy/sci-fi uses the fantastical nature of its genre as a way to explore society and the humans that exist within it.  Katsu does this well, and with each backstory the reader learns of a different hunger that acts as a driving force for each character.  By doing this, the book is elevated from a standard horror re-imagining to a smart and scary look at humanity.

Make peace with your Lord before it is too late, because the hungry ones are coming for you.

I finished The Hunger feeling a tad disappointed because even though I enjoyed a great deal of the book, it didn’t really grab me until the end…but then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I kept going over the end of the book in my mind and getting more and more disturbed.  It turns out this book isn’t just a slow burn while you read it, but a slow burn when you are done as well.  Even though it is never gory, the horrific nature of what happened—and why—stays with you long after the book is done.

If you are looking for a good historical re-imagining of a horrific event, then this book is for you, but be prepared to take a bit of a journey…and be prepared for it to stay with you for quite awhile.

*editor’s note*

I read this book and wrote this review a little over year ago, and at the time I was a little disappointed by how exposition heavy and slow the beginning of the book feels, and I only gave this book a rating of 3.5 stars.  Well, it’s been a year and I still can’t stop thinking about it.  Truly, the last half of this book is still haunting me and, looking back a year later, I see how the beginning is less about tedium and more about lulling the reader into a sense of the familiar…before utterly ripping them out of it.  So, I bumped this up to 4 stars because IT’S BEEN A YEAR AND I’M STILL DISTURBED.  Ahem, sorry about that.  So, yeah, needless to say I’ll be reading Katsu’s upcoming Titanic retelling as soon as it comes out (January 2020).

 

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