Trigger warnings for this novel can be found at the very bottom of this review.
Cannibalism is simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. Despite this seemingly instinctual revulsion, however, there are certain circumstances under which that revulsion can be overcome – such as when people have to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. There are many reports throughout history of people eating their fellows during famines or war, as well as when they are stranded somewhere isolated and cannot find food to keep them going. That was the case in 1972, when Uruguayan Flight 571 crashed in a remote part of the Andes. Ten days into the crash, the survivors made a pact: those who died would allow the living to eat their flesh to help keep them going in the hopes of eventual rescue. In the end, sixteen people were eventually rescued, and the incident is remembered in Latin America as El Milagro de los Andes, “The Miracle of the Andes”, despite the cannibalism that occurred.
In direct contrast to the above is the story of the Donner Party: the name given to the wagon train consisting of pioneers who left Independence, Missouri in 1846 intent on making it to the Oregon Territory in hopes of building new lives for themselves. But a series of mishaps, bad decisions, and disagreements led to the party first splitting into two groups, and then both groups getting stranded in the Sierra Nevadas during the winter with minimal supplies. When the survivors were rescued from the mountains and brought into California in the first months of 1847, tales of cannibalism came along with them, since many of the survivors had had to resort to it in order to ensure their survival. Unlike the survivors of El Milagro de los Andes, however, the survivors of the Donner Party’s expedition were not viewed with awe and wonder; instead, many were viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility, because they ate human flesh.
Alma Katsu’s novel The Hunger is a retelling of the Donner Party’s story. Told from the perspective of a host of different characters, it follows the wagon train as they make their fateful journey westward. But as things begin to fall apart at the seams and people begin to actually disappear, the members of the Party begin to wonder: who or what is the cause of their misfortune? Is it Tamsen Donner, whom some in the group believe to be a witch? Is it because of political manoeuvring by the menfolk on who gets to lead the party? Or is it something else – something more sinister than politics or witchcraft, an evil that lurks in their midst, unseen and undetected, until far, far too late?
When I first decided to pick up this book, I knew next to nothing about the Donner Party save that The Oregon Trail video game was inspired by what happened to the group. Still, it was easy enough to look up the main events of the Party’s history online before diving headlong into the novel, and while I cannot say for certain just how accurate the author’s depiction of events is, it appears that she has done a lot of in-depth research, as the excerpt below suggests:
… “Two days ago, when we came across that abandoned trapper’s cabin…”
“Ash Hollow?’ Mary asked. She could still picture the tiny makeshift shack, boards bleached bone-white by the relentless prairie sun. A sad, lonely place, like the abandoned farmhouse she used to pass every Sunday on her way to service. Stripped nearly bare by the elements, dark empty windows like the hollow eye sockets of a skull, a stark reminder of another family’s failure. …
Elitha squeezed her eyes shut. “Yes. Ash Hollow. Did you go inside?”
Mary shook her head.
“It was filled with letters. Hundreds of them. Stacked on a table, held down with rocks. Mr. Bryant told me that pioneers leave them so that the next traveler heading east can take them to the first post office he sees.” …
Ash Hollow is a real place. Located in Nebraska, it was a popular pitstop for the wagon trains heading west, since the abundance of vital resources like wood and water made it an excellent place to refit and repair before continuing on the rest of the journey. The trapper’s cabin mentioned above is also real, though it took me a bit of looking around online to find any website that even mentions it outright. Based on this and other, sundry details, I think I can say that the author has done her due diligence in terms of research, and that the historical details used for the setting and the plot are as accurate as they should be.
But this is a novel, not a straightforward nonfiction account of the Donner Party’s misfortune, and the author does an excellent job mingling the fictional aspects of this novel with the nonfictional parts through the characters and the plot.
I will start with the characters. Much of the story revolves around them, since the author fills in the gaps of the historical account by giving most of the characters, but most especially the female characters, intriguing and nuanced interior lives. Take the following excerpt, for example, which comes from the novel’s second chapter:
Tamsen liked to walk. It gave her time to look for herbs and plants she needed for her remedies; yarrow for fever, willow bark for headache. She was keeping track of flora she found in a journal, tucking in snippets of unfamiliar ones for study or experimentation.
Besides, walking gave the men an opportunity to admire her figure. What was the point of looking the way she did and having it to go waste?
And there was something else, too. When she was confined in a wagon all day she began to feel that clawing, discontented restlessness rise up inside her like a trapped animal, the way it used to back home. At least outside, the beast—the unhappiness—could roam and give her space to breathe and think.
… They’d been on the trail for a month and a half and Tamsen was agitated. She’d imagined the farther they moved west, the freer she would feel—she hadn’t anticipated the trapped sensation. … It had started out as an adventure, but now all she could think about was how tiresome it had become, and how much they’d left behind.
How much she’d left behind.
How the dark nag of want only grew with distance, instead of subsiding.
The above excerpt paints an interesting picture of Tamsen Donner, one that is neither simple nor straightforward – and it is a pattern that applies to a majority of the female characters who are also narrators, but to Tamsen Donner and Mary Graves, in particular. Through them the reader understands what it was like to be a woman during that particular period in history (thus filling in some of the historical background for the reader), but also gives them concerns and troubles of their own – concerns and troubles that might echo with female readers in the real world. Tamsen’s “restlessness” is a good example of that; I am not certain as to the nature of her problem, but I can guess that it is some kind of psychological issue that she has simply coped with throughout her life the best she can.
Mary Graves’ concerns are just as interesting:
… When her father announced that they would be moving to California, she’d secretly been elated. She was tired of the small town she’d lived in since birth, where everyone knew about her family’s humble beginnings… People would always expect her to be exactly as they thought she was and would never let her be anything more. it was like trying to walk forward and finding that your head had been yoked in place.
When her fiancé was killed, her greatest sense was of relief. She knew her father had pinned everything on her planned marriage and the better circumstances it would have allowed all of them.
Her sister’s marriage had been practical, but it had also been one of love. For Mary, Franklin Graves had always had other plans, she knew. He’d always imagined she’d be the one to make the kind of advantageous match that would save them all. She could hardly count the many times he’d told her she was his only hope.
She could hardly count, either, the many times she’d wished Sarah had been born the prettier one and not her, the one on whose shoulders the others’ happiness rested.
Like Tamsen – and perhaps, like all those who migrated to the west – Mary is looking for an escape, though her reasons for wanting to escape are different from Tamsen’s. This is only as it should be: she is, after all, an entirely different person from Tamsen, with her own story (which is fleshed out, just as Tamsen’s is, in the novel via flashbacks) and her own issues with herself and those around her.
Though Tamsen and Mary are the ones who stood out for me while reading this novel, the author really takes the time to flesh out most of the characters. Getting to know them takes a while, but it is time well-spent as the reader gets to really know the characters and appreciate them for everything they are, and everything they are not. Some, like Charles Stanton and Edwin Bryant, immediately strike the reader as endearing, but quickly prove to be entirely flawed human beings. Others, like James Reed, come across as less likeable at first, but grow a bit more sympathetic over the course of the story. No one is a saint in this story, and part of the fun of reading the novel is uncovering all the dark secrets they are trying to leave behind by going west.
While developing the characters as much as the author does in this novel certainly has its benefits, it has some downsides as well – most notably, in terms of plot pace. This novel reads a lot longer than I’m used to for a horror novel, but I did not mind that overmuch because most of the tension comes from the way characters interact with their fellows in light of the many challenges and pitfalls they encounter during the journey. Some readers, however, might consider this a deal-breaker, especially if they come into this novel expecting something more plot-oriented.
Incidentally, the true horror of this novel comes from those character interactions. The tension between the characters is already clear from the first chapter, but the author pulls that tension tighter in slow degrees, oftentimes during quiet moments when no one else is looking. The themes, too, become clearer as the tensions ratchet higher: threads connected to misogyny, racism, and classism are all in play in the story. Secrets build upon secrets as the wagon train continues on its journey, eroding the already-tenuous connections between the characters until it is utterly destroyed. In the meantime, flashbacks explain why certain characters joined the wagon train, while also providing hints as to the motivations guiding their actions in the novel’s present.
Clearly, this is a lot of story to control, and the author manages to do a fine job of it, even if sometimes it feels like the story has gotten bogged down in the minute details. It also means that the supernatural angle that may have drawn some readers to this book gets lost as well. Since the novel is driven by its characters and not the plot, the supernatural aspect is used very sparingly, mentioned only from time to time to create tension. I usually do not mind such an approach; in my opinion, horror is most effective when the monster is kept out sight as much as possible so as to let the reader’s own imagination fill in the blanks for maximum terror. I suspect that that’s what the author was going for, but since it’s not really the monster that’s the source of the horror, the supernatural angle feels a little superfluous for this story.
This, in turn, affects the novel’s latter fourth, and not in a good way. The slower pace of the first three-fourths of the novel is left in the dust as the remainder of the story seems to careen its way through a host of revelations to reach the denouement. While the revelations are interesting, and say some interesting things about how the greatest evils of all are the ones that walk hidden in our midst, it all feels far too rushed – not least because the horror in the first three-fourths of the novel does not really come from the monster at all (though it is a contributing factor), but from the way the characters deal with each other in the midst of various crises. While it was good to finally know the real identity of the monster, the revelation did not feel quite as momentous as I think it could have been had the story been focused differently.
Overall, The Hunger is quite a good horror novel, but only if the reader knows what to expect when he or she goes into it, as the blurb can be rather misleading. If the reader is looking for a character-driven, historically-based, suspenseful story that uses some of the tropes of supernatural horror but does not lean on them full-bore, then he or she might enjoy this novel. Such readers may find the pace a bit too slow, but they will be rewarded with a richly-drawn setting and well-developed characters. But if the reader comes in expecting a full-blown supernatural horror novel, then he or she might be rather disappointed, especially since the plot moves far more slowly than most horror novels do. Still, if the reader is willing to take a chance, then perhaps he or she may find that he or she enjoys the novel a lot more than expected.