First published back in April of 2018, US author Alma Katsu’s novel ‘The Hunger’ utilised what is known of the real-life tragedy that befell the Donner Party during their westward journey across the US in 1846, and has woven in elements of supernatural horror to produce a harrowing read that gnaws away at you with a gradual all-consuming horror.

DLS Synopsis:
It was the mid-1840’s and the Donner party wagon train had set out from Springfield, headed for California.  The party consisted of six families in all, several of them quite well off, along with a handful of single men who were looking to make their fortune in the West.  Early on in the trek the westward-bound wagon train met up with the Russell group, who themselves were headed for Oregon, combining the two parties for the perilous two-thousand-mile journey across the treacherous landscape of the US.

However, from early on, the trek appeared to be cursed.  A number of those on the journey had started hearing strange things at night from when they’d started following the North Platte.  A sound like someone was whispering in a high voice, only it was very weak, like the wind was carrying it in from far away.

Not far along their journey, the eighty-eight strong party came across and old abandoned trapper’s cabin.  Within the cabin they found letter after letter piled high on a table.  Each letter saying the same thing.  “Turn back.  Turn back or you will all die”.

It was a bad omen that put them ill at ease.  But one they chose to ignore.  This was a journey they had all chosen to undertake and no amount of superstitious nonsense would make them turn back.  Although Elitha Donner had started hearing voices in her head.  Voices that worried her.  Voices she couldn’t ignore.

Not long after they had their first disappearance.  One of the young boys disappeared one night, only to be found a few days later, further on up the track; his body ripped open and devoured.  After this gruesome discovery, many of the party became convinced something was stalking them.

But it was after they found the note from their planned guide that their bad fortune really started to worsen.  The note said for them not to follow the earlier travellers into Weber Canyon, for it was rougher than expected.  The note was signed Lansford Hastings.  The man who was supposed to know the trail.  Their tracks leading into a pass completely obscured by forest, the trail swallowed up behind a wall of growth.

However the track was rumoured to be a short cut.  Taking them across the Sierra Nevada mountains.  But without a guide they knew taking the route could be dangerous.  But with winter drawing in they decided it was a gamble worth taking.

So, with supplies running low, and a distinct lack of confidence in their leadership troubling the tired wagon train, they pushed on into the dense thicket.  Where wolves and Indians were said to prowl.

It was a decision that would ultimately see the fate of the westward-travellers.  One that would lead to a gradual, painful death of each and every one of them.

For the relentless voices within Etitha’s head told her of a hunger that lodged not in the stomach, but in the blood.  An excavating hunger that festered like an unclean wound.  They told her of the sweet smell of human skin, the deep flinty richness of human blood, the need for it that pulled at the whole being.

Make peace with your Lord and your fellow travellers before it’s too late, because the hungry ones are coming for you…

DLS Review:
Based on a true story, Alma Katsu’s fictional reimaging of the Donner party’s fateful journey to California in search of the American Dream is one that combines a keen eye for well-researched historical detail together with tightly interwoven threads of supernatural and nerve-chilling horror.

The tale is far from eagerly paced.  Indeed, it’s some time before the darker elements of the story really start to feed off the literally fodder that’s been left like mouldering breadcrumbs.  These creepy hints of something that’s stalking the wagon train litter the first two-thirds of the story.  It’s what builds the tension and gets the tendrils of horror slithering their way under your skin.

Despite the strong elements of horror (both natural and supernatural) the story is nevertheless still a very character driven one.  Katsu introduces a wonderfully varied cast of characters, some who were actually on the fateful wagon train trek, and other fictional ones who Katsu has created to play a particular roles in her tale.  Whether fictional or based on real individuals, the characters all have their own parts to play in the unfolding horror – with their own voices and lovingly created personalities combining to draw you deep into their descending plight.

This is very much where the intricacies of the novel’s time-set period comes into its own.  The way the characters talk, interact, their attitudes and beliefs, all ring true of the time.  Views on the native Indians are delicately handled, whilst still maintaining an air of cultural believability.

To achieve this, Katsu maintains a roving perspective between her numerous characters, allowing the reader to engage with each one individually, seeing the dilemma as they would, how their past lives had brought them to this place, at this particular time.  It works magnificently in fleshing out the characters and adds a degree of believability to the truthfulness of the tale.  How the culmination of events can lead lives to certain courses that end up dooming them.  How everyone has their own reasons for upping and leaving to begin a new life.  And as you read them, as you see behind the characters and their backstories, at the back of your mind you have the unsettling knowledge that their fate has been sealed and every decision, every choice, feels like fate has its icy fingers pulling at the puppet-strings.

As previously stated, the story is far from fast-paced.  It’s a slowburner that never really ramps up the gears, even during the last third of the tale when everything starts falling apart catastrophically.  With the characters facing a potential contagion that turns them feral, with beasts in the surrounding woodland picking them off one by one, and the prospect of starvation turning those that remain to cannibalism, even with them facing all of these horrendous issues, the novel’s pacing doesn’t really pick up.

But that’s not necessarily to its disadvantage.  Instead it gradually gnaws away at you, rather than ripping at your flesh in a flurry of heart-pounding violence.  You’ll feel the weight of the desperation crushing you, the lack of options feeling like a deathbell chiming in the wind.

These are the things that make the horror so penetrating.  The connection you’ve built with the characters and then their eventual doom, as everything starts to fall apart.  There’s a bleakness and utter, unrelenting desperation that resonates through the tale.  It’s all-consuming.  It pulls you in and under, submerging you in an icy lake of loss and despair.

It’s not a novel for everyone.  Far from it.  Some horror fans will find it too gradual – too slow-paced and reserved.  Some historical fiction fans will find the integration of a supernatural element unappealing, unnecessary, or simply wrong.

For those left, for those that are simply after a well-told story of some historical relevance, that aims to gradually peel off your skin rather than ripping into the flesh, then this one’s for you.  This tale has the creeping darkness, the unescapable peril, hurt and anguish, and oh so much bitter suffering.  And in amongst it all is a quiet message of humanity.  Of who we are, of our lives and where we’ve come from.  And it’s ultimately this that leaves you breathless.

The novel runs for a total of 376 pages.

© DLS Reviews



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