Alma Katsu: The Hunger
Reviewed by Brian Bogart
Recently, I got a chance to read a novel that has been getting a lot of attention. Did I devour it à la the Donner Party or did it leave myself rotting in a deserted settlement, dried out and baking in the midday sun?
Read on to find out…
“The smell of blood, with its tang of iron, seemed to spring from everywhere…”
The Hunger is an interesting idea: take the ill-fated Donner party, flesh out the characters in the style of a historical fiction novel and throw in some eerie supernatural build-up and horror elements for effect.
Surprisingly, this actually works well for the majority of the book. Katsu has a very clean style that teeters on the romantic and macabre. Simple turns of phrase really hit the mark as intended. She uses an adept hand at introducing the characters and detailing the journey they’ve embarked on. The way they interact felt true and I could easily envision the community working together and falling apart, bit by bit.
“Hanging between two trees were 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, its 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.”
Horror fans should know that there is a slow build to the supernatural elements. This may be a turn-off for some readers. Clocking in at over a few hundred pages, one need not worry: it does not stretch like a sprawling epic. She is concise enough to keep the drag to a minimum, for the most part.
One would also expect more gore given the historical aspect of the expedition. What is there is used sparingly. This is not an extreme horror novel, but more of a quiet and building type of story. While the carcasses do pile up in varying forms of decomposition, the descriptions are there for story only and the character’s tension and fear is the focus.
“But now the whispers, like the ones inside her head, had grown into a clamor. That she had bewitched him with her potions, turned him into a demon, made him her lover, turned him mad. She had killed him so she could collect his blood and drink it.”
It is more subdued than I expected, but that is to the author’s merit. I would’ve been tempted to go overboard. As a reviewer, I try to review the story that is presented, not what I wished the story to be. That can be hard sometimes, especially in genre fiction.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter. While reading this book, I was onboard for the first two thirds easily. I enjoyed the hint of the supernatural (witchy hints, possible shape-shifters or just the wild-eyed craziness of man itself) and her prose is easy to devour. It doesn’t linger for too long in one place and gets you into the mindset of the characters.
“He told her of hunger that lodged not in his stomach, but his blood, an excavating hunger that festered like an unclean wound. He told her of the sweet smell of human skin, the deep flinty richness of human blood, the need for it that pulled at his whole being. He claimed to be ashamed but spoke of Tamsen’s body with longing, and in his darkest, angriest moments he whispered perverse, gross things to her that she couldn’t afterward forget. I wonder what you taste like. I wonder what it would be like to eat you. I would start very small, a toe, or one of your soft, soft ears.”
I believe the build-up is my favorite part of the book. Once it begins to conclude and kick into the final act- my enjoyment lessened a bit. Not that what is there isn’t good. Quite the contrary. It’s the comparison to the previous writing that dampens it a tad.
You ever read a horror novel or watched a movie and once the “big bad” is revealed- it’s a bit underwhelming compared to the mystery of it all? I felt that way, somewhat.
Let’s face facts: Even the genre maestros suffer from this very thing. Hell, Stephen King is notorious for exactly that. It’s also a testament to how well-written the previous hundreds of character-driven pages are.
And that’s something that this book does wonderfully. It draws you into the personal dramas playing out, sprinkling just enough eeriness and mystery to keep you engaged.
Katsu’s prose shines in the dark for the majority of the book. Some, like myself, may want sharper teeth in those shadows, ripping at the flesh of her victims.
Even if the somewhat linear landing may not stick for some, this was a great first read from this author.
I recommend it and look forward to more from her.
In the end… Isn’t that what we all hunger for?
Star Rating (out of 5): 3.5***
A tense and gripping reimagining of one of America’s most fascinating historical moments: the Donner Party with a supernatural twist.
Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.
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 isolated travelers to the brink of madness. Though they dream of what awaits them in the West, long-buried secrets begin to emerge, and dissent among them escalates to the point of murder and chaos. They cannot seem to escape tragedy…or the feelings that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it’s a curse from the beautiful Tamsen Donner (who some think might be a witch), their ill-advised choice of route through uncharted terrain, or just plain bad luck, the ninety men, women, and children of the Donner Party are heading into one of one of the deadliest and most disastrous Western adventures in American history.
As members of the group begin to disappear, the survivors start to wonder if there really is something disturbing, and hungry, waiting for them in the mountains…and whether the evil that has unfolded around them may have in fact been growing within them all along.
Effortlessly combining the supernatural and the historical, The Hunger is an eerie, thrilling look at the volatility of human nature, pushed to its breaking point.
Brian Bogart is an American author of dark fiction and horror/fantasy. He has written stories most of his life and has been a fan of the genre since the age of seven. His approach to storytelling is a tad macabre at times but tries to capture the nuances of the humanity and sometimes, inhumanity, beneath the surface. He supports the horror community with bloodied open arms and demonic vigor.
Dream Darkly and Keep Writing.
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