With The Hunger, Alma Katsu does for the doomed Donner party what Dan Simmons did for the Franklin Expedition in his massive work, The Terror, giving the ill-fated cross-country voyage a supernatural twist while maintaining historical authenticity (well, to a degree anyway).
In May 1846, a group of American pioneers set out for California in a wagon train led by George Donner and James Reed. Their journey was beset by a number of problems and delays, which ultimately caused them to be stuck in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada during the start of an early and very harsh winter, and with barely any supplies left. Starving and stranded, the travelers wee forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.
Or did they?
Katsu gives the historical record a slight twerk, and while she works tightly within the confines of what we know of the Donner party she still manages to deliver an interesting alternative, threading in a fine line of horror that weaves its way through the expedition and culminates in a savage finale. The Hunger is a slow-burn work of quiet horror, one that draws on Native American folklore to deliver moments of hearty suspense in several well-depicted scenes of terror.
What makes the horror truly effective, though, is the cast of characters Katsu focuses on. The supernatural threat is well depicted, but the Donner party itself is a microcosm of horrors and threats all its own. Taking a group of people and thrusting them into a situation, in this case a months-long journey, that slowly breaks down and decays their trust in one another is fraught with its own perils. Tacking on a mysterious horror lurking in the dark, stalking them across the plains and the Great Salt Lake Desert and up into the snowy, impassable mountains of the Sierra Nevada only serves to amplify the frayed nerves of both the Donner party and readers alike.
While I dug the heck out of The Hunger and appreciate its gentle reminder that I really do need to read more works of historical horror in this vein, I do wish Katsu had spent more time on the grislier affairs this expedition is best known for. An awful lot of anticipation is built toward these travelers' final months, and while it's all very necessary and quite well-told, we're short shrifted by the time December and January 1847 roll around. I will admit, though, that I am a bit of a gore hound, and one that has perhaps been spoiled by small press horror titles that aren't afraid to dive headlong into the darkness. I found myself wondering what Jack Ketchum would do with this book's climax, and I wish Katsu would have been more willing to deliver on the depravity she'd spent so long building toward. I really wanted to see her dig into the blood and guts of it all and get her hands filthy. After nearly 300+ pages, the finale is too much telling and not enough showing, and feels practically weightless in light of all that came before.
This reservation aside, though, The Hunger was ultimately satisfying despite a climax that didn't forcefully enough deliver on the promise of Alma Katsu's premise. Had there been more pages devoted to exploring and fleshing out the last few grisly months of the Donner party, this could have easily been a five-star read for me. In the end, it feels like too much was glossed over for the sake of playing it safe, which is unfortunate to say the least. Still, the characters are superb and have engaging histories, and there are some worthwhile shocks along the way that give The Hunger plenty of intrigue to keep the pages turning.
[Note: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher.]
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