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The Hunger by Alma Katsu

BOTTOM LINE: Sufficiently scary and historically fascinating

Genre: Historical Fiction; Horror
Publication Date: 6 March 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

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.”

My Thoughts: I am really liking this horror/historical fiction trend I have seen for the last few review books. You not only learn something about history but get scared at the same time. I can’t think of anything better!

This latest mashup follows the Donner Party as they cross the plains on the way to their doom. The focus in this particular Donner version is on the journey and the people, allowing us to get to know the individual families and the misfortunes that follow the entire wagon train as they head west. As we already know their fate, the tragedies and poor decision-making they experience on the trail become a poignant reminder of the power of egos and unforeseen consequences that occur when we let ego and pride run amok.

Ms. Katsu does a fantastic job building suspense and using the element of doubt to add another layer to the story. After all, this is a group of eighty-plus people performing grueling labor and exercise in relentless heat with very little food and water; the mind can do funny things when stressed. So when people start seeing shadows and hearing voices, you really have no idea whether something is out there stalking the party or not. This plays on the fears and strains under which the party is already suffering. Plus, it is in keeping with their experiences. They are in an unfamiliar land with no real knowledge of the animals or people who inhabit it. Imaginations are bound to run free at hearing strange noises or upon experiencing odd situations. Tensions are already high given the need to hurry and the accidents that keep occurring that continually delays them. It is a situation ripe with the possibility of using wild imaginations as an excuse to release tension and take out their individual anger and frustrations on each other.

The Hunger is a brilliant amalgam of fact and fiction. Ms. Katsu does not change the end result of the Donner Party journey, nor does she play with the journey itself. The Party still makes poor decisions, stopping early, starting late, wasting food, getting lost, and taking the wrong route. They are still facing starvation should they not make it to the pass before it closes for the winter. It is what happens as they make their journey where the drama happens. By allowing us the chance to walk beside them as they struggle to push forward, by inviting us into the Party, Ms. Katsu brings these lost figures to life in a way that biographies can not. They become more than characters in a macabre story in history books but flesh and blood with hopes and dreams who happen to be caught up in unfortunate circumstances, some of which are of their own making.

As for the horror element, it is sufficiently creepy to make reading at night more than a little uncomfortable. Here too Ms. Katsu plays with the genre a bit. By turning the idea of a monster on its head, she has the freedom to explore human nature as a monstrosity. There are plenty of things that go bump in the night as well, but sometimes that which is most frightening is hidden inside us – something Ms. Katsu knows and exploits to her advantage.

The Hunger is a fascinating glimpse into one of the most well-known tragedies of the pioneering days. Through Ms. Katsu’s attention to detail, we experience the unforgiving lifestyle of settlers migrating west. We also gain insight into various reasons for people wanting to leave everything familiar for an unknown land. The Hunger could also double as a psychological study of human nature in a harsh environment when individual survival is at stake. Who rises to the top and who succumbs to fear in such situations is never as cut and dry as we think it will be, making what happens to the Party that much more interesting. With plenty of spooky happenings, unknown haunts, and the very real specter of becoming delusional, there is enough to make you think twice the next time you want to go tent-camping. After all, you never truly know what is out there, hiding in the shadows.

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