I’ve been away on vacation (or a series of vacations) for a little over a month, and have a large stack of books to review. But this one had to be first. The quiet horror of it will last with me for a long time.
I first heard about The Hunger from Stephen King, who tweeted about it in March:
THE HUNGER, by Alma Katsu: Deeply, deeply disturbing, hard to put down, not recommended reading after dark.
Of course, that shot it up to the top of my TBR list. I bought it immediately. But didn’t sit down to read it until I left for the beach in July…and then had trouble putting it down.
The Hunger is a fictional (and yes, supernaturally horrifying) take on the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, and their journey from Illinois to California back in 1846. We all know how well that ended for some of the members of that party. But what if the Donner Party wasn’t famous (or infamous, I guess) for cannibalism…but for their interactions with a terrible, flesh eating, shape-shifting creature out in the mountains on the California border?
Katsu creates a story that is factually similar to that of the Donner Party. Most of the names and characters are the same…albeit with slightly different personal characteristics. For instance, yes, in real life, Tamsen Donner was the wife of George Donner, the original leader of the group that left their homes in Springfield, Illinois for the chance at a better life out west. But was she suspected by the rest of the travelers as being a witch? Was James Reed a closeted homosexual who was traveling west to escape his past? I doubt it. But it made for much more interesting reading.
The writing is slow and descriptive. The group slowly makes their way west, meeting hardship after hardship — bad weather, not enough supplies, drought — and its leaders (including George Donner) argue and make one bad decision after another.
To be honest, this book would have been exciting enough for me if it had just told the story of the disintegration of the group as it made its way west — how bickering and stubbornness caused the group to splinter and was the true cause of their demise.
But Katsu ratcheted things up a notch by introducing a monster in the background. Something that craves human flesh and cannot be sated. Ever. The Native Americans in the mountains fear this monster and leave human sacrifices to it in order to be left alone, but the travelers ignore any and all advice to turn back or to take a different route, driving them straight into the path of this curious and mysterious monster.
Yes, this book is scary. The monster is hideous and awful. But the people are almost as bad. They say and do terrible things to each other out of pure selfishness. Their behavior reminded me a lot of King’s novella, The Mist, and what happened to the seemingly normal friends and neighbors after being holed up in the supermarket for a few days, and how quickly they turned on each other.
I really enjoyed this book (even though it scared the crap out of me at some points), and had very few complaints about it. The end was a bit abrupt for my liking, but that’s really all I can find fault with. I’ll happily seek out Katsu’s previous books.
FYI, this is my first entry into #CBR10Bingo, and I’ll file it under #birthday. Alma Katsu was born on November 30, 1959. She has quite a fascinating bio…born in Alaska and raised in Massachusetts, Katsu studied under John Irving and Margaret Rey, and then somehow ended up working as a foreign policy analyst for 30 years. Wow. I’m glad she made her way back to writing fiction.