The best horror stories are already frightening before the monsters even show up. The doomed Donner Party has always been the quintessential example of the harsh realities for pioneers trekking West to the promise of California, and most already know the tragedy awaiting the group at the center of The Hunger. While bringing their wagon train across the country to find new fortunes, the infamous Donner Party made many key mistakes, and found themselves staring down the barrel of the harshest conditions the West had to offer. In The Hunger, Katsu gives the party a few more dangerous surprises, and crafts an already terrifying prospect into a more thematically rich tale.
Katsu takes that existing historical core and builds out a complex web of interpersonal relationships and drives among the wagon train’s families. Along with more grounded threats from within their party threats from the woods around them, her additions (which I won’t spoil) double the already daunting stakes, making for a tense and engrossing experience. The infamous end of the Donner Party sets out a determined end for the story, but Katsu’s additions bring more than enough to be worth the journey. Holding up the fictionalized and horror story layers, there is a core of interesting characters with deep backstories and characterizations, that give their struggles to survive the weight that the foregone conclusion can occasionally undercut. Looking back from a distance on the naive intrusion the party made into an unfamiliar and unwelcoming territory allows for a brutally honest portrayal of the consequences of the journey on both the party and those they cross paths with. Katsu’s fictional telling turns this distant tragedy into a deeper kind of myth, with a lot to say about the things we feel we deserve, and the dangers of trying to claim them.