The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Posted On 1 March 2018

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The Hunger by Alma Katsu is a fascinating story full of darkness and despair.  Using as inspiration a true life horror story and blending it with imaginary scenarios brimming with superstition and fear, the author has created a winning tale that gradually builds into a story packed with emotion, riveting to read and scary in scope.  To be honest, I expected to like this story. I’ve read this author before and loved her style of writing and her ability to recreate something from history in such a perfect and easy to read fashion, but, this story exceeded my (already high) expectations.

I confess that I’d not heard of the Donner Party before and I had no knowledge that this story was based on such a terrible tragedy.  Using this real life disaster Katsu weaves together a tale of fear, superstition and the supernatural.

I’m leaving any further detail about the plot out of this review.  If you’re already familiar with the historic events being recreated here then you probably don’t need me to detail them and if, like me, you are unaware of this particular event then I think it’s best to approach this with no knowledge at all.

So, what did I love about this story.

Firstly, the writing, the attention to detail and the clear research that has been poured into this project is exceptional.  Katsu has a style that flows very well, her dialogue is absolutely spot on and on top of that she seems to easily recreate a sense of time and place that makes the story fascinating and evocative.  I absolutely loved reading about the life on this wagon train and in fact felt like I had a real understanding of what people were experiencing not just in terms of the day to day struggles but also with their emotions.  On top of that there is a tension to the story.  Even in the earlier chapters the tension is palpable.  In frog soup fashion it gradually increases and builds until you’re sat in boiling water with no idea of how you wound up there.

I would mention at this point that although this is a scary read it’s more the author’s ability to create fear that achieves this.  This isn’t a blood thirsty horror fest.  Things happen.  They’re not always nice but the blood and guts are not the main focus.  It’s more a relentless barrage of creepy elements that, when combined with the sense of mounting fear that the travellers experience. becomes almost like a collective hysteria that is simply gripping to read about.  I had an almost overwhelming feeling of being caught in the headlights, a car wreck approaching – I had to read on, I had to know what was going to happen next, I wanted the characters I had become attached to to be okay, yet I knew things were going to spiral out of control.  Compelling indeed.

Secondly the characters.  We have a number of people to keep track of and yet it doesn’t feel arduous.  The author takes her time to allow you to become familiar with them and their way of life but you need that time to familiarise yourself with them all.  Gradually you start to have a real feel for who everyone is and how they all fit in together.  Tamsen, promiscuous or lonely?  Superstitious enough to make tokens that others regard with fear.  She’s not generally liked.  She’s far too pretty for some, a bit too witch-like for others and married to one of the most prosperous men on the trail not without a good deal of spite and envy directed her way.  Mary Graves.  Quiet, aloof and yet although softly spoken with an inner strength.  Charles Stanton.  A loner in a situation that it’s never good to be alone in.  His own standoffishness makes the others suspect him of wrongdoing and he’s a natural target for the fear and hate that gradually grows within the group.  There are plenty of others who you will either like – or seriously not – but what prevents this from becoming overwhelming is the back stories that are provided.  They’re delivered naturally as the story progresses and they’re quite fascinating.  Some of these people are running towards what they hope will be something better and some of them are definitely running away. from things they want to leave far behind  It’s all very curious and even more so when you realise that quite a few of them are already known to each other.  It’s a hotbed of emotions.  Fear, mistrust, jealousy, hatred, anger – when coupled with the hardships being encountered, the harsh weather conditions and the lack of food – well, it’s all a recipe for disaster.  Then throw in something stalking the travellers, children start to go missing, shadows in the dark, people who seem to change character, becoming almost feral.  The fear becomes almost unbearable, often times turning into anger and hate.

In terms of criticisms.  I think the start will feel maybe a little drawn out for some people – personally, I think the time is necessary to the overall plot, it leads you into a false sense of security whilst at the same time allowing you to develop connections with the characters.  The other thing, this is undoubtedly bleak – if you’re aware of the true story then you’ll already know that.  I couldn’t help at times thinking ‘for goodness sake give these characters (and me) a break’ – but of course that was never going to be a possibility.  This is a tale inspired by brutal reality.  It’s cruel and desperate and Katsu has taken it that extra step by adding something more in the form of the supernatural – it’s not achieved with a heavy hand though but very subtly done.

I’m going to wrap it up there because I’ve already rewritten this three times and frankly I’m never going to be satisfied. This is a powerful book.  It’s full of emotion.  It’s dark and scary and it plays on your innermost fears.  Utterly compelling, a horrifying story that with only a little bit of the supernatural thrown into the mix is quite a remarkable read.

I received a copy through Edelweiss, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.