“Experience the true American pioneer spirit by joining the wagon train heading to hell in this superb literary historical horror novel”
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, with a vague touch of the supernatural then Alma Katsu’s “The Hunger” may well be the book for you. I thoroughly enjoyed it and although it’s a novel which may not be lumped with ‘horror’ in the bookshops it has got more than enough to keep fans of the genre entertained, particularly in its gruelling second half.
Based on a true story, the disappearance of a large wagon train heading west towards California in the mid-1840s, Alma Katsu has made a superb job of recreating the hard and dangerous life of the wagon train. For much of the perilous journey there is a vague suspicion of something nasty tracking the ninety or so travellers, including many children, wives and old folks. Many of the group were desperate men, heading west with a lack of provisions, ill-prepared and hoping to survive the perilous 2000 mile journey to enjoy what later became known as the ‘American Dream’. But instead we’re heading into nightmare territory.
It’s hard to know what to compare this superb beast of a novel to, however, if Dan Simmons decided to tackle the American frontier period he may well come up with something like “The Hunger” and that’s high praise indeed. The novel is full of colourful period detail, exquisitely researched, and although it moves along at a slow pace it is never dull and I read it very quickly. However, if you do prefer a slash, bang, wallop kind of horror then this is probably not the book for you. It inhabits the literary end of the genre and is a fine example of how to build tension, slow dread and fear as the travellers are picked off one by one after the first young boy is disappears early in their journey, his eaten corpse found strangely ahead of the wagon train a few days later. Indians or wolves are suspected, but soon the fear and suspicion spreads.
According to the informative author end-notes the true events of the disappearance of the ‘Donner Party’, or at least the facts that do exist, was common knowledge until the last couple of generations and have now disappeared from common American historical knowledge. As George Donner had the most wagons and financial clout he declared himself leader of the convoy, but with winter fast approaching the wagon train falls behind schedule and they are left with a critical choice to make. Either go the familiar safer wagon route, or follow a supposed short-cut which is unexplored, but rumoured to shave 300 miles from the journey. They foolishly take the short cut.
Although the whole book is a journey, with something nasty lurking in the background, the book is as much about the people as anything else. It is also easy enough to argue the plot would have been strong enough without any supernatural elements at all. Seen from multiple points of view there are some wonderfully drawn characters and the novel uses both flashbacks and letters to explore many key back stories. For many of them, risking a 2000-mile journey, means they are running away from something. Amongst these good Christian men and women, we have every kind of secret from infidelity, homosexual lust, murder, to incest, all of which slowly unravel as the wagon train begins to flounder. Laced into the plot are many clever cultural observations from the period, for example, why were unmarried men treated with suspicion? As one of the leading characters Stanton finds out.
“The Hunger” was a superbly thoughtful novel, which ultimately stretched the limits of human endurance, as there is more than one kind of ‘hunger’ within the pages of the book. Its strength lies in its depiction of the pioneer spirit of the brave ninety souls searching for a dream, not knowing a nightmare was waiting. Turning a factual event into a very readable novel is tricky, adding a convincing supernatural angle is even more difficult, but the author pulls it off admirably. It’s possible readers of ‘straight’ historical fiction may not like the direction the novel heads in the final 25% of its gruelling 400 pages. But, hey, that’s their loss.