In the majestic expanse of the American West, an existential dread lingers in its geography. The towering mountains, deep gorges, remorseless badlands and stretched-out deserts—while magnificent and alluring—also have a dark and deadly side. A few wrong choices while out on an adventure could leave anyone at the mercy of the elements.
Even in the age of satellites and smartphones, headlines still surface of that family that tried to drive a mountain pass too late in the season; or that backpacker who made a wrong turn on that Grand Canyon trail; or the couple that hiked the open desert without enough water and one of them did not come back. The topography, elevation and climate can conspire to create fatal consequences.
In The Hunger, Alma Katsu crafts a horror novel that reimagines the 1846-47 Donner Party crossing this daunting landscape in a much different time. The wagon train turned infamous for becoming stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains during a snowstorm while traveling from Missouri to California—a circumstance that led to cannibalism. However, Katsu integrates supernatural and horror into the storyline, placed in a harrowing tale that is scary enough on its own.
The curious result is that the horrors of an ill-fated expedition, pushed to its limits by the environment, often bring more gut-churn and sweaty palms than the infusion of the paranormal. Anyone who has misread a map and could not find the trailhead or an expected landmark as darkness fell knows that spine-tingling feelings are not far behind.
The Hunger introduces a few dozen characters of the multi-family Donner Party, though focuses on some key party members. Charles Stanton is a principled and level-headed single man who is somewhat of an outsider among the larger families on the trip. Stanton gives the reader a rational, reliable lens as someone who should lead the group toward better decisions, but instead keeps his head down and tries to stay out of sight given his darker past.
Tamsen Donner, the wife of leader George Donner, works to conceal her knowledge of folk medicine and other healing arts to avoid accusations of witchcraft. She and Stanton form a secret relationship that threatens to unhinge the group, especially as factions and rifts arise.
Lewis Keesburg proves the most unsettling member, rife with prejudices and suspicions that make him nearly as frightening as the unseen monster that stalks the wagon train. While Edwin Bryant, a bookish man with a curiosity for Native American lore, provides a window of insight into the sinister force that might be out there.
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Whatever haunts the Donner Party apparently kills and eviscerates a 12-year-old boy and has either eaten or spooked every animal from the forests and plains. But it does not always overtake the other harrowing aspects, such as the elements, landscape, bad decisions, dwindling supplies, and infighting. In many ways, the unseen threat reads as a metaphor of all the ill-fated aspects of the expedition.
When the party crosses the salt flats in Utah, they are met with a sandstorm, where “bullwhips of sand hissed where they scraped over the canopy. The day had covered [Stanton] in a find crust of salt. It was on his skin, his lips, even in his eyelashes. Salt lined the inside of his throat so that it hurt, even, to swallow.” The descriptions present the elements as menacing as the unknown forces that haunt the group.
Misfortunes also come in hanging hope on some misguided ideas. Donner convinces the group that they should consider what is supposed to be a newer, faster route discovered by a man named Lansford Hastings. The route proves difficult, and Hastings himself is spooked out of his mind from whatever hunts the men. The party has to backtrack, and provisions—like the morale—are not holding up well.
The novel, even with its multiple flashbacks and letter interludes, navigates the historical context and complicated true story well. However, it does have moments where it drifts toward mannerisms and prophetic warnings that feel too familiar or overdone. “That way—that way is bad. There are bad spirits waiting for you ahead,” shares Thomas, a Native American boy that joins the expedition. It joins other lines that feel lifted from a pulp Western.
Despite some missteps and overwriting, The Hunger sustains an irresistible narrative pull. What awaits the party around the next bend? Or the other side of the ridge? Or along the open barrens below? Which relationships will crumble? What strains will rise and fault lines break among the group?
Along with the dread of an infighting party traveling across uninhabited stretches, how will the spiritual horrors swoop in and push the terror to new heights? Tension is built and released in some ways, continually held in others, to pull readers kicking and screaming down that dusty trail. The Hunger holds up as a story of deep unease into the unforgiving landscape.
Seth Muller is the author of the Keepers of the Windclaw trilogy, Canyon Crossing and Heart in the Bony Middle. He is the former editor of Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine and general manager of Flagstaff Live.