ARTICLE – REVIEW (September 2018)
‘Arresting and cinematic’ horror crossing of the American West that chills and unsettles
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Reviewed by JON GOWER
THE trek is a trope found in many a fine book from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with its chronicling of Oklahomans leaving the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression for the promised land of California through Lord of the Rings’ quest for Mount Doom to Patrick White’s Voss, which takes its protagonists across the seared landscape of the Australian Outback.
In Alma Katsu’s arresting and cinematic debut the travellers are the doomed, pioneering Donner Party, heading west in the 1840s much as Horace “Go West Young Man” Greeley had encouraged. In history the wagon trains bearing not just young men but entire families from Illinois headed out of the trailhead town of Independence, Missouri towards a testing landscape and myriad dangers. They were encouraged by ‘Manifest Destiny’, the powering idea that Americans were an exceptional people ordained by God to occupy the territory clear to the edge of the Pacific. It was, of course both quest and escape and, to boot, a land seizure from Mexicans and Native Americans by settlement and force of arms. The pioneers were not just innocent and determined dreamers. They were bridgeheads.
The Hunger is no conventional historical novel. Katsu has transmuted her materials completely and fashioned a horror story that chills and unsettles the reader pretty much from the go. A creeping and insistent sense of doom starts with mundane events: a man nicks a deep cut in his throat whilst shaving and one intuits that much more blood will be let during the coming journey as the various family groups face dangers from both the natural and supernatural worlds.
The world of the pioneer is one of hardship in all weathers and making camp at day’s end: ‘Fires sputtered and smoked: families hunkered down in their tents, shivering out their evenings in mud-spattered clothing and boots, scratching at lice and other vermin that seemed to have infested half the wagon party’s bedding and clothing.’
As if lice and misery and crossing a desiccated landscape weren’t enough there are perverse and cruel fellow travellers to contend with. Children disappear from the main caravan. Nerves are shredded. A full panoply of envy, lust, loneliness, moral turpitude and murder-lust are put on display, all testing the travellers to the limit. Not to mention diseased creatures that feast crazily on human blood and marrow and exist in the shadows. And feed on fear itself, seemingly.
Even if the mules and wagon-drivers stumble at times, the author is never anything less than surefooted as she summons up her cast of characters, so many of them carrying secrets from back east with them, along with the dwindling provisions which weigh down the oxen. The harsh landscapes are depicted graphically but with great economy, considering the obvious temptation to present the story in Cinemascope and lush broad brush.
The main story is punctuated with passages of backstory and also epistolary exchanges from pioneers to loved one left at home, in letters lost or never delivered. These are melded into the wagon train narrative with aplomb and a clear confidence that belies the fact that this is a first novel by former CIA analyst Katsu. The Hunger is an absorbing if unsettling day’s worth of reading and a very, very assured debut. Read it by daylight if you can, else be prepared to lose sleep, or have your dreams invaded by creatures with sharp and tearing teeth. Warned you are.
*The Hunger by Alma Katsu is published by Transworld (379 pages), price £14.99