The smell of blood, with its tang of iron, seemed to spring from everywhere, from the ground and the water and the sky.
Some tragedies and horrors grow into the status of legend. Such has been the case of the ill-fated Donnor Party whose disastrous use of the untested Hastings Cutoff, en route to California, left them stranded in the Sierra Nevadas over the winter of 1846-47. Of a group of ninety people who set out from Independence to California, only half survived-and they had to break one of humanity’s oldest taboos to do so. It is widely considered one of the deadliest and most disastrous episodes in the history of the West.
In her novel, The Hunger, author Alma Katsu (The Reckoning, The Descent) manages to take what is already one of the darkest tales in history and make it even darker and more horrific. Katsu has done her research and evokes a setting that’s beautiful, lonely, majestic and haunting all at once. Her cast of characters (loosely based on the actual historical settlers), is equally rich as well. In Katsu’s version of the story everyone on the Donnor Party has secrets they’re running from. Whether it’s the seductive, beautiful, volatile Tamsen Donnor who dabbles in witchcraft, her stepdaughter Talitha who speaks to the dead, or tormented James Reed, they’re all hiding something. But some secrets are greater than others. And as it turns out, you can’t hide from your past. Indeed the tensions on the trail – hunger, thirst, monotony, and sudden death – only serve to heighten whatever demons already exist within the group. Alliances are forged and broken. Rivalries spring up. There’s romance along the way, but jealousy, too. Blood will be shed more than once among the group. As their rations grow ever lower and the terrain gets ever harder, they cannot escape the sense that someone-or something-is hunting them. Meanwhile one member of their party, newsman Edwin Bryant, takes off ahead on the trail researching indigenous beliefs and discovers hints of an ancient evil that may in fact have been within the group all along. It’s a slow burning read where the tension grows and grows until finally ending its inevitable gruesome denoument.
Combining the basic historical facts with a hint of something supernatural and mysterious, The Hunger bears a certain resemblance to Dan Simmons ‘The Terror’ now a miniseries on Netflix. But Katsu’s style is all her own, and the otherworldly threat she offers here is far more terrifying and believable than the beast of The Terror ever was. It’s the kind of book you’ll read through quickly but which echoes long afterward in the shadowy corners of the mind.
Top photo of the Sierra Nevadas: Bigstock