The release of Alma Katsu’s new historical horror novel brings with it comparisons to The Terror by Dan Simmons, even including both of them in social media ads. Do not be fooled. Yes, both authors bring impeccable research to fine stories and put you right there in the moment with ease. Both examine the human condition and how people can easily be turned to embrace their shadow selves, the monsters within the person.
Yet, there are a couple of major differences. One, The Hunger will not take the entire summer to read. The Terror, while amazing, could be used as a weapon to kill someone at nearly a thousand pages. Katsu’s story trims the fat, leaving a lean but thoroughly detailed and realistic story that doesn’t skimp on the details of the western mountains or pioneer life. Instead, she focuses on the relationships and the rot that crisis can reveal.
Many will be at least partially familiar with the basic plot. A caravan of travelers attempt to traverse the Sierra Nevada mountains but are ill-prepared for the journey. What do you do with a story where the ending is already written and most of the facts are substantiated? Characters. The weaving of the players in this horrid chunk of history provides a bloody tapestry that intrigues, yet Katsu takes her time in building the burn. She introduces the many characters and allows them to maneuver through the plot, growing and festering in the readers’ minds as the pages turn.
The most colorful are Charles Stanton, a bachelor with the dark secret; Tamsen Donner, wife of George, who strongly believes in the supernatural and witchcraft; James Reed, another party leader with the darkest path; and Tamsen’s youngest daughter, who can hear the dead speak to her. Toss in some other players and the stew simmers to a rich boil that threatens to destroy the group even before the true tragedy hits.
Katsu inserts the supernatural, or at least the vibe of it, which elevates the novel from pure historical fiction to the realm of Simmons’ tale, but keeps the story lean. Reading it, one can almost feel the desolation of the mountains and the desperation their journey. By the time the climax unfolds, Katsu delivers on the promise hinted at in the beginning. A bit of a twist but just enough to create wonder.
Recommended reading for any thriller or history fan.