"The Hunger" Book Review

Written by Stephen McClurg

Published by Penguin Random House

the hunger alma katsu poster large

Written by Alma Katsu
2018, 384 pages, Fiction
Released on September 5th, 2023


In John Huston’s neo-Western The Misfits (1961), Gaylord Langland, an aging cowboy on an all but extinct Western frontier, asks Rosalyn Tabor, “What are you running from all the time?” Though Tabor, played by Marilyn Monroe, doesn’t directly answer, the question haunts the film. In Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, we not only see the early dreams and desires of the West, but also get a possible answer to Langland’s question. Charles Stanton, like each character in the novel, runs from something in his past. His answer to Langland’s question isn’t comforting: “I see now that there’s never a way out from the past.” Read in tandem with later works of the American West, Katsu’s book reveals the existential angst and dread in The Misfits was present from the beginning of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream of Western Expansion. Though Katsu’s book has moments of hope, the darkest interpretation suggests the search for a new life can potentially drain the source of it, and how the Dream might be a fallow field, a slow reveal of the entropy of all things.

The Hunger is a historical novel portraying the lives and fates of members of the infamous Donner–Reed party. The story follows various members of the wagon train as they make their way across the frontier while simultaneously looking back into their lives in order to see what made them set off on such an inhospitable journey in the first place (besides economics–making a living is also near the core of some of the disenchantment of The Misfits). You could describe The Hunger as The Oregon Trail meets Jaws. In one sense, the wagon train is being followed by something or someone that seems supernatural. In another sense, if a shark can represent repressed fears coming to the surface, then we see that the pioneers’ fears, guilts, and sins circle with the perceived and real monsters among them.

The structure of the book will excite or annoy and is similar to the show Lost, in which a storyline proceeds in the present while some episodes focus on the backstory of individual characters. Katsu’s structure is likely to be compared to similar forms in some of Stephen King’s novels. For example, The Tommyknockers leaves the main characters to focus on the backstories of individual townspeople in Haven and revelations there has been something evil or diseased in the soil for a long time. The benefit of this kind of storytelling is an expansion of physical and psychological territory. The downside is it stops the main narrative. For The Hunger, especially in the latter third or fourth of the book, as the main story reaches its climax and denouement, the time and genre shifts distract and slow the pace of the story.

The same goes within the narrative. As the group travels, beset with one travail after another, they descend into various micro-camps. Arguments for power break out along the lines of anyone familiar with zombie films. Sometimes the squabbles for which path to take get stale while the story occasionally gets bogged down in the characters’ backstories.

With a few notorious exceptions, like The Manson Family (1997), Hollywood biopics always feel too glitzy. Regardless, they never feel as intimate as an autobiography or biography, which is maybe why I haven’t been drawn to historical fiction. Not that there’s much guarantee of objective truth to get at in the nonfiction forms, since they’re also enriched, some might say contaminated, by perspective. In part, my own failing may be a lack of knowledge and interest in the genre. I suspect fans of grim historical fiction may be more prepared for this trip than I was.


Overall: 2.5 Star Rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US.
Buy from Amazon UK.

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Stephen McClurg
Staff Reviewer
No matter how hard he tries to focus on music, Stephen always gets called back to horror culture. The inciting incident is likely the night his grandmother cackled through his wide-eyed and white-knuckled first viewing of Jaws at three. The ‘70s were a different time. Over the years, he has mostly published poetry and essays, but started writing with a review section for the Halloween edition of the sixth-grade school newspaper. He rated titles like Creepshow with a short description and illustrated pumpkins. His teacher loved it, but the principal shredded the final version before distribution since all the movies were rated R.
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