The Monster Inside: Alma Katsu on the Donner Party and The Hunger


Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

In the late summer of 1846, a wagon train heads down a little-known route through the American West in the hope that it will shave hundreds of miles off the trek to California. Instead, it takes them through a hellish landscape that proves nearly impassable, eating up time and the last of the good weather. And just as they arrive at the last mountain pass standing between them and their destination, the worst storm of the century descends on them. Out of food and already pushed to the point of starvation, they have only one choice if they want to survive.

This is a true story: the story of the Donner Party. But what about the untold stories within it? What were these settlers leaving behind when they headed west? It was intriguing to imagine the past secrets that might have haunted them, and what it must have felt like… to become trapped. To be stuck with the same 90 people day in and day out, as those who were once your friends become rivals for the last remaining rations. How do people behave under such extreme conditions—who will rise to heroism and who will succumb to inhuman greed and violence? From these questions, I saw the potential to tell another story, a horror story that functions like a shadow over the traditional Donner Party, casting this human portrait in a darkness that is both paranormal and, in a sense, of their own making.

It is true that the wagon party seemed cursed from the start. There were injuries, deaths—so many deaths that I couldn’t fit them all in the novel or it would seem, ironically, like overkill. Bad luck and tragedy seemed to follow them every step of the way. And it got me thinking: what if this wasn’t just bad luck? What if an actual force of evil had surrounded them, had been following them from the start? What if in fact they didn’t meet disaster in the mountains but carried it with them from someplace much closer to home?

I began looking for inspiration in a variety of places—myths and lore based on cautionary tales of human behavior gone wrong, of vengeful spirits and terrifying beasts. I looked at everything from Algonquian folklore and the stories of the wendigo to European tales of werewolfism to gothic fairytales, seeking stories that have at their heart the same basic theme: an ever-hungry being, driven to devour humans. Remarkably, I found these sources everywhere, once I began to look. There’s even a version in my own Japanese heritage, the Hungry Ghost, popularized in the anime film Howl’s Moving Castle.

The type of creature and paranormal mythology that emerged in The Hunger became a blend of these concepts, and I enjoyed placing much of the burden of discovery on the journalist who was among the Donner Party survivors, Edwin Bryant. I have imagined him as a sort of amateur scientist and anthropologist, and he pieces together a theory based on a variety of stories he’s heard and mythologies he’s studied—though the ultimate source of the evil is one that surprises even Bryant—and hits closer to home than he expects.

One of the most interesting parts of crafting supernatural lore is that a huge amount of work goes into building the world, and often times, very little makes it into the final draft. Ultimately, there is nothing more horrific than what the terrified mind can conjure, so it was a delicate balance between the desire to go for the gore versus holding back and building up the psychological suspense. I’ll stop here because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of The Hunger. In the end, it will really be up to the reader to decide what’s pursuing the wagon party—but don’t worry, even if you decide it was all in their heads, there’ll be a monster with you, as you’re turning the pages. Because there’s always a monster there. The one inside you.