Writing Analysis: The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Hey! Welcome back. This week I’m doing a writing analysis which, to recap, is similar to a book review but from a writing perspective. I’ll be looking at different techniques the author has used, what has worked, what hasn’t, and the overall impact of the techniques on the story. Texts are based on my reading preferences and I am not affiliated with the author or publisher. I have done my best to avoid spoilers but in analysing the writing I have had to draw attention to certain elements that may impact your reading of the story. Heads up!

Today we’re looking at horror novel The Hunger written by Alma Katsu. The Hunger is a standalone novel which is loosely based on the true story of the Donner Party; a group of American Pioneers who, while migrating to California, were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the winter of 1846-1847. To survive, the group turned to cannibalism, and their story has since been immortalised in pop culture and historical case studies on human survival. This novel was nominated for the Bram Stroker Award for Best Novel (2018), the Goodreads Choice Award for Horror (2018) and the Locus Award for Horror Novel (2019). The blurb on Goodreads is as follows:

‘Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere. Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history. While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?’

I enjoyed reading The Hunger and found it incredibly creepy. Let’s take a look at which techniques worked for this novel and which didn’t hit the mark.

Techniques that worked:

At intervals throughout the novel, Katsu’s characters write letters to people who are not with them on the journey; this technique is used as a form of ‘telling’ the reader and giving them information. Normally I’m not a fan of this technique however Katsu has made it work; it fits into the time period she is writing in, letters being the primary form of communication in the 1800s, and so doesn’t feel like an attempt to provide the reader with a block of information.

Being set in the 1800s also required Katsu to reflect behaviour accurately and to use language that was appropriate to that time, which she has done seamlessly. Exchanges between characters are mostly formal and niceties are observed. A specific example of appropriate language is Katsu’s reference to tuberculosis as the ‘consumptive’ disease, which is an outdated word (and one I had to look up).

Making your characters reliable is important when you want to provide your reader with certain information. Katsu incorporated character background well and I was able to trust their words at crucial moments. The example I will use here is the character Edwin Bryant, who has medical training and whose qualifications and apprenticeships are established in a letter to his wife. This is important as during the novel, members of the Donner Party come across human bones, and the reader needs to be confident that the character providing the confirmation that the bones are human is reliable and has the knowledge to do so. Edwin is the character who recognises the bones as human, is able to describe what makes them human (thinner cortisol walls) and determines that they were cleavered, not torn or fallen apart. This was a really great set up and crucial to the story.

The final technique I will look at that worked is the use of flashback chapters to give light onto a character’s past before a move forward in time in the main story. Some authors are not fans of flashbacks (Stephen King included) and the writer does risk interrupting the flow of the story, as well as the possible interpretation by the reader that the flashbacks are being used as information dumps. BUT, like the letter chapters, Katsu has made the flashback chapters work; she uses them to link the characters pasts together and give the reader a deeper understanding of their stories and behaviour.

Techniques that didn’t work:

The following are not really techniques; they are more personal observations, but I am including them as there weren’t any specific writing techniques that struck me as missing the mark. The first observation is that I started to lose interest around the 70% mark. The story was there but I personally found that it was too drawn out, even though it was only 376 pages. This is a risk any writer takes when telling their story. The length of a novel is important in keeping the reader’s attention; too short and your reader may be disappointed, too long and they may get bored.

The second observation is that, being a horror novel, there is a supernatural element, but I thought it would have been more disturbing if that element hadn’t been there; if it had been desperate human survival instincts that had made the group turn to cannibalism. Don’t get me wrong, the novel was scary, but imagine for a minute there wasn’t a supernatural element behind the cannibalism, that it was a conscious decision to eat another human being for your own benefit… I’m just going to leave that there. Horror novels don’t need to have a supernatural element, and perhaps Katsu included it to steer away from the historical fiction genre and place the novel firmly in the horror genre. But then again, perhaps that was always the way she envisioned telling the story. It is hers to tell after all!

Have you come across any examples of the above techniques, either used effectively or that have fallen short? If you’ve read The Hunger,did you notice any of the above techniques? Please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


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