Author Alma Katsu on her new historical horror novel, The Hunger

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Mar 7, 2018

Anyone growing up in the California school system knows the gruesome tale of the Donner Party, whose doomed journey across the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the brutal winter of 1846-47 led to the most famous instance of survival cannibalism in the history of the United States.

Many detailed accounts of the pioneer party's descent into madness and starvation have been published over the years, including Snow Mountain Passage, The Indifferent Stars Above, and Ordeal by Hunger, each one offering a different trail of the legend from various points of view. But none have injected a sinister supernatural element into the mix such as Alma Katsu's new reimagined history novel, The Hunger.

Katsu (The Reckoning, The Descent), a former intelligence analyst for the CIA and NSA, has crafted a meticulously detailed yarn focused on the Donner Party's infamous westward journey and a nameless evil that accompanies them toward California.

Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions has already purchased the film rights to The Hunger, with the famous filmmaker's son, Luke Scott (Morgan), attached to direct.

Putnam Books has offered SYFY WIRE an exclusive preview of the novel's prologue below. Hitch your wagon to this tasty sneak peek, then check out our interview with Katsu, where she explains how this chilling tale of survivalism was born, details her traveling one leg of the legendary path, researching the diaries and journals of survivors, and what readers can anticipate from this appetizing new title.

The Hunger arrived at book shops and online retailers on March 6.

THE HUNGER by Alma Katsu

Prologue April 1847

Everyone agreed it had been a bad winter, one of the worst in recollection. Bad enough to force some of the Indian tribes, Paiute and Miwok, down from the mountain. There was no game to be had, and a restless hunger rippled through their movements, left barren camps full of black, scentless fire marks behind them like dark eyes in the earth.

A couple of Paiutes even said they'd seen a crazy white man who had managed to survive through this god‑awful winter, skimming over the frozen lake like a ghost.

That had to be their man: a fellow named Lewis Keseberg. The last known survivor of the Donner Party tragedy. The salvage group had been sent out to find Keseberg and bring him back alive, if at all possible.

Mid‑April and the snow was chest‑deep on the horses; the team had to abandon them at a local ranch and go the rest of the way on foot.

It was three days down to the lake after they reached the summit — cold and airy and desolate. Spring meant mud and lots of it, but at the higher elevations, it was still winter and the ground was a blanket of thick white. It was untrustworthy, that snow: It hid crevices, steep drop‑offs. Snow kept secrets. You'd think you were on solid ground, but it was just a matter of time before the ledge beneath you crumbled.

The descent was much tougher even than expected, the snow giving underfoot, sodden and slippery, full of some unearthly desire to pull the whole team under.

The closer the team got to the lake, the darker it became, the trees so tall that they obscured the mountaintops and blocked out the sun. You could tell it had snowed an ungodly amount by the damage to the trees: branches broken and bark scraped going up thirty, forty feet. It was eerily quiet by the lake, too. There were no sounds at all, no birdsong, no splash of waterfowl landing on the lake. Nothing but the tramp of their feet and labored breathing, the occasional crackle of melting snow.

The first thing they noticed when mist from the lake rose into their sights was the stink; the entire site smelled of carrion. The rich stench of decaying flesh mingled with the piney air, making it heavy as the group approached the shore. The smell of blood, with its tang of iron, seemed to spring from everywhere, from the ground and the water and the sky.

They'd been told that the survivors had been living in an abandoned cabin and two lean-tos, one built against a large boulder. They found the cabin quickly enough, skirting the banks of the lake, which rippled under a lazy fog. The cabin stood by itself in a small clearing. It was unmistakably deserted and yet they couldn't shake the feeling that they weren't alone, that someone was waiting for them inside, like something from a fairy story.

The bad feeling seemed to have wormed its way through the whole team, that unnatural scent in the air causing everyone to fidget with nerves. They approached the cabin slowly, rifles raised.

Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze.

A scattering of teeth.

What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.

Now the bad feeling was in their throats and at the backs of their eyes. A few of them refused to go any farther. The door to the cabin was directly in front of them now, an ax leaning against the outer wall beside it.

The door opened on its own.

From THE HUNGER by Alma Katsu, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Alma Katsu and Glasstown Entertainment, LLC.

What is the genesis of this novel from Glasstown Entertainment, and how did you get involved?

Alma Katsu: I've known the Glasstown folks for a few years when my first book came out. I guess they'd have the germ for this idea for a long time and they approached my agent. I had done this crazy screenplay about cannibals, and while it wasn't directly about the Donner Party, I'd done all this research. Cannibalism is one of those things that so few of us has any real experience with that it kind of sparks your imagination. So I thought yeah, let's do it. And then when I started doing the research I was just shocked. This is such as great story. It's so dramatic, once you get past the general idea and you find out the people who were involved, the hardship they faced, all the political things that were going on in the country at the time, it's a super rich story idea. And so many weird, unlucky things happened on the trip, that you started thinking, what if it wasn't just bad luck? What if it was actually that they were cursed, and something evil was following them?

Can you give us a taste of what readers can expect from The Hunger?

It's definitely a hybrid. It's historical but it does have this supernatural element, so it's not like it's going to read like a straight historical novel. However, it does stay very close to the history, so if you're already familiar with the Donner Party story you're going to learn a lot of details, and if you're not, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. It doesn't read like a history lesson. I worked very hard to make the characters first and foremost, so it's really a character-driven novel. These are whole, round characters with flaws, and we see these flaws weave together to create this perfect storm of a tragedy that befalls them. The horror element is fairly light, but I think it's very suspenseful. A lot of folks pick it up and once they start reading they can't put it down.

What was your research process like in bringing this famous story to life?

I'm an analyst by trade, and one of the things you learn as an analyst is to ingest information very quickly so you can make a sort through and make a decision on what's important and what you don't have to focus on. It was pretty exhaustive. It was a constant ongoing issue when questions came up. And keeping track of the timeline and the map while trying to imagine these fictitious scenes was quite a challenge. It was a combination of books, websites, and my favorite tool, Excel spreadsheets. I also referenced The Donner Party Chronicles by Frank Mullen. It's a re-creation, day by day, of the party's journey, and that was my bible. Without that this book would have been twice as hard to write.

You actually drove one of the legs of the trip from Wyoming to California. What was that like?

Well you can't drive the actual route, but it's fairly close. My husband and I did like the last third of the journey. It gave me the opportunity to really see what the landscape was like, which is so completely different and alien than the East Coast. It was just shocking. Every mile of the way I kept thinking, how in the world did they get a wagon through here? There are sudden culverts and gullies, and those wagons were not like modern vehicles with suspension. They're being hauled by four oxen if your'e lucky. What a brutal trip that must have been. On a good day they could get 20 miles in at most. The Great Basin itself, which is practically a desert, is 400 miles. A lot of them did it with no idea what they were getting into! So scary!

What was your initial reaction to 20th Century Fox buying the film rights to The Hunger?

It's really surreal to me.The film rights sold even before the book sold to publishers. To me it was so crazy. This was my first film sale, so I didn't know what to expect. And to have it go to Ridley Scott's company is just amazing. I really haven't heard anything since then about what's going on. Last I heard they were working on the script. It's got a lot of potential.

Why do cannibal stories endure, and what is it about the Donner Party tale that teaches us about the human condition in dire circumstances?

I wonder if the mind can wrap itself around the cannibalism part. I think it comes up to a certain point, but then it kind of looks away. So that we understand that something happened taboo, but the reality of it doesn't ring true. It's like zombies. It's a stand-in for a forbidden thing. It's a test. And that's ultimately what The Hunger is about. You're up against the worst circumstances you're ever going to be up against. What kind of person are you going to be? Are you going to give in to your fears? Are you going to put yourself above everyone else to survive? Or is the best of humanity going to come through? Are you going to be a hero? I hope that the book is going to surprise people.

How was the atmospheric cover art conceived, and are you pleased with it?

I really liked it. It's so evocative and brooding. Everyone liked that it looks like a movie poster and hopefully conveys that big cinematic feel that the book has. I really want the book to do well, especially for Putnam and the entire team behind it. They've put so much into this.