Did I ever think that I’d refer to myself as a ‘deathling’, having been drawn into the world of death positivity and general morbid fun? Nope.
Am I going to give you a book review inside a book review? Whoops, yes just about to.
If you haven’t heard of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, I’m afraid you’re missing a trick. I read it a few years before starting this blog, but might do a long-overdue review just for the sheer shits and giggles. It is quite simply, stories from the crematorium where Caitlin herself works. It’s a stunning and sobering insight into the truth of death – not a horrifing read but instead a poignant memoir meant to revolutionize our attitudes to our own mortality (and not without its comic relief too).
At the end of the book, Caitlin mentions that she has a YouTube channel, meant to further educate and spread the lessons of death positivity, called ‘Ask a Mortician‘ with now over 1.4 million subscribers (or ‘deathlings’). I also competely fangirled over her when I met her at VidCon in 2018 (a surprise for her as she was a small YouTube channel and VidCon wasn’t exactly her demographic), she said she thought my buzzcut was cool and I was riding that high for hours afterwards.
ANYWAY. GET TO THE FUCKING REVIEW, TOSTEVIN. Why am I bothering to tell you this?
Because it was ‘Ask a Mortician’ that first alerted me to the Donner party tragedy – a dark and mysterious part of American history. The Donner party (sometimes known as the Donner-Reed party) was a group of American pioneers who attempted to migrate from California to the Midwest in 1847 but were caught in snow throughout a whole winter and had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. Out of a group of 87, only 48 barely survived the ordeal. Instead of taking the normal route, the party were ill-advised to instead travel through the ‘Hastings Cutoff’ – a treacherous Rocky Mountain mountain range and Utah desert – which delayed their migration and caused many of their animals to die, forcing them to leave wagons behind and causing tension which split the group into smaller sections. Check out the video below if you want to know more!
The true story may be terrible enough, but Katsu takes the opportunity in ‘The Hunger’ to give the event even more of a horror twist by adding in some supernatural elements. It looks like she’s taken the same approach to her next book, ‘The Deep’ which is also a historical fiction horror novel centred around the sinking of the Titanic. Based on the three star review of this novel, I’m not sure whether I’ll read ‘The Deep’ but I do generally absorb anything to do with the Titanic. Let me know in the comments if you want a review on that Katsu novel too.
The real Donner-Reed party were, it seemed, doomed from the moment that their leader at the time, George Donner, decided to select the shorter (but unknowingly much more difficult) Hasting’s cutoff route. The reality of their suffering was terrible, but it was undoubtedly caused by human error and the perilously severe weather that was known to that region. It was a single, fatal decision.
Katsu takes the checkpoints of the journey, the key players in the story, and adds another threat. One that is more insidious, and more determined to hunt the party even as they suffer with the elements. From the very first paragraph we are faced with the consequences of this story: a rescue team, sent to find the missing group, arrive at an abandoned cabin and note that “the entire site smell[s] of carrion. The rich stench of decaying flesh mingled with the piney air” and find human vertebrae and teeth scattered around.
From there, we are thrown backwards to the moment the doomed party set off into the wilderness, weighed down with wagons full of families and their worldly possessions – and right away, Katsu introduces the threat. A young boy suddenly goes missing, “swallowed up in all this vastness, in the unrelenting space that stretched in all directions, in the horizons that yoked even the sun down to heel.” He is found by the men a few days later, gutted cleanly and left at the side of the trail.
As more children start to disappear, as sick individuals miraculously recover and then become suddenly violent, and as dark, shadowy human figures start stalking them from the trees it becomes apparent that it’s not just the wilderness that the Donner-Reed party should be afraid of. Torn between their need for food and shelter, and their fear of the wild-eyed, corpse-like humans who had previously been their friends and are now infected with the Na’it and are hunting them, the dwindling party have little chance of survival.
Katsu’s writing style is imaginative and easy-to-read. She has a command of horror which clearly caught the attention of Steven King who quotes: “Deeply disturbing, hard to put down”, and although I didn’t find this myself throughout the book, there were a few well written scenes and moments which made my skin crawl a little:
“I wonder what you taste like. I wonder what it would be like to eat you. I would start very small, a toe, or one of your soft, soft ears.”
“Mary Graves watched that next morning as Mary Murphy escaped from her family’s cabin with the Eddys’ baby in her arms. Eddy and William Foster followed her tracks in the snow, but by the time they caught up to her, the teenage girl had already killed the baby and was devouring her liver.”
She also layers the narrative with multiple secondary storylines – like Tamsin Donner who is accused of being a witch and sleeps with other members of the party; like Reed, who cares deeply for his family but seeks the affection of other men; like Stanton, who is haunted by the suicide of his fiance. The sub-plots helps the characters feel more three-dimensional and they fill in the gaps where the party is simply trekking for days, but I found the links that Katsu tried to establish between them before the party has even set off were a little tenuous. Still, these secondary plots also led to some fantastically quotable lines:
“Stanton didn’t care for the look on Donner’s face, like a man who had swallowed a pebble but would rather choke than cough it up and reveal his mistake.”
“So many women seemed to turn their words over in their mouths like sugar cubes, until you could never be sure of the shape of the original thought.”
“Women who looked as if their faces had been slowly compressed between the pages of a Bible, all pinched and narrow.”
We find out, too, that party member Keseberg has an uncle, a prospector who Bryant discovers has brought the disease to the group. This discovery turns the previous fear of the ‘Other’ on its head – at the start of the book, the white party members had been wary of the native Indians along the trail, but we find that in fact it is the white man who brings disease and death with him, inspiring unexplained native deities (a historically accurate fact from that time period regardless).
Though initially I was very excited by the novel, I found it lost its way towards the end of the book and as people began to die and rip each other apart, the emotional effect of that was diluted by the fact that there were so many characters to keep track of. There’s no doubt there were some scary scenes written in here, but it’s not the horror we’re promised (damn you, Stephen King), despite being well-written and enjoyable. In fact, I think that the true story of the Donner-Reed party tragedy may in fact be even scarier.
What did you think?