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Frontier Psychiatry

Stand on the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, just up the hill from where I live, and look west. Past downtown, past the shady trees, lawns, and gardens, past Salt Lake City itself, you will see a poison lake and the first salt-baked ribbons of a vast erasure. When Brigham Young declared this “the place,” he made a wise decision – which is more than can be said of the ill-fated members of the Donner Party, who also passed through here on their journey to California a year before the Mormon pioneers. The Donner Party, for those of you unfamiliar with the more gruesome chapters and bloody footnotes of American history, are primarily remembered for resorting to cannibalism in order to survive a series of calamitous choices and a spate of terrible luck.

The Donner Party is also the subject of Alma Katsu’s novel The Hunger, which examines the Party’s journey, disintegration, and gustatory adventures through the lens of supernatural horror. In Katsu’s telling, Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) was home to malignant and hungry forces that menaced the settlers. This is an interesting concept. After all, westward expansion – in its ravenous amorality – was an act of (usually) metaphorical cannibalism in which white colonists “ate up” land in the West. Katsu gives us a tale in which the land is hungry, too, and its teeth are long.

Katsu’s voice and point of view are, while rooted in actual people and events, intriguingly modern. Some turns of phrase are a little jarring in their anachronism, but I understand the urge to rewrite not only 19th century English, but some 19th century views on race, gender, and religion to broaden the story’s appeal: for an example of how ornate, achingly beautiful, and impenetrable the actual language of the era can be, I recommend George Saunders’ exquisite Lincoln in the Bardo, which is, now that I think about it, a ghost story in its own right. While Katsu’s version of the doomed Donner expedition will satisfy a reader’s appetite for sex and violence, it won’t leave them overfull – her touch with the horror elements of her tale is light and deft, and overall The Hunger is a surprisingly subtle tale in many ways. Her characterizations are the strongest aspect of the novel: her characters are complicated and, in almost every case, motivated not by their stated goals so much as by mental illness, isolation, superstition, and – inevitably – the drive to survive.

It’s not included in the popular understanding of westward expansion, but that period of aggressive colonization most likely marked the high water mark of cannibalism in North America. Take the case of Levi Boone Helm, the “Kentucky Cannibal,” who fed opportunistically on the flesh of slain enemies and expired traveling companions alike, and who was known to occasionally pass through my own city of Salt Lake about 150 years ago. Or Alferd Packer, the “Colorado Cannibal,” whose exploits inspired a delightful piece of pre-South-Park juvenilia from Trey Parker and Matt Stone in the form of Cannibal! The Musical. Or John Garrison, better known as “Liver-Eating Johnson” for his habit of butchering and dining on the organs of Native Americans, against whom Garrison waged a one-man attempt at genocide that may have claimed 300 lives.

Alma Katsu’s The Hunger is a dish served at a table setting that has complimented other cuisine in its time. Cannibalism as a metaphor for the fight to carve up and devour resources in the West in the 19th century is just too rich a motif. One of my favorite examples is the 1999 film Ravenous, directed by Anotnia Bird. Like Cannibal! The Musical, Ravenous takes an ironic, satirical look at the subject. Robert Carlyle’s Colonel Ives is a charming man-eater in the mold of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter, only attired in dapper Union blues and plopped down in the snow-choked mountains of California.

The Hunger, Ravenous, and even Cannibal! are all examinations of 19th-century American cannibalism from a perspective rooted in modernity; in modern interpretations of mental illness, of respect for human life, and indeed in a humanism that is much more pervasive in the United States now than it was at the time. Not so with two books by Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian and The Road. In these two books, McCarthy offers us a terrifying vision of where we’ve been and where we might be headed. While Blood Meridian does not feature explicit cannibalism, per se, it features about every other depredation imaginable. Based on the blood- and whiskey-drenched adventures of the Glanton Gang, Blood Meridian is a reminder that the West in the 19th century was more John Wayne Gacy than John Wayne, an omnidirectional maelstrom of nihilistic violence that gobbled up many lives even as it was being gobbled up itself.

The Road, in the grimmest sense possible, may indeed be the road that lies before us. Set in an unspecified time in the post-apocalyptic future, The Road portrays cannibalism not as a fun, cheeky commentary on human misbehavior, but as a deeply animalistic, survival-based brand of horror, one that is all the more terrifying for being entirely imaginable, given the right circumstances. And – spoiler alert – we are most likely headed for a bumper crop of said circumstances, right over the horizon.

Perhaps that is the scariest part of Katsu’s telling of the Donners, of Ravenous, of the Road: in hindsight, we can see every bad decision clearly and trace its impact on subsequent catastrophes.

What will our choices right now look like to the future? (Title with apologies to the Avalanches)

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