Well, I was in the mood for another 1980s horror novel. So, I thought that it was finally time to read the copy of Whitley Strieber’s 1980 novel “The Hunger” that I found by accident whilst searching through one of my book piles for another novel several weeks earlier. If I remember rightly, this was a novel that I originally found in a charity shop in Aberystwyth sometime during late 2009/early 2010.
So, let’s take a look at “The Hunger”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins at 3am in Long Island, with a man called John Blaylock breaking into a house in order to murder a teenager called Kaye. He has planned the crime meticulously and he carries it out with ruthless efficiency. But, after the dastardly deed is done, he bites his victim’s neck and we learn that John is a vampire.
Not only that, he lives in a nice suburban house with a much older vampire called Miriam and her young human protege Alice. Although they have to keep their vampiric nature secret from both Alice and the world, Miriam and John live a relatively happy life together – filled with classical music, beautiful gardens and passionate romance.
However, after John returns from his latest killing, Miriam senses that something is wrong with him. Like all of the previous people she has turned into vampires, John has finally started to age at an accelerated rate. Soon, his vampiric hunger will overwhelm him and turn him into little more than a beast. Still, she has read about a scientist called Sarah Roberts who has been conducting promising research into treatments that could prevent ageing. So, Miriam decides to seek her out…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a lot creepier than I expected. Yes, it has some flaws, but if you want a vampire story that will actually frighten you, then this one is worth reading.
Seriously, I cannot praise this novel’s horror elements highly enough 🙂 It contains a wonderfully disturbing mixture of psychological horror, character-based horror, medical/scientific horror, gory horror, body horror, tragic horror, sexual horror, paranormal horror, claustrophobic horror, suspenseful horror, cruel horror, slasher movie-style horror and criminal horror too.
This is the kind of novel that won’t shock you that often, but will instead leave you in a decidedly unsettled mood after you’ve read it (kind of a bit like playing “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“).
The main source of the novel’s horror is probably the exquisitely disturbing main character, Miriam. She’s an extremely evil character, but the novel shows us enough of her tragic backstory (through some really atmospheric historical flashback scenes) and profound feelings of loneliness to actually make the reader feel sorry for her – only to then recoil with disgust when they realise what a monster they have been sympathising with.
The novel’s portrayal of vampirism is fairly inventive too. In essence, vampires are initially presented as serial killers and, later, as some kind of “Mimic“-like predatory species. They quite literally suck the life out of people, leaving their victims little more than shrivelled husks. They can also sire new vampires, who end up turning into frenzied, decaying monsters after 200-1000 years. They can walk in daylight and aren’t affected by garlic or crosses. Their only weaknesses are that they involuntarily fall asleep for six hours a day (with vivid nightmares) and need to bite someone once a week.
As the title suggests, this is a novel about hunger. In addition to the vampires’ hunger for blood, this novel is also about hunger for companionship, for food, for pleasure etc.. In essence, it is a novel about how hedonism is an integral part of humanity. And, in the tradition of 1980s horror novels, this isn’t really a novel for the prudish either.
In terms of the characters, there’s a lot of characterisation in this novel. Good horror relies on characterisation and this novel doesn’t disappoint. Although some of the characters may seem a little bit stylised, stereotypical and/or cheesy, there’s often enough characterisation here to make you care about them. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, Miriam is one of the creepiest vampire characters I’ve seen in a while.
In terms of the writing, it is both brilliant and terrible at the same time. The novel’s third-person narration uses a rather descriptive, formal and/or melodramatic style which can seem incredibly corny at times but, when you get used to it, really helps to add a lot of atmosphere and depth to the story. Yes, this makes the story a bit slow-paced but, once you get used to the writing style, then it really helps to breathe life into the story.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit strange. At 249 pages in length, it initially seemed like the kind of gloriously short novel that used to be standard in the good old days. However, thanks to the writing style, this novel is a lot more slow-paced than you might expect. Still, the fact that it uses a thriller-style structure and the fact that the level of suspense increases throughout the story means that the later parts of the novel were compelling enough to binge-read 🙂
In terms of how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it’s a bit complicated. The story itself is still compelling and the horror is, if anything, even more creepy than it probably was in the early 1980s. However, the writing style is a bit old-fashioned, there are some dated and/or stereotypical depictions of LGBT characters and the science/technology elements of the book will also seem fairly dated too.
All in all, even though this isn’t always a perfect novel, it is still an incredibly compelling, atmospheric and creepy vampire novel. Seriously, I’m genuinely shocked that a vampire novel can be this scary. If you want an inventive version of a familiar genre, then this book is well worth reading.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would maybe get a four.