Horror and History in Alma Katsu’s “The Fervor”

Set in 1944 and based on America’s painful, too frequently overlooked history of Japanese incarceration, The Fervor by Alma Katsu, is a new kind of horror novel. In an isolated corner of Idaho, Meiko Briggs and her daughter, Aiko, yearn for their Seattle home after being sent to Minidoka, one of the internment camps. Meiko’s husband, Jamie, is an Air Force pilot in the Pacific, but despite Meiko’s marriage and Aiko’s American-born status, Meiko and Aiko are Japanese and considered a threat to America. As Meiko and Aiko struggle to maintain remnants of their old home and former lives in the decrepit camp, a mysterious illness spreads, first among the other prisoners and eventually outside the camp in areas far from Minidoka. The government officials and doctors sent to investigate prove more threatening than the disease. However, a demon from the tales of Meiko’s childhood begins causing havoc, chaos, and death. Meiko and Aiko’s struggle for survival becomes even stranger as they find enemies among those they thought were friends and friends in those they weren’t expecting to trust.

The Fervor blends the best elements of a superb, epidemic-themed horror novel with the little-known history of the Fu-Go — Japanese fire balloons that eventually made their way to the American West Coast and the internment camps where Japanese Americans were held as prisoners. It’s this subtle exploration of these historical elements that first captures a reader’s attention. Meiko and Aiko’s life in Minidoka is on display, and the narrator carefully details not only the emotional and mental toll the camps presented for prisoners, but also the daily physical struggles they faced. Aiko is a powerful, memorable character — a brave girl wise beyond her years. Half-Japanese and half-white, Aiko faces ostracism, and her exclusion mirrors that of Meiko, who is ostracized by other Japanese for marrying a white man.

Nonetheless, Katsu’s careful research also sheds insight on contemporary topics, specifically the racism threatening Asian Americans during Covid-19. Meiko’s character becomes symbolic of the Japanese experience. She acknowledges that the reason the American government imprisoned the Japanese is because “It was easier for the public to forget about the inhumane thing that was being done in their name. Out of sight, out of mind.” It’s a perspective still relevant today, especially as the majority of Americans live in ignorance of the abuse Asian Americans undergo in this country. The one-year anniversary of the Atlanta massage parlor shootings, which claimed the lives of six Asian American women, passed us by in March with little media attention.

The role of white passivity becomes clearer to readers when they meet Archie, a widowed minister who lost his wife after they encountered one of the fire balloons during a Sunday afternoon outing. Meiko alludes to white passivity earlier in the novel: “…nothing made sense anymore, not when your government could lock you up without reason and your neighbors, people you thought were your friends, stood by and did nothing to stop them.” Archie’s character is an attentive study to white passivity. As he copes with his wife’s death, he finds himself lured into a group of white men, the Loyal Sons, a group all-too reminiscent of the KKK. Archie attempts to balance his own humanity and faith-guided morality with the brutal, violent expectations of the Loyal Sons. At this point, the novel parallels modern-day America, where “liberty” groups such as Q-Anon and Proud Boys spread hate-drenched propaganda and misinformation in order to “reclaim” American freedom. Archie, at first, is too afraid to speak against the Loyal Sons’ actions. However, wrecked by his past betrayal to Meiko, he determines that he must rise above the hate that society tries to instill in him and becomes a surprising ally for Meiko and Aiko.

The Fervor dissects another imperative conversation that, since 2016, has permeated not only American culture, but also European platforms as well — the power of propaganda. In The Fervor, readers see and feel the hatred towards not only the Japanese, but also those from the white community who questioned the internments and attempted to help the Japanese. The novel unabashedly discloses the ugly side of unchecked propaganda, again through its depiction of the Loyal Sons and the group’s determination to carry out its own information war against Japanese Americans. However, the novel also carefully highlights the government’s role in the propaganda machine. Thus, another character, Fran — a rebellious reporter determined to uncover the truth behind the mysterious illness she knows the government is trying to hide — plays an imperative role. Fran is tenacious, representative of the long line of government whistleblowers who have come forth particularly in the past four to five years and bravely exposed the wrongdoings of an unchecked system and its leader. She, like Archie, becomes an unexpected ally for Meiko and Aiko, but Fran’s personal story plays into her motivations. As an orphan, as a Jew, and as a single, independent woman determined to expose the truth, Fran also questions the propaganda fueling American hate and white passivity towards the Japanese.

As she has done in her other novels, The Deep and The Hunger, Alma Katsu expertly weaves the darkest, most disturbing horror motifs with the psychologically jarring elements of historical disasters and events. However, readers must bear in mind that The Fervor is more than a read-and-put-on-the-shelf novel. Since the social issues the novel discusses are still astoundingly identifiable in American society today, readers should approach The Fervor as something beyond mere entertainment. Yes, it’s a novel that will keep readers turning pages, sitting on the edge of their chairs, and unable to fall asleep at night. More significantly, it’s a thought-provoking book about the power of hate and the significant strength it takes to defy a system perpetuating that hate. And it acts as a warning to all those who may be swept up into the unquenchable flames of hate’s fervor.

The Fervor
By Alma Katsu
GP Putnam’s Sons
Published April 26, 2022