Hex was first published in Dutch in 2013, and then re-worked and translated into English. It was released in the US in April 2016. Amazon kept recommending it to me and I kept not buying it. So what happened? The library. When I held the book in my hands and read the sleeve, I wanted it.
For 350 years, the frightening and solid ghost of Katherine van Wyler has haunted the town of Black Spring, NY. Once you become a resident of Black Spring, you can’t leave. If you’re away too long you are overcome with the desire to kill yourself to be free. Parts of Katherine’s existence have a pattern, while in other parts she just appears in homes, in the woods, on the streets, in the stores, carrying the stench of death and the clinking of the chains that bind her body. See, Katherine was killed for being a witch, and somewhere along the way her eyes and mouth were sewn shut. And so she appears around Black Spring, a ghoulish but normalized specter, a sign of their coming doom.
Hex follows Steven Grant, father, doctor, resident of Black Spring – his sons Tyler and Matt, and his wife Jocelyn. Through Dr. Grant we see the town of Black Spring as a resident, and as someone who made the mistake of moving there. The novel also follows Robert Grim – born and raised in Black Spring, its protector, leader of HEX – the organization that keeps the secrets of Black Spring from getting out to the rest of the world. The sanest man in a town of people corrupted by darkness.
Things start changing – the teenagers of the town begin to rebel against the rules that keep them safe and Katherine from public knowledge. They begin a chain of a events that leads to destruction.
This is supposed to be a horror novel – and don’t get me wrong it is incredibly unsettling and has some very frightening moments – but what will haunt me about this novel is not the supernatural horror, but the human kind. The horror of humanity. At the end of this novel I didn’t shiver, I cried.
Because you start to guess the ending. You start to guess the truth. But it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t change the one-two punch to the face of the ending. Somehow, knowing what’s coming and why makes it worse. It is more frightening to see humanity stripped bare and find it wanting than it is to find a supernatural source of the horror. The very best horror novels are not about the supernatural itself, but what that supernatural entity either says about humanity, or become a mirror that we are afraid to look into for too long. Hex does that.
The entire premise of this novel is unique and high-concept. I have never read anything like this before, and I am going to read more work by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. He is a master storyteller, and his acknowledgements section was so enlightening to him as a person and an author. It might just be worth it to learn Dutch, or bribe a Dutch person, to read the original.
A lot of other reviews complain about some of the gendered issues in the novel – particularly regarding breasts and rape. As someone who works every day in the realm of gender-based violence, these moments felt earned and fitting given the concept of human depravity within the novel. It was not placed without genuine narrative purpose, and it wasn’t just a plot device. And except in one more metaphorical occasion, it wasn’t so overly described that it became the blending of violence and pornography either – it was not sexualized violence, just violence. Heuvelt wanted the reader to be appalled, not appealed, and did so successfully.
5/5 for a heart-rending, complex, and fantastically realized work of horror. Read this immediately.