Review – Hex

A review of Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt – in which you will question, who should you really fear? (5/5)

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.

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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.

 

Top Five – Horror Novels

A taste of my taste in horror – my top five as of today.

I have been reading horror for a long time, but have finally come to terms with the fact that it’s my favorite genre. Tell me your favorites! Tell me why I’m wrong or right! Or if you want a longer review of any of the books below. I’m happy to talk about any of them more.

5. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
house-of-leavesDanielewski describes House of Leaves as a love story, but most who read it would agree there’s a significant horror element. This was the first time I screamed out loud while reading a book from fear – “Look behind you!” Luckily, I lived alone.

House of Leaves is not one story but three – a man named Johnny finds a manuscript written by the old tenant Zampano about a documentary called the Navidson Record. We read an explanation of the documentary and know the Navidson’s story, we read Zampano’s footnotes and his experiences, and the madness of Johnny reading both stories. I find the Navidson Record the most compelling, as that, to me, is where the love story is. It’s also the most fear.

The structure of House of Leaves adds to the overall disorientation, disconnection from reality, claustrophobia, and fear. There are pages with few words, pages where the words are going in a different direction, and it is WORK to read this book. It causes investment in the reader, which makes it so much scarier when the work pays off. While I ultimately think this book has a happy ending, it was a book I had to finish immediately because I could not be alone in my house comfortably without a resolution. I love this for the format, I love this for the work and time it makes you invest, and for the stories contained within it. I advise against the electronic version of the book because there’s something about having it in your hand and being able to move it around.

I will say that when this book is on my shelves I put it spine-in because just noticing it can give me the shivers.

4. Sign of Seven Trilogy by Nora Roberts 
sign-of-sevenI know what you’re thinking – Nora Roberts? Horror? But yes, horror. This trilogy by the prolific romance novelist consists of Blood Brothers, the Hollow, and the Pagan Stone. And it is terrifying. I do have to give credence to the fact that I first read this series while delirious with the stomach flu, but I’ve read it again at least twice and every time there are jolts in my stomach at certain moments. The demon at the center of the story is a truly violent creature, and this series delves fully into the dark side of the supernatural. While yes, there is romance and sex scenes and some cheesiness, it’s also a trademark example of positive masculinity common in Roberts’s works. Roberts often covers the supernatural – many of her characters have been witches, gods, and ghosts – but a demon was something new, and she carves out her spot in horror lore with relish. If you like your violent horror with a side of love story, this is absolutely for you.

3. The Elementals by Michael McDowell
elementalsWe all owe a lot to Michael McDowell. McDowell wrote some great novels, but he is also the mind behind the screenplays for Beetlejuice and the Nightmare Before Christmas. I can also say he is so good and so underappreciated, and well-respected enough that his last novel was completed and published by Tabitha King after his death. This man is amazing.

The Elementals is a story that doesn’t give you answers. Most modern supernatural work likes to close the circle – all your questions are answered, the mythology makes sense. That sense of normal that allows us to return to our lives unafraid. Published in 1981, this book gives no such gratification. Set in a fictional trio of vacation houses called Beldame on the Alabama Gulf Coast, you will be there. The work McDowell does on setting and place is incredible. Just thinking about the book makes me feel the heat of peak summer sun that leads to lethargy and the feeling of sweat pooling in the small of my back. There are three houses, and two families (the Savages and the McCrays) and no one goes in the third house. There’s something in the third house, and as it unravels sanity and takes lives, you are terrified by the surreality and absurdism, and will question why you think something was scary but you know that it was. You will  not have answers to your questions, and you will be haunted, forever by the line “Savage mothers eat their children up!

I think about this book all the time.

2. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
I was so unsettled reading this book that I could only read it during daylight hours. There’s something especially scary about reading a horror story told through the point of view of a child who doesn’t understand what’s going on. As adults, there are things she notices that we have context or connection for that a child would not. It makes you see how much your children are exposed to, no matter what you do.

This is a story of possession. Or is it? ghosts

The story of a family in crisis, a beloved and admired older sister who waivers between violence and protectiveness, and the unchecked desire in our society to exploit the pain and tragedy of others.

The brilliance of this book is no matter how you read it – believing or doubting – it is no less terrifying. It has one of the most haunting resolutions I’ve ever read – it is the most disturbing ending that while definitive, leads to more questions that will never be answered. I may have had to strangle a scream. I may have had to eat some chocolate and watch a Disney movie. You might think differently about spaghetti, forever.

1.IT by Stephen King
itI had a hard time choosing which Stephen King book – but if I picked my other two favorites – Salem’s Lot or the Shining – they weren’t number one. The irony is that I don’t even consider IT a horror novel. It is so much more than Pennywise the clown and the monster under the bed, although that has become representative of the story. I’ve never seen a movie version of this book and I’m not sure I ever will.

IT strikes at our core – because what IT brings out of people is their worst fears and their worst behavior. IT lays the world bare in front of IT’s victims and tells them how bad it can be, bad enough that it kills them. Truly, only children could ever face IT. No adult has that kind of hope. In the second part of the story, the main characters must find that child within themselves to once again face IT and save…everyone.

If you like Stranger Things, you will love IT. Don’t go in with pre-conceptions, because its nothing like you think it is. Forget the movie, forget the clown, just read. IT is a masterpiece of fiction, probably one of the best books ever written that has easily withstood the test of time. IT is probably in my top five favorite books ever, not just horror. The size of the book can also be intimidating, but it goes quickly and is worth the read.