HEX by Thomas Olde Huevelt
Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay until death. Whoever comes to stay, never leaves.
Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth-century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Blind and silenced, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children’s beds for nights on end. So accustomed to her have the townsfolk become that they often forget she’s there. Or what a threat she poses. Because if the stitches are ever cut open, the story goes, the whole town will die.
The curse must not be allowed to spread. The elders of Black Spring have used high-tech surveillance to quarantine the town. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break the strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiraling into a dark nightmare.
A cursed town, a group of unruly teens, and a vengeful spirit who’s the text book definition of patient; the town of Black Spring has been sat on a supernatural time bomb for centuries. The bad news for the residents is that the bomb is finally about to go off. If you’re looking for a read that is going to mess with your head and chill you to the bone, then look no further. HEX, originally published in Dutch, has now been released in English and you know what? It’s just a bit bloody good.
The Grant family are in a genuinely unenviable position. The town curse has left them right at the heart of the violence and horror that the Black Rock Witch creates. As the problems in the town escalate out of all control, it is fascinating to watch the family dynamic shift. The relationships that exist between the father, the wife and their two sons are tested to the limit. Even the family dog is drawn into plot. The interactions within the family are all perfectly pitched, its well worthwhile paying attention to the conversations that take place. Seemingly throw away lines turn out to be rather important later in the narrative.
What of Katherine van Wyler, the witch herself? She is a fascinating creation. A silent brooding observer, she drifts throughout the town seemingly at random. Where she goes, her presence can cause a sense of unease. The most interesting thing is how other characters begin to project their own thoughts and feelings onto her. To some, she is a malevolent cancer to be avoided and feared. To others, she is a victim to be pitied rather than scorned. There are even those who view her as some sort of benign symbol, offering hope.
The author does a grand job with all of his characters. You know that way Stephen King can write a couple of pages, and you feel like you’ve known the people he is describing all your life? There are flashes of that same skill throughout HEX. For me, the best horror always occurs when ordinary people are forced to confront extraordinary circumstances. You get a real sense of just how far someone is willing to go in order to survive. There are a handful of moments in HEX where the characters are forced to make these sorts of decisions and it is captivating to watch how they deal with the consequences of their actions.
On an interesting side note, I read recently that Warner Bros are developing a television show based on this novel. I can completely understand why. With the success of shows like Wayward Pines and the forthcoming return of Twin Peaks, there is more than enough evidence that horror in small town America is always winner. The key thing is that the show has a tantalising hook, HEX has that and then some. I have high hopes that the television show will be as riveting as the book.
The feeling of uneasiness builds very effectively to a satisfyingly stark conclusion. The final fifty pages are particularly well handled as all hell breaks loose. Overall, there is something delightfully creepy and unsettling about HEX. The town of Black Spring feels like a microcosm of our entire planet. I don’t doubt for a moment that people will read this and note that the worries that haunt the town are commonplace. Fear of the unknown, being separated from those that you love. The anxieties that plague the citizens are universal. Ultimately, I suppose that is the moral of the story. The writing is tapping into something primal, that sense of dread that everyone has to face. Supposing that fear is inevitable, how we react and try to overcome that crippling sensation is what shapes us.
A warning for those faint of heart – HEX treads the darkest of paths. I was going to describe the narrative as sometimes bleak, but in all honesty, I don’t think that even covers it. This book manages so many things at once. Sinister one moment and then blisteringly sad the next. I can’t deny that this one is going to stay with me for a while. I can’t wait to see what dark delight Thomas Olde Heuvelt brings us next.
Hex is published by Hodder and available now. Well worth your money if you’re a horror fan.