HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
“This is all it takes for people to plunge into insanity: one night alone with themselves and what they fear most.”
Witches have a long history running through folklore, myth and fable, through the fairy tale and into modern fantasy and horror. As such they tap into a deep and primal well of our fears and anxieties. HEX (2016) is the international debut of Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt, who is already a bestselling author in the Netherlands. It is an intense and unsettling horror story about Black Spring, a small town in North America haunted by a witch with her eyes and mouth sewn up. The book explores the extent to which fear can control and ruin our lives. It’s also an exploration of the ideas and tropes surrounding witches, how these have changed in their meaning and significance over the years and what they mean to us now.
In the 17th Century, Katherine Van Wyler was sentenced to death for witchcraft in New Bleek, the Dutch trappers’ colony that would later become Black Spring. She was tortured into admitting that she raised her son from the dead, forced to kill her son in order to spare her daughter’s life, then forced to hang herself. Now, she haunts the town of Black Spring, her eyes and mouth sewn shut; the people in the town are cursed to stay in Black Spring, and live in fear of what may happen the day her mouth and evil eye are opened again.
In order to protect the town, the council have set up HEX, a programme of surveillance to track the movements of the witch and prevent strangers finding out about her. Through their constant monitoring and careful interventions, HEX has managed to keep the town safe for decades. However a group of local teenagers, grown frustrated with the restrictions placed on their lives, decide to take the Black Rock Witch viral by putting her on the internet. Their actions cause a series of events that end in tragedy for the small town and its inhabitants.
Through a handful of viewpoint characters – Steve Grant, lecturer and researcher and family man; Tyler Grant, his son who runs a YouTube channel and the Open Your Eyes website aimed at bringing Black Spring’s secret to the world; Robert Grim, the dour head of HEX; and Griselda Holst, councilwoman and local butcher who secretly worships Katherine – Olde Heuvelt builds up a picture of Black Spring as an ordinary, sleepy small town whose down to earth inhabitants have come up with a range of practical means to cope with the extraordinary situation they find themselves in. From the Grants placing a tea towel over the Witch’s head when she appears in their living room to HEX’s distraction techniques of setting up temporary construction works to hide her from outsiders when she manifests in public, the people of Black Spring have found a way of living with their fear, repressing it and hiding it from the world.
The first half of the book is a slow burn, the supernatural encroaching on the mundane. Olde Heuvelt almost imperceptibly ratchets up the tension, allowing the reader to become comfortable with the rising dread, in much the same way as the residents of Black Spring are, before letting loose at the climax, when the book descends into sheer terror.
The Black Rock Witch herself remains a peripheral element for much of the story, an ever-increasing threat as, goaded on by Tyler’s friends, she begins to deviate more and more from her age-old predictable patterns into something new and disturbing. The bulk of the story shows how recognisable, relatable people, under conditions of fear and stress, can drop the facade of civilisation and do terrible things. The Council, led by Colin Mathers, begins to justify more and more draconian punishments under the Emergency Decree, from covering up murder and public flogging of minors, all voted for democratically by the terrified populace. HEX expertly explores the town’s descent into paranoia and madness, as the fear and scapegoat blaming that fuelled Katherine’s death, and the real witch trials, are recapitulated amongst the townsfolk and their friends and family.
For the translation, HEX has been transposed from the Netherlands, where the original Dutch version takes place, to the United States. This is something I was originally wary of; I feel it sets a dangerous precedent, and that we should be able to relate to stories from other cultures and settings without needing them realigned with our own. However, given the current political climate in the United States, and the subtext of small town fear of outsiders that runs through HEX, I felt that the change actually worked really well and gave the story timely resonance.
Another main theme of the book is how evil ends arise not only from fear and hatred, but also from love and a desire to do the right thing. Tyler’s plan to expose the secrets of Black Spring to the world arises from a desire to win freedom for his generation and a hatred of the hypocrisy of the Council. Steve winds up covering up Tyler’s actions because of his love for his family and his son, and it is his overwhelming love for his child which leads him to take the action that finally dooms the entire town.
Similarly, Robert Grim’s fascination with barbed wire and isolationism arise from his desire to protect everyone in the town. Griselda Holst believes that her sacrifices to the Witch will save her and her son. These characters’ actions, though motivated by love and good intentions, wind up being just as destructive as the actions of those motivated by paranoia. It is this as much as the darkness, or the horrifying climax, that makes HEX such a bleak and unsettling book. As in a Ramsey Campbell novel, we watch these utterly human and relatable characters, drawn on by their best intentions and their instincts, each taking the next logical step towards their own destruction.
This approach works so well because the story is so rooted in character. Olde Heuvelt’s characters are well drawn and understandable. For the most part, they are likeable and relatable. Steve and Tyler are possessed with a genuine sense of morality, and while Robert Grim’s methods are extreme, we get where he is coming from, and underneath his abrasiveness and self-conviction, he has a moral honesty that the rest of the Council lack.
Griselda is a tragic figure, abused by her alcoholic ex-husband and bringing up a child by herself in a situation in which everyone knows her name and circumstances, she has more down to earth things to deal with than the supernatural. As an outsider herself it is not surprising that she begins to relate to and idolise the Witch. Together with the cast of families and supporting characters, Olde Heuvelt builds up a familiar picture of a believable community. This makes the reader invested in their fates, and makes their descent into madness and destruction all the more horrifying.
The advent of internet and mobile technology has long proved a stumbling block for horror, so it is refreshing to read a horror novel that actively uses technology in its set up. The surveillance state that HEX have set up in Black Springs is only made possible by the internet, smartphones and apps. But rather than opening up the world and allowing our protagonists to call for help and so ruin the tensest moments – usually the problem with modern technology in horror – the technology becomes part of the encroaching dread that is swallowing the town. Every CCTV camera is a stark reminder of the presence of the Witch and the curse the townsfolk live under; every method of communication to the outside world is vetted and censored, every phone call is a direct line to the Council. Although the novel’s climax uses the traditional power cut to isolate the town from the outside world, it’s refreshing to see modern technology integrated so well into a horror novel.
As well as being an engaging and unnerving story, HEX is an exploration of the tropes and mythology surrounding Witches. HEX is very much a horror novel, and, in its exploration of Katherine’s backstory, it echoes the Salem witch trials and others like it on both sides of the Atlantic, which have proved a fertile inspiration for horror novels and films, from Hammer Horror’s Witchfinder General (1968) to The Witch (2015). However HEX harks back to an older tradition of folklore as well. When Tyler and his friends are beginning their plans to reveal the Witch to the world, they have the following argument:
‘You know what’s funny about her?’ Justin mused. ‘For a fairy-tale character she’s, like, chronically ugly.’
‘She isn’t a friggin’ fairy-tale character,’ Burak said. ‘She’s a supernatural phenomenon.’
‘Hell yeah she is. Witches only appear in fairy tales. So she’s a fairy-tale character.’
Olde Heuvelt finds interesting ways to link the horror tradition to the fairy tale tradition. Fairy rings – circles of toadstools that appear in the forests and that must not be broken or passed with open eyes – are a recurring image that come back in the final sequence particularly cruelly. There’s also an incredible and nerve-wracking scene in which Tyler and his friend enter the forest in search of his dead dog, leaving a dog food trail behind them so that they can find their way back out again.
However in the figure of Katherine herself the book plays with both of these expectations, the fairy-tale character and the horror villain. At the end of the day, Katherine is a human woman who was brutally tortured and murdered, and the curse of Black Spring is more the echo of the horrible things the original townsfolk did to her than any evil magic on her part. What she wants is revealed to be very different to the fears of the people who live there now, and the inability to communicate between the two leads to further evil and tragedy, but not because of Katherine’s actions. While HEX’s exploration of supernatural evil is striking and memorable, it is the book’s exploration of human evils that haunts the reader afterwards.