Book Review: HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (April 26, 2016)
Length: 448 pages
Oh, how scary could this be, I asked myself. It can’t be as creepy as everyone says, I foolishly thought. Seriously, a story about a three-hundred-and-fifty-year-old witch who just appears wherever she wants around town, and all everyone does is throw a dish towel over her face or otherwise pretends she’s not there. The whole business sounded more comical than frightening, to be honest.
Well, fast forward to about a quarter way into the book, and I was no longer laughing. Things got dark quick, and I’m prepared to eat my words.
In spite of its seemingly peaceful and picturesque façade, Black Spring is probably the last place in the world I’d ever want to find myself broken down and stranded. But as an outsider, at least I could always leave. On the other hand, the town’s residents—those who were unfortunate enough to be born there, or those who unwittingly decided to move in despite all efforts to deter them—they are doomed to live in Black Spring until they die, claimed by the curse of the Black Rock Witch.
Back in the seventeenth century, when the town was just a Dutch trapper colony, there lived a woman named Katherine van Wyler who was accused of being a witch and was swiftly dealt with in much the way you would expect from your typical puritanical colony back in those days. Thing is, though? Katherine might have been the real deal. Now her soiled husk of a body, chained with eyes and mouth sewn shut, still haunts Black Spring to this day. The townsfolk have slapped on their brave faces and come to accept their curse, trying to make the best of the situation, but deep down they all know that one day those stitches will come off and then everyone will be at the mercy of Katherine’s deadly whisperings and Evil Eye. Still, the first order of business is to contain her, and generations going back centuries have been successful in quarantining Black Spring and keeping its witch a strict town secret. But as times change, so too does the area and its people. New technology has certainly made keeping track of Katherine’s random appearances easier, but internet and social media have also made the world seem like a bigger place, and some of the town’s younger residents are no longer content with being silenced and trapped in Black Spring.
What amazes me about HEX is how it diabolically draws you in by degrees, first presenting you with an all-is-well scenario to get you all settled in and comfortable so that by the time things go to hell, it’s too late to turn back (not that you’d really want to) and the only way through is forward into the nightmare. The build-up is so gradual that, little by little, a premise which initially sounded so absurd to me ultimately transformed into something frighteningly convincing and very real. Even as the situation for the characters in Black Spring gets worse and worse, I just couldn’t bring myself to tear my eyes away. This is my favorite kind of horror novel, the kind that sneaks up on you and infuses your mind with its terror without you even realizing it.
A story about a haunting by a seventeenth century witch is creepy enough if you ask me, but the decision to have it all take place in a modern day setting is also a stroke of genius. It’s so easy to look back on the witch trials of history now and blame the fear and mass-hysteria on superstition and lack of understanding; after all, these days we have science to explain strange but natural phenomena like aurora borealis or fairy rings. But the book’s themes suggest that perhaps human beings are wired the same way no matter where or when we’re from. When faced with something supernatural and unexplainable, like the Black Rock Witch and a nefarious curse that appears to drive its victims to suicide outside the borders of Black Spring, it’s hard not to imagine an entire town driven to the lengths we see in this story.
Plus, just when you think to yourself “Oh my, things can’t possibly get any worse and more disturbing, can they?” the author shows us that, yes, yes indeed they can! As the suspense builds with every page, Thomas Olde Heuvelt gleefully keeps insisting on poking this already high-pressure situation with a stick, ratcheting up the horror even more. Parts of this book actually remind me a lot of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, where paranoia, claustrophobia and the stifling fear of the unknown can drive otherwise sane and normal people to horrible extremes, even without the help of a supernatural curse. That’s the scariest part about HEX, the fact that even if you succeed in blocking out the paranormal aspects of the story, you can’t ignore the dark side of human nature. All you can do is stand by and watch as the chilling events unfold.
Finally, I have to praise the quality of the translation and the way the changes were implemented from the original Dutch version of this book for the US edition. Since I have no basis to compare the two versions, I can’t really comment on the actual changes themselves, like the one that switched the location of the setting from a small town in the Netherlands to one nestled in the Hudson Valley region in upstate New York, but I can say that they were done really well and the transposition felt practically seamless (pardon the pun). I was really impressed, and if anything, this exercise showed me that the things that terrify us and keep us up at night are pretty much universal.
So if you’re a fan of horror fiction and strong of nerve, I would definitely check this one out. Deliciously creepy and all consuming, HEX was an absolute thrill. The chills will stay with you long after the final page is turned.