Hex | Thomas Olde Heuvelt | 2016 (28 April) | Hodder & Stoughton | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
Black Spring has much to recommend it. Surrounded by countryside but close to major cities, it’s a secluded and picturesque small town that houses a close-knit community. It must be good because, after all, nobody ever seems to leave. One might have a few nights away every so often, for Christmas or a short holiday, but everyone always returns to Black Spring. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants do their best to keep hopeful incomers from settling in Black Spring. It’s better to keep the town for the families who have lived in it for years, never needing to lock their doors, comfortably knowing everybody else’s business. But should a family be resolute in its mission to buy a house in Black Spring, then the townspeople will happily pull together to tell their new neighbours exactly what is going on in the town and then, when the newcomers try to flee, sit them down and let them know exactly why they will never be able to leave again.
Katherine van Wyler is Black Spring’s secret. She is also their witch. With her eyelids and lips sewn shut, she wanders the streets of the town, following a predictable pattern that she has followed for years but regularly breaking it to visit her neighbours. The townspeople have grown used to turning round in their houses only to see Katherine standing in the corner of a room, or standing outside the window staring in. She can stand still for days and nobody wants a witch standing still for days in their bedroom or living room but that’s the way it is. Katherine’s movements are monitored in regimental fashion. The local council always know where she is. Cameras seek out every dark place, every sighting is reported in. Nobody is allowed to let the outside world know what is going on. The internet is strictly controlled as is so much of life, and punishment, in Black Spring.
That’s all well and good for the older generations but the youngsters who go to school outside and experience reality beyond the confines of the bewitched town want to be free. They resent Katherine. They resent the elders who confine them. Legend reports that the stitches on Katherine’s lips and eyes must never be removed. There is good reason. But the youngsters have had enough.
I love a good horror story but I’ve read so few that have truly frightened me and haunted my dreams. I want them to frighten me and when they don’t I’m so disappointed. Hex did all that I hoped. It did scare me but in a much more satisfying way than I expected. This is because Katherine is not as straightforward a witch as I had thought. There is something terrifying in the idea of a curse so strong that it can drive people to suicide if they leave the town for longer than they should. This soul devouring evil manifests itself in so many ways throughout the novel. But one of the most scary aspects of the story is the fact that Katherine can just turn up in your house and she can stay there for days. She moves into the normal and possesses it. She is so much a part of life in Black Spring that the residents are almost fond of her. Some do their best to stay on her good side – if a witch has a good side – but most are accustomed to her sudden appearances and deal with it in amusing ways – a teatowel over her head for example. When the town is open to tourists – for Halloween appropriately enough – the town goes to the most elaborate lengths to disguise Katherine from outsiders. The way that Thomas Ode Heuvelt handles this is ingenious and very funny.
There is much in Hex about the nature of evil and the force of despair. This leads us in all kinds of surprising directions and it is not at all as one might have thought. In fact, it is the town’s residents who fall under the most scrutiny. It is their behaviour that must be judged. The rigid control that the council enforces is Draconian. It is clear that matters are reaching a head. A witch is much harder to hide in this day and age but the fault for that does not lie with the witch.
I was gripped by Hex. I found it deliciously chilling and utterly engrossing. I was fascinated by Katherine and her story. I pitied her much more than I thought I would whereas the behaviour of the people horrified me. There are moments of sheer terror and, as the novel moves from the ‘normal’ to the very definitely not normal, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen. I was frightened. I did expect to see shadows in the corner when I turned off the light. Hex is such a creepy tale, relishing and playing with people’s expectations of witches and curses, while also demonstrating so effectively that the real horror may actually lie within. I loved this book and I am so happy to be able to say that.
The novel is translated – very well indeed – by Nancy Forest-Flier.
Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm