by Thomas Olde Heuvelt; translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
Welcome to Black Spring, a picturesque town with an ugly secret.
A 17th century woman with sewn-shut eyes and mouth walks its streets… enters its homes… watches its people while they sleep.
The call her the Black Rock Witch.
So accustomed to her presence, the townsfolk often forget what will happen if her eyes ever open. To protect themselves the Black Spring elders use high-tech surveillance to quarantine the town. Frustrated with the lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break the rules and go viral with the haunting.
But no one foresees the dark nightmare that awaits them all.
It doesn’t take much to scare me. I’ve always been into creepy stuff; I had a mild obsession with ghost stories when I was a little girl and I loved to learn about dark history. I picked up my very first Horrible Histories book, The Angry Aztecs, because I wanted to learn more about human sacrifice. And yet I’ve got such an overactive imagination that I need to build myself up to watching a horror movie, because the likelihood is it’ll leave me wanting to sleep with my light on for a week.
It says something about HEX, then, that it didn’t scare me at all, and considering I’m trying to get more into the horror genre that’s pretty disappointing.
On the one hand I don’t necessarily think all horror should terrify us, which is something I’d like to discuss another time, but I do expect it to leave me a little uneasy, and for the most part I found HEX disappointing and frustrating.
This novel was translated from the original Dutch, and it was only when I was halfway through the book that I discovered the original book is actually set in The Netherlands. When I read the author’s note at the back, I also discovered that the ending of the novel is different to the original.
In other words I haven’t read a translation, I’ve read a rewrite, and I’m quite disappointed. I’d’ve loved to have read this novel in its original setting; just because I’m not Dutch, doesn’t mean my mind will implode if I read a novel set in a non-English-speaking country. From the author’s note it seems like Heuvelt was happy to do the rewrite and seemed to like the opportunity to tweak his original story, but as a reader I feel very patronised.
HEX is set in the
Dutch American town of Black Spring which is haunted by its very own 17th century witch, Katherine van Wyler. Katherine allegedly brought her son back to life, and was then made to kill him to save her daughter before she herself was killed. If that wasn’t enough, the townspeople sewed her mouth and eyes closed.
Katherine has been haunting the town for 350 years, and if people get close enough to hear her whispers they are compelled to harm themselves and even take their own lives. Such a thing hasn’t happened in around 40 years, however, until a group of teenage boys start messing around.
Katherine won’t really do anything, although people aren’t allowed to touch her and they’re definitely not allowed to remove her stitches, but she might appear at the end of your bed and just stay there for three weeks. The townspeople are used to her by now and will often just hang a towel over her head so they don’t need to see her face.
Unfortunately, though, the curse also means that no one in Black Spring can leave, and there’s CCTV footage everywhere to track where Katherine is to make sure she doesn’t cause any trouble.
A group of teenage boys, including one of our main characters Tyler Grant, are tired of living under surveillance. They want to film Katherine and go viral in the hope that the wider world can help them to get rid of her once and for all.
Honestly, judging by the blurb, I thought that’s what this whole book was going to be about. But it isn’t. The whole ‘showing Katherine to the world’ idea never really materialises, and instead what we have is a town slowly turning on each other in what I think is supposed to be clever commentary about witch hunts and instead just feels super boring.
The main problem with HEX is that the only character I actually cared about was Katherine herself. I didn’t care at all about what happened to these townspeople – especially Tyler and his father Steve, our other major character, who’s incredibly irritating – and ended up hoping for a Carrie-esque scenario where Katherine just killed them all. I didn’t care what happened to them, and that kind of horror doesn’t work for me. If I’m not attached to characters, I can’t be scared for them.
In fact Steve in particular turned into quite a nasty character. I have a feeling that was the point of the novel but, again, I never cared about him enough in the first place to care about him closer to the end. The fact that he essentially admits that he and his wife each have a favourite son was so weird to me.
The only other slightly more compelling character is Griselda, the butcher’s widow who has since taken over his business but is still known as ‘the butcher’s wife’ even though she’s now the butcher. Sadly Griselda has a history of both physical and sexual violence, and it was clear there were some similarities between her and Katherine and Griselda had started to treat Katherine like some kind of Pagan goddess.
I would have found the story a lot more interesting if it had all been told from Griselda’s point of view, but instead we had to follow Steve and Tyler’s and Steve’s weird, borderline uncomfortable worship of his eldest son.
Also, Heuvelt does not know how to write women. Steve’s wife, Jocelyn, is just there to be a housewife, as are most of the other women in this novel. There’s one woman whose constantly described as having a huge forehead and how it’s unfortunate because she’d be pretty if her forehead weren’t so large, and don’t even get me started on Tyler’s girlfriend, Laurie, who we only ever see once and who Steve describes as a ‘cutie’. Gross.
Heuvelt seems to have a thing for breast violence throughout this novel. It was weird. My friends and I chose this novel as the first read for the horror book club we’ve started, and part of me can’t help feeling that another reason I haven’t gravitated towards horror in the past is because it’s much more common to see male writers in the genre and, frankly, I don’t trust a lot of them to write women well. Especially in a genre where sexual violence is such an easy threat to fall back on.
Ultimately I was very disappointed by this book. I was hoping for a fun story about teenagers making mistakes and a scary witch, and instead I got a story about a witch who deserves a medal for putting up with these idiots for 350 years.