by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
400 pages, Hodder
Review by Pat Black
Vampires do well out of books. They’re comfortably top of the monsters leaderboard. In browsing for books online, you’d go into a hall of mirrors just to avoid seeing the buggers for a while.
Werewolves don’t do quite as well, but there’s still plenty of interest in our not-so-friendly four-legged friends. I didn’t realise this until I punted out a werewolf novella on Amazon. It was like a junior school wolfie kid, in its wee uniform. I was a big wolfie mama, tearfully watching the little one scamper in on its first day.
I also discovered you could trip up on sexy werewolves/shapeshifter scud stories. They’re like a great big shaggy doormat.
But you don’t see so many witches. I’m surprised by this. They lend themselves so well to all facets of the horror genre. They can be scary; they can be sexy; they can summon demons and dish out curses. Most importantly, they’ve got some kind of grudge. In this, they’re relatable. But away from fairy tales, there aren’t too many in literature.
On the big screen there’s the Blair Witch, but of course, we never really saw her. The closer we get to that movie’s 20th anniversary, the more I see it for the con it was - and I applaud its makers all the more for that.
There was The Craft and Charmed, but one was a high school Mean Girls-style revenge drama (a very good one), and the other packaged witchcraft as a lifestyle choice. I’m looking at witches as Big Bads, here, not Buffies.
Step forward Dutch novelist Thomas Olde Heuvelt with Hex. Rewritten for an American market from the original Dutch version, this book is set in Black Rock, a modern-day town in upstate New York suffering a great big hangover from the days of the founding fathers: it is cursed by a witch.
Katherine Van Wyler was tortured and executed for perceived witchcraft in 1664, and her children perished, too. But she never really died. Now, Katherine – an undead physical entity, wrapped in chains with her eyes and mouth stitched up – dots around the town as she pleases, appearing and disappearing in seemingly random places.
She could materialise in the bathroom while you’re seated and pre-occupied. She could appear at the bottom of your bed just as you’re putting a move on your partner. She could pop up in the seat behind you at the movies, nudging you every couple of minutes with her big buckled shoes. Why do people do that? Stop it!
“Why don’t they just kill her?” Not so fast. She’s got skills. If anyone tries to harm the witch, horrible things happen. She can trigger aneurysms and heart attacks by remote control, killing people at random in the town if anything happens to her. She’s a cardiovascular killer. She’s a walking fish supper, basically.
Then there’s her most insidious trick: whispering. If you listen closely to what the witch mumbles through her sewn-up lips, you instantly want to kill yourself. Many people have.
“Why don’t they just leave?” They can’t. Anyone who gets too far away from Black Rock wants to kill themselves, too. Once you’re there, you’re stuck. Or you die.
The town of Black Rock copes. Fully backed by the US government, which does not want the menace to escape, or for the rest of the world to find out about her, the town has an elaborate system – HEX – set up to ensure no-one leaves town, and to manage the witch’s appearances as far as possible. Led by Robert Grim and answerable to the mayor, this taskforce cleans up the witch’s messes and makes sure no news of Black Rock’s unique resident leaves town. In the internet and mobile phone era, this is an increasingly difficult prospect.
Hikers are turned away by deputies monitoring the town’s wooded borders, citing various made up public order or health and safety problems. More difficult to persuade to leave are the people looking to buy property in Black Rock. Every effort is made to dissuade folk looking to settle in a seemingly pleasant arboreal town - including harassment. For those really, really stubborn people who can’t take a hint, they have to become Black Rock residents. They are given an induction; they are trained in the ways of this supernatural nightmare which must become part of their life. They become fully immersed in the town, unable to communicate the problem to wider society… and unable to leave.
Welcome to the Hotel California.
The author is about 30, though going by the dust jacket photo, if someone had told me he was 10 years younger I’d have bought it. How god-damn disgusting is that? These young and talented bastards, how dare they? But the main thing that struck me about Olde Heuvelt’s work was that we are now into a third generation of people who grew up under the spell of Stephen King.
Although its original version was set in the Netherlands, Hex is dripping with King’s Big Mac-style secret sauce recipe. It features small town America with all its little kinks and hang-ups - the country in microcosm - which we’ve seen time and again in King’s fiction. The book focuses on regular families and ordinary Joes battling unearthly forces, the everyday turned horrific. Imagine trundling your trolley around Lidl, and you turn a corner into the “Death Star turret” section where all the booze lives, and oops – that’ll be your 350-year-old witch, blocking aisle four.
There’s a lot of potential for humour in this scenario, and Hex gleefully exploits it. Hallowe’en sees the witch used as a decoration, and people pose for pictures with her. Imagine how annoyed she’d be to come third in the “best witch” contest?
But there’s not too much laughter, as the Black Rock witch isn’t a thing of comedy. She’s terrifying, and her sudden appearances give you something to think about before lights out. The book is not short on scares – there are a load of “well you can shove that up your poky hat!” moments.
Hex is almost a brilliant novel. It has an eye on many of the town’s residents – I particularly liked HEX chief Robert Grim, who seems to be an uptight rule book junkie at first, but turns out to be a decent, principled man doing a difficult job. The story comes into sharp focus with one doctor and his family. The doctor’s son, Tyler, is a senior student at high school. He and his friends find a way to circumvent Black Rock’s internet black-out, and, armed with GoPros and camera phones, they humiliate the witch in a series of escalating pranks, Jack-Ass style.
It looked like the gang were going to use brand new technology – video, blogs, vlogs, whatever – to break an ancient curse. This is a barnstorming idea, setting up a clash between the very old and the ultra-modern, but it doesn’t quite happen. In the service of his plot, Heuvelt abandons this terrific idea. It seems that the boys’ ultimate goal isn’t to destroy the Black Rock Witch, but to be guffawing arseholes. Though this is painfully true to life, it wastes a great concept.
The unfolding drama is triggered by Jaydon, one of the more troubled boys in Tyler’s group, who takes things a little bit too far with Katherine. “Fancy seeing a witch’s tits?” I didn’t need a crystal ball to foresee problems brewing with that one.
Already something of a vindictive soul, we might assume, Katherine’s retribution for the indignity she suffers is terrible. In turn, it triggers something unpleasant in Black Rock’s residents as they look to punish the teenage miscreants.
Another parallel with Stephen King is how convincingly Heuvelt writes young people. (As well he should, as he looks as if he’s still at school... terse grumble.) He captures the teenage boys’ interaction and their casual cruelty with switchblade-sharp precision. You’re having a good time with Hex, getting invested in the characters and family relationships, until Jaydon breaks a taboo.
The story escalates, and increasingly tragic events occur. There’s one death in particular which felt almost too raw, too close to the real thing, for comfort. It makes people lose their minds.
Hell follows, but it seems that Black Rock’s residents – like the good people of Jerusalem’s Lot, or Derry, Maine – might want to look to their own behaviour before they condemn the wicked witch.