Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

hexTitle: Hex

Author: Olde Heuvelt, Thomas (Author’s Website)

Genre: Horror

Bibliographic: Tor, 384 pages, Hardcover List Price $24.99, Paperback List Price $15.99, , ISBNs 9780765378804, 9781466864580, 9780765378811

Publication Date: April 26, 2016

Rating: ★★★★★/♥♥♡♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Translation, disturbing, gruesome, descriptive

Why I picked it up:  I’d heard very good things about it, and liked the idea of a town just coming to accept something horrible in their midst.

S.I.A.S.: The residents of Black Spring are used to Katherine, a 300-year-old witch, wandering around, but some people want things to change.

Summary: The town of Black Springs, New York, has been haunted for more than 300 years by the ghost of a witch named Katherine van Wyler. She was executed as a witch after being forced to choose one of her children to execute as well, and came back after death to ensure that the town would be punished. No resident of Black Springs can ever move away — when they leave town for any significant amount of time, Katherine fills their heads with suicide until they either kill themselves or return home — and if you stand close enough to hear what she’s always whispering, you might not make it away alive. Fortunately, someone sewed her eyes and mouth shut ages ago, so whispering is all she can do, and the townsfolk have pretty much taken it in stride. They have a city department called HEX (even if nobody can quite remember what the acronym originally stood for) which is devoted to tracking her location — residents can report sightings via an app on their smartphones — and preventing outsiders from seeing her via an extremely elaborate system of roadblocks, privacy screens, and groups of old ladies singing.

When the story opens, the Grant family is sitting down to dinner despite Katherine’s presence in their living room (they tossed a dishtowel over her head and went about their business). The family’s oldest son, Tyler, is disappointed with the state of things. He runs a popular youtube channel, but won’t be able to use any of that evening’s footage for fear that an outsider will find out about Katherine. Unbeknownst to the adults in the community, he and his friends have started a website meant to expose the truth about Black Spring to the world. As they get closer and closer to the witch in an attempt to document her reality, things start to get out of hand.

When the situation escalates, the town of Black Spring — which is already run by a clique of tyrants– gets more and more hysterical, and more and more afraid. They are willing to take absolutely desperate actions to ensure their safety, if it’s not too late.

Evaluation:  I really loved this book. I picked it up because I thought it was going to be spooky, and it was, but the real horror of the book was the way that the townspeople treated each other. I wasn’t expecting that, and I really enjoyed it. The characters were all well-developed, and by the end of the book I found myself caring about characters I really didn’t expect to (not least of all the witch herself). The one character whose development really stood out to me was Griselda — you can really see how she came to be the way she was and why she chose to act the way she did, even though her actions were crazy.

The setting was also very well-developed, especially for a person who does not live in the United States. I’m not especially familiar with the Hudson Valley, but I’ve spoken to a few people who mentioned that they were surprised to hear that the author wasn’t American.

I don’t know if I can say that this book was enjoyable to read, but I also don’t know that that’s the point. I don’t enjoy being scared. That said, this book did give me a lot to think about (and I’m still mulling it over, several days later) — I underlined things and text messaged things to my husband because I needed to talk about them with somebody, and I think that’s where this book is really most valuable. By the end, I wasn’t sure if Katherine was really evil but was fairly sure that the mob-mentality was, which was a great twist in what I thought would be just a straightforward horror novel.

Significance: Apparently this book was fairly popular in the Netherlands and in Dutch-speaking Belgium, where it was originally published in Dutch. The author wrote an interesting article about why he chose to “Americanize” the book, which I think has interesting implications for translated horror generally.

Readalikes: The Circle, by Bentley Little. Lullaby, by Chuck Palahniuk. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.

Discussion Questions:

  1. This book was originally set in the Netherlands and published in Dutch. Why do you think the author chose to adapt his story for an American audience? Was the adaptation successful?
  2. During Jaydon, Burak, and Justin’s trial, their punishment is decided by a vote. Why do so many more people choose the more brutal option when their votes are anonymous? Are people more prone to take extreme measures when they are just one of the crowd?
  3. On the night before Jaydon’s punishment, his mother prays to Katherine: “As penance, she tried to chastise herself by whipping her back with Jadyon’s belt. But it all felt a bit clumsy and awkward and as soon as it really began to hurt Griselda though, This is not my thing, and stopped.” What is the nature of her faith? How do you make rules in a religion you’ve created yourself?
  4. Should the members of HEX have tried harder to prevent the Delarosas from moving to Black Spring? How?
  5. The mayor of Black Springs is named Colton Mathers, which seems to be a clear allusion to Cotton Mather. How are the events portrayed in Hex similar to the Salem Witch Trials? Is the witch the truest example of evil in Black Springs?

Lists and Awards:  None.

Professional Reviews: Kirkus. Publishers Weekly. The Speculative Herald. Tor. New York Journal of Books.

Leave a Reply