(2015/6) Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Hodder and Stoughton, £16.99, hrdbk, 404pp, ISBN 978-1-444-79321-5
Hex came out in the Netherlands in 2015 but had its first publication in English in 2016; hence the 2015/6 date in the above publication details.
Shudder, I was feeling all Neil Gaimanish when I picked up the proof copy of Hex for the first time. The reason? Well, if you have ever read Gaiman’s children’s novel, nay, fairy tale Coraline, you will know that a slightly different reality exists close to ours where things that look like your parents may live, the only difference being they have buttons for eyes. You can live there too, all you have to do is get buttons sewn on to your eyes.
My copy of Hexcontinues that sewing 'thread' – ha, ha, as the cover is dark green, with the words 'Evil doesn’t sleep. It waits.' written on the back and a suggestion to go to #BreakTheHex. But the rest of the cover looks (and feels) as if it has been sewn, all the way from the back cover, round the spine to write H E X on the front cover. If you have missed that point do not worry because the book comes with two cards – one showing a woman’s face with her eyes and lips sewn shut, the other helpfully called 'Eye Sewing Kit' with the added instructions if you want extra swelling, you should dip the needle in chilli oil before puncturing your face near your eyes and mouth –mouth first, obviously – sewing the eyes shut is going to get tricky near the end. My suggestion would be that while you are doing this you should have 'Hotel California' by The Eagles playing in the background. I am assuming I am lucky and these cards come with the proof copy and are not available to the general public who might have less restraint than I.
Why the cards? Well, within the pages of Hex we are going to visit Black Spring, a beautiful little place in the Hudson Valley. Stay, and you won’t want to leave, and you can’t anyway, not ever. Going away to college everyday and coming back at night is okay, but if you stay away longer you start to become suicidal. Why? Because you have seen Katherine van Wyler, the Black Rock Witch. Who? Well, she is the ghost of a seventeenth century woman whose eyes and mouth have been sewn shut and body wrapped in chains. Who walks the town at will. She can appear anywhere. In the street, outside looking in your window, even standing in your house, your bedroom, right at the foot of your bed for a couple of nights in a row. How nice is that? Now you know she is there, you can never leave, and you should never, ever try and touch her, because she might be a ghost but she can be touched, even have a tea towel placed over her head to stop her staring at you. Especially do not try to open her stitches. You don’t want to do that, which is a motto many horror books and films should carry.
This is the central conceit of the first translated novel by Thomas Olde Heuvelt who is 33, but looks younger and is a multiple award winner for his writings in his native Netherlands, and has made a bit of a splash with his shorter writing in recent years, being nominated for a Hugo award a couple of times (including in 2014) and a World Fantasy Award. His story 'The Day the World Turned Upside Down' that won a Hugo for Best Novelette in 2015.
What we have is a combination of a haunted house story, widened to become a haunted town story – and there aren’t many of those, certainly not in novel form that I can remember – mashing up against something like a young adult dystopian novel where the adults have agreed that the existence of the Black Rock Witch must be kept a secret from the outside world. Those in charge are doing what they think is best for the town and with that as your mantra, you can justify just about any action that you take. From outlawing use of the internet and social media to sophisticated 24 hour, seven days a week high-tech surveillance throughout the town to try and keep track of their ghostly neighbour, and of course, everyone else. There is even a mobile phone app, handy to report fresh sightings of the Witch.
And while the adults reluctantly accept this for the good of everyone else, the teens are getting restless. Five teens in particular, and on their trips outside town have created a website called 'Open Your Eyes' that contains weblogs and video clips of Katherine. If they can reveal this to the world the curse will end, right? They can get away, right? They can only access this site off-town, due to the tight controls in the town, but eventually one of the teens goes too far and things start to unravel in more and more extreme ways as the adults try to enforce the rules and the nastier side of human nature comes to the fore, and no-one is safe, especially from each other. But then again, some of these people are the descendents of the Dutch settlers who sentenced Katherine to death in 1664, but before they hanged her she was allowed an 'act of mercy' to murder her own son to let her daughter live.
Hex is not perfect, it is a bit clunky in places, maybe a tad overlong, but it is an idea that only perhaps a new youngish writer could write – influenced by what has come before (and Heuvelt has named Stephen King as an influence, I wouldn’t be surprised if Needful Things was high up his list) – but also draws on trends in Asian movies and computer games and the influence of the internet and social media. It will be interesting to see what this Dutch author does next, and if he is going to plough his own unique path in horror fiction, like Adam Nevill does here in Britain.
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