Book: “HEX” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Publishing Info: Tom Doherty Associates, April 2016; Original Dutch edition published in April, 2013.
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description from Goodreads: Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay ’til death. Whoever settles, never leaves.
Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a 17th century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters your homes at will. She stands next to your bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened.
The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting, but in so doing send the town spiraling into the dark, medieval practices of the past.
Review: It takes a heck of a lot to scare me, guys. I’ve been watching suspense films like “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” since I was a kid, I started watching slasher films when I was in middle school, and my first venture into horror movies in the theater was when a chaperone took me and a friend to “The Blair Witch Project”the summer before freshman year of high school. Suffice to say, I’m a veteran at the horror rodeo, and it now means that the subject of horror I’m consuming needs to really pull out all the stops in very specific ways before I am affected by it. It’s good in that I’m not kept up late at night jumping at every sound, but bad in that I like being scared for funsies every once in awhile.
But “HEX”? “HEX” kept me up at night.
I think that it was a combination of multiple things that made “HEX” such a scary read for me. The first is that Katherine van Wyler (aka the Black Rock Witch) just sounds like a really scary entity. She walks in silence, towers over people, just stands in place for hours on end, and has her eyes and mouth sewn shut. I mean jeeze, this is the stuff that my nightmares are made of. While the people in Black Spring are used to her, and while they pretty much know how to handle her, that isn’t to say that they aren’t living every day in fear of her and what she could do, and has done in the past. You do get Katherine’s backstory, but Heuvelt saves that for a little later. The book itself just opens with our protagonist family, Steve, Jocelyn, Tyler, and Matt Grant, going about their business as Katherine stands and blindly stares in their living room. I closed the book after the first chapter and just sat there for a moment, wondering what exactly it was I was getting myself into. There are scenes with her that took my breath away because I was so tense, and scenes where I was nearly shaking. She is absolutely terrifying. But Katherine is tragic as well. She has cursed this town for what it did to her back when Black Spring was still run by Dutch settlers, and as you find out more about what that is, the more sympathy you feel for this creature that everyone lives in fear of. Not to say that the reader isn’t still in fear of her as the book progresses. I mean, the description alone is just scary as hell, and there were moments of characters tromping through the woods at night that took me back to that summer before freshman year when I was practically pissing myself watching “The Blair Witch Project”. That is to say I had to nope the hell out and stop reading.
But something that sets this book aside from other genre horror is that it is not The Black Rock Witch who should be most feared. The town of Black Spring has evolved in such a way because of this curse that they have turned into something far more unsettling. While I didn’t have as big of a problem with the HEX Group (the surveillance group that keeps tabs on Katherine’s whereabouts through surveillance and the vigilance of the townspeople reporting in on their phones), I most certainly had a problem with the Town Council. Led by a zealous old man named Cotton Mathers, the elders of the Town Council are determined to make sure that everyone in Black Spring keeps this life and Katherine a secret from the outside world, and anyone who goes against those rules are subject to unspeakable punishments. Black Spring is still stuck in an age that is very reminiscent of the Puritans, and their religious fervor and practices of atonement and groupthink were by far the most upsetting moments in this book. The way that the town gets whipped up into a frenzy out of fear of Katherine just reeked of the scariest parts of history, and while I sometimes had to put the book down because of the witch-related suspense, I was far more upset by the absolutist violence and terror that the humans in this book doled out, to their own citizenry and to Katherine alike.
The characters were also very well written. The members of the Grant Family were the main protagonists, with Steve and Tyler at the forefront. Steve and Jocelyn were unlucky enough to move to Black Spring from the outside and realize that they couldn’t leave for longer than a couple weeks, but Steve has since adapted to the ways of the town and believes in keeping the status quo as a way to protect his family. Steve loves his family to a fault, but most of his love is for his oldest, Tyler. Steve really just wants everyone to be safe, and is acquiescent to the life that they have found themselves in, even if that means that they are ultimately prisoners.
Tyler, on the other hand, has grown up in Black Spring, but has also had the Internet his whole life and has seen the outside world, and wants to live in it. Their conflicting views provide the main conflict at the heart of this book: the old ways being pushed against by the younger generation. Tyler is the one who wants to expose the Black Rock Witch Haunting to the world via his website and blog, thinking that if outsiders knew it may break the curse, while the elders of the town think that it would just spread it. I understood both sides of the argument, and what I liked best about it was that neither side was completely right, or wrong. Tyler has a hard lesson to learn in who to trust for such good intentioned (though ultimately selfish) sentiments, as one could argue it’s one of his friends, Jaydon, who sets of the events of this book. Jaydon has his own personal vendetta against Katherine, and that in combination with a childhood of abuse and rage set off a lot of very upsetting events and violence directed at Katherine that made me, as a woman, a bit sick to my stomach to read. Again, it’s the people of Black Spring that are the biggest villains of all in this book.
I also greatly enjoyed the character of Robert Grim, the head of the HEX Group and main tracker of Katherine’s movements. He’s brash and he’s sarcastic, but he’s also one of the few voices of reason in Black Spring. He’s a realist living in a town filled with superstition and fear, and he is noble to a fault when it comes to trying to protect the community he doesn’t really fit into, not at the heart of his being. It would have been so simple to make him just another antagonist, but Grim is quite possibly the most righteous of characters in Black Spring.
“HEX” was a fabulous, very scary read. Fans of horror really need to pick this one up, because it has everything you could ever want. But maybe don’t read it at night. And if you live by a wooded area like me, definitely try not to think about that either…
Rating 9: This book scared the dickens out of me. Definitely recommended but maybe not for those easily scared.
Find “HEX” at your library using WorldCat!