by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
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.
I think it takes talent to write a book with so many characters and make all points of view interesting and distinct, and Heuvelt does that with the characters in Hex.
Each character is grounded, with human flaws and priorities. It’s this characterisation, and the focus on the breakdown of the family, that makes it that more clear how much their world views distort by the end, how easily society can be overcome by hysteria. It felt especially relevant to read this at a time in the world where there’s so much hysteria and panic, everyone jumping over hurdles to place the blame on anyone other than themselves for atrocities and miscalculations.
It’s only upon reflecting, too, that I realised just how much foreshadowing went into character arcs. Tyler and Matt were definitely my favourites. As an older sister, I had a firm grasp on the way their relationship worked as brothers, the at times hostile dynamic between them that comes from ‘belonging’ to one of the parents, while still loving each other.
In Hex, Thomas Olde Heuvelt creates a character that is genuinely frightening. Katherine herself is haunting: she will appear in people’s homes and stand in corners, whispering to herself, and the image of that alone was enough to unnerve me into putting the book down for a breather more than once. One of the only other books that’s had that affect on me is Into the Woods by Tana French. If this book was made into live action, I know I’d be watching with one eye, face hidden behind a pillow.
However, with her sewn up eyes and mouth, the chains she drags with her wherever she goes, it’s clear that the misery Katherine has been forced into isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The history of hysteria is woven into the history of women themselves, and the continued suffering Katherine endures is a reflection of how, while the year is different, does society ever really shake off their hatred of difference?
Heuvelt times everything perfectly in the plot. Hex actually starts off funny, even with Katherine travelling about. It’s okay, then suddenly, it’s not. Everything begins to go wrong. It’s a domino effect, except the domino that starts it off knocks over at least ten much bigger dominoes instantly. It’s almost understated how immense the actions are, only really coming in to focus by the end of the novel.
Modern technology is a focal point of communication in the town, something that proves to be their downfall. The modernity of it doesn’t feel forced or out of place. So much of it is still relevant, in spite of how much technology has changed in the past ten years since this book’s initial release.
What continues to amaze me is that this book is a translation. It’s so well translated by Nancy Forest-Flier, losing none of the cultural significance thanks to the hard work put in by her and Heuvelt to create a sense of place completely different to the original. In the afterword, Heuvelt talks about how he did complete rewrites for the translation, moving the setting from a small town in the middle of nowhere to the setting of New York, and still, it works.
My one issue with this book, that almost ground my brain to a halt more than once, is sensitivity. On numerous occassions, there are insensitive comments relating to Auschwitz; ableism in the form of jokes make about autism; and multiple uses of the word ‘f*g’.
Sensitivity doesn’t mean cutting out the bad: it’s having the bad stuff, and making it clear that you, as the writer, do not condone the behaviour. The blase approach to homophobia, where the characters laugh it off and never challenge or disagree, even in interior dialogue, with the negativity, is what I take issue with.
A part of me read into it that it was the blase approach to harmful topics, and the realisation a character has later on in the book that someone close to them is gay, is intended to show that the town was never alright. It was always more dangerous for some than it was others, they were just ignorant. However, with how off-hand some of the more damaging comments were, it makes me think that it was unintentional thematic links, and just a reflection of lack of sensitivity readers in the process of writing.
Hex is a haunting look into small-town hysteria, how you can lose yourself and let history define your lives by refusing to accept a change in time and attitude. While it has its flaws, it has a harsh approach to familial bonds and character relationships, with a bleak ending that just feels right.
Content warnings: animal death and abuse, sexual violence and rape, torture, death of minors
If you like this review, you might like:
🍎Pines by Blake Crouch
🍎Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
🍎The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell