"HEX" Book Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Published by Tor Books
Written by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
2013, 384 pages, Fiction
Released on April 26th, 2016
Katherine wan Wyler is a witch. She “lives,” in a manner of speaking, in Black Spring, a little town in upstate New York. She died in the 17th century, due to normal 17th-century reasons (aforementioned witchery). She returned from the dead and wrought witchy revenge until some elders from the church sewed her eyes and mouth shut and bound her in iron shackles. This had the effect of sealing away her evil powers, for the most part, but the locals were still left with Katherine's reanimated corpse, which could not be destroyed and wouldn't go away. So they adapted.
These, in a nutshell, are the events that made Black Spring what it is today. (The novel's present, by the way, is 2012). Katherine never went away, you see. The people of Black Spring are mostly normal: they have (heavily censored and monitored) internet; Wal-Mart; iPads; all the plastic and metal and digital crap that supposedly defines contemporary life. But they live with the shambling, deaf and dumb reanimated corpse of a 17th-century witch, who wanders the streets and woods of Black Spring day and night. They've also learned over the years that once someone becomes a permanent resident of Black Spring, by birth or by moving in, they are no longer able to leave for more than a short time. Katherine’s curse manifests itself in the form of a powerful compulsion to commit suicide whenever residents are away from town for too long.
Katherine isn’t overtly dangerous, except for the whispers that escape from the corner of her mouth, where the stitches were damaged in a misguided attempt to free her from her bindings. The result of that was a bunch of deaths, reminding everyone that Katherine is, in fact, magic. Since then, if people listen to her whispering, they find themselves thinking about suicide.
HEX attempts to play with the standard supernatural horror formula—an isolated town with a supernatural secret—by reminding us that in the present, everything is monitored, recorded, and digitally stored away. The juxtaposition of high technology and 17th-century evil is intended, one imagines, to be jarring: how can high-tech surveillance and a resurrected curse-whispering witch exist together? But they do, of course. In the novel, HEX is the name of Black Spring's security unit, tasked with constantly monitoring the witch's presence and hiding her from outsiders. Because Katherine wanders endlessly and sometimes will stop in place for hours or days at a time, materializing in people's homes at random, Black Rock's residents have had to develop bizarre coping strategies, including a massive digital security grid and a custom iPhone app that lets citizens report on the witch's presence. When strangers visit the town, the residents do ridiculous things like cover the witch with a tent or, on Halloween, pretend she’s part of the holiday festivities.
The premise is compelling, and done differently HEX might have stood alongside such works as the recent and excellent Jug Face, Shirley Jackson’s classic short story The Lottery, and even The Crucible (which it clearly apes in its commentary on ignorance and institutionalized, religiously-tinged violence and oppression). These (and many other) examples all focus on towns with dark secrets and the great lengths to which people go to keep them. Also, there are like witches and sacrifices and stuff. But Hex doesn’t get there. It centers on a town that people can’t leave, and a mostly harmless witch who wanders around but doesn’t otherwise do much of anything. It's a situation perhaps riper for parody than for horror, and in fact that's what we get until the third act when the tone changes. But nothing is particularly funny here beyond the initial idea of a mute wandering dead witch and the things people have to do to hide her presence. The horror elements seem like an afterthought.
In its general contours HEX begs comparison with The Blair Witch Project—a comparison the characters themselves make—as well as any number of reality TV shows, films like The Truman Show and, most importantly, The Cabin in the Woods. This last is especially clear in terms of cheeky humor. For example, in one scene the HEX personnel are betting on when some newcomers to town will meet the witch. We get this exchange:
“Be happy we've got something new to bet on. Fifty bucks on a home encounter.”
“Fifty bucks?” Claire was shocked. “You're crazy. Statistically speaking, home encounters never come first.”
The horror isn't really horror: it's a parody, a spoof—just like Cabin. And just like Cabin it turns out to be more than that. In fact, the whole novel has this slightly smug, ironic tone—just like Cabin—that doesn't do it any favors. As another example, once the new residents do finally meet the witch, the townies have to explain the situation to them. One person puts it like this:
“We're not talking about the outdated kind of ghost who's only seen by some irritating, autistic, and neglected kid who no one believes but always ends up being right in the end.”
Redundancies aside, that is some smug meta-horror right there. Yes, we're all familiar with the conventions of the genre, thanks. Jeeze. This tone, this slightly winking, pandering irony, robs the novel of any sense of urgency. Even in the handful of starker, more horror-y moments, the memory of the whole situation, couched as it is in this language of sarcasm and genre satire, robs it of meaning.
There are other issues with the writing that have the effect of further distancing the reader from the narrative, both on the level of narrative and that of translation (the novel is a translation from the Dutch). On the narrative level, the witch's behavior supposedly follows a fixed pattern, to the extent that some kids are able to prank her by moving a street lamp a few inches to one side, causing her to walk headfirst into it and fall on her ass. But she's always surprising people by popping up unexpectedly and has to be tracked via a special app. This apparent contradiction is not addressed in the text, or if it is, I missed it. It also isn’t especially clear why the witch has to be kept a secret from the outside world, particularly given that the novel explains that past US presidents knew about Katherine and took steps to help the town deal with her, and the present staff of nearby West Point know about her too.
The writing itself is also a mess, full of redundancies, strange non-idiomatic language, and hammy declarations of emotion embedded in the narration, like this gem:
Ah, if only he could see what lay within this ever-narrowing circle of related events, this chain that had been forged link by link ... and if only he, by God, was strong enough to head it off at the pass.
Cue Calculon from Futurama falling to his knees: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooo...?!” It reads like advice from a novel-writing manual: The protagonist should struggle to understand the ever-narrowing circle of related events... It could represent more of that tongue-in-cheek genre satire, but it’s not clever enough to work on that level.
It’s difficult to know if the hamminess and the general oddness of the novel’s language are from the original text, if the translation is to blame, or (more likely) if it’s something in between. Regardless, the result is that HEX, in translation, is a good story that suffers in the telling. Lest I sound too disparaging, let me be clear: I cared about the overall narrative and had trouble putting the book down. The ideas are good and rendered differently it would have been a very successful story. Sadly, certain elements don’t gel, and the result is a text that feels slightly derivative, an also-ran overshadowed by Cabin and other horror-comedies that make similar moves but with greater clarity of purpose and voice.