Ginger Nuts of Horror
“Hex” is an astoundingly good read and I’d like to think that it’s going to make quite a few top ten lists this year. That said, I suspect it may be a “Marmite” type of book, in that you either love this new take on horror or you hate it.
The novel is set in Black Spring, a town haunted by Katherine, the Black Rock Witch. She is a seventeenth century woman who was accused of witchcraft then forced to murder her own son before she was killed herself. When she comes back to haunt the townspeople, her whispering drives people to commit terrible suicides, so a brave band of men sew her eyes and mouth closed. Effectively, her threat is eliminated, but she still continues to haunt them.
We join Black Spring in the modern age where Katherine, unable to whisper evil suggestions into anyone’s ear, has diminished to more of a nuisance than a real threat. She can appear any time anywhere, from your garden to your living room or your bedroom. People hang tea-towels over her to stop her creeping them out, but they tolerate her rather than fear her.
Heuvelt presents us with an interesting premise: a threat that you cannot avoid, which dominates your very life, but which you kind of work around. However, attitudes to the threat differs between the older residents of Black Spring and the teenagers. The former accept life as just the way it is, taking pride as well as peace of mind in their management of Katherine and the way they keep her a secret from the outside world. The younger generation however are both curious and reckless. Even with all the restrictions of Black Spring, they have grown up in a time of technology where science generally triumphs over superstition. They grow sceptical of the real threat she poses and start to push the boundaries.
John Connolly describes this as “reminiscent of vintage Stephen King”, and there is certainly that small town feel that is so dominant in novels like “Needful Things” or “Pet Semetary”. In fact, “Hex” has more than just the small town feeling to link it to “Pet Semetary”, but to say why would be giving too much away! The title of “Hex” refers both to the curse that is Katherine as well as the technological app that is used to track her and keep control of any situations that arise. Part of the charm of the novel is how Heuvelt manages to maintain that old world charm and superstition while at the same time flawlessly integrating modern attitudes and tools.
I did have a few problems with the writing. On page four we are presented with the description of how “the delightful autumn breeze” is “carrying the smell of his sweat to more westerly regions”. To me, that line means little and adds nothing to what had been an otherwise nicely descriptive passage. Heuvelt also fell foul of something which is a bit of a bug-bear for me. A piece of prose in chapter ten reads: “But that part was yet to come. Black Spring had a lot more in store than just the offering ritual that day!” Everybody has different preferences, but I personally believe that exclamation marks should be reserved for speech (and then, sparingly) and that the only time they should appear in prose is in overly-enthusiastic romance novels.
Perhaps more significantly, Heuvelt has a habit of breaking tension with unnecessary description and exposition. I first noticed this in the lamppost “experiment”; a passage that could have kept you on the edge of your seat was spoiled by little passages, such as where the boys regularly like to eat. This was in evidence elsewhere in the novel but thankfully it’s the odd occasion rather than an enduring habit.
But these were minor concerns in an overall exceptional book. The characters took a little while to bed in, but once they did, there was conflict, affection, bullying, manipulation and a whole host of entertainment for the reader. I loved the way that a casual conversation between one young boy and his family ends up becoming the ultimate question at the heart of the novel. And kudos to Heuvelt for the fact that even Katherine, the evil, sewn-up ghost-witch, managed to have some character development during the novel.
This is a slow build book, but it engages the reader every step of the way. While the ending was nicely cyclical and cynical, I did think that one resident of Black Spring stepped completely out of character and his actions didn’t sit well with me. Or it might simply be that the decision he made was one that I would myself never countenance, making it a personal response rather than a literary one. You’ll just have to read the novel and let me know what you think in the comments.
If you take a chance on one book this year, make it “Hex”. It should appeal to those readers of horror who are looking for something different and inventive. I am certainly going to be recommending it to anyone who will listen.