Time for one last spooky book read before the end of October. Usually, it would be prudent to end this hallowed month with a bit of triumphalism. A reminder that all things spooky are good, and the genre’s growing presence is reaffirmed. But folks, I have to tell you, I will not be able to fulfill this sacred tradition. As this town’s crier, I declare that HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a mess that grows more tangled as it tries to unravel its own knots, leading to a disappointing experience that fails to terrify or deconstruct the tropes it leans so heavily upon.
HEX centers on the town of Black Springs, NY. It’s a quaint little village that has some deep history, and it’s within spitting distance of West Point. For the most part, everything is as it should be within a quiet sleepy town in upstate New York. Assuming you ignore the three hundred year old witch who walks the town with her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, and the fact that anyone who leaves the town experiences an incredible desire to commit suicide. The town’s elders have charged the organization HEX with ensuring the secret never leaves, allowing the installation of a massive surveillance system of cameras, and subsidized phones for app tracking purposes. Some kids want to test the waters, and release the secret on the internet for viral fame, but everyone knows not to disturb the witch herself. But when a series of pranks by the children go wrong, and the witch’s predictable behavior begins to change, and the stability of the town begins to unravel.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I hated this book. It feels like it comes close to something so many times before getting distracted and telling you to piss off. On a technical level the book mostly works until the last 20%. The characters are clearly drawn, and they stay consistent (though that consistency is incredibly questionable, especially in the case of Robert Grim). The writing isn’t bad, but it’s also nothing to write home about. Conceptually, it’s amazing with a lot of interesting and timely ways the town adapts to its predicament. There are a couple of horror filled moments, but at the same time, the book relies heavily on its initial conceit without really building on it. It is a readable piece of fiction that sometimes talks about delivering on its premise.
However, there are A LOT of problems I had with this particular story, and you’d probably try to kill me if I went through each one individually. In my review of Slewfoot, I mentioned how important context is to building horror, and HEX just completely skips that whole step. This is probably more to do with Heuvelt translating the story to English, and dressing it with 2012 American trappings, moving away from the story’s Dutch roots. Naturally, it’s missing the weight of the 300+ years of history that lead to this point. Sure there are nods to the town’s history and American colonial history (Colton Mathers I’m looking directly at you) but it’s more of a cheeky grin that an edgy teenager gives after delivering a taboo statement than a thorough weighty understanding of how rotten American history is. It was incredibly maddening how little the town knew itself outside of maybe three events in its past. There are no oral histories, kept written records, nothing.
Thematically, the book is a pile of shit. It follows the classic, “what if town bad, not witch?” motif that pervades a lot of the modern witch stories I’ve read lately, without really earning it. Heuvelt spends so much time telling the reader that the witch is bad, without really offering any evidence beyond people killing themselves if they hear her whisper. Heuvelt barely sticks to the theme because the people who also empathize or sympathize with the witch are also subjects of ire. The one female perspective of the book who receives both the town’s and author’s ire, describes herself in very degrading terms without the hint of being gaslit. Heuvelt does show on a few occasions how the town itself is clearly doing dumb stuff, but it’s delivered with such tonal dissonance, I had a hard time understanding if I was reading satire. There are a baffling amount of choices made in this book that don’t ever really square the circle. Even if it were satire, it doesn’t pack the punch that makes the reader go “ahhhhhhh.”
Beyond that there are just several missing squares on this quilt. Loose ends that get shown to the reader, but are never tied up or acknowledged again. West Point looms in the background without really adding to the story. HEX is revealed to be an acronym lost to time. There is an incredibly maddening plot point involving an important death, with hints of who the accomplice might be, but is never revealed. Why do her whispers make one kill themselves? Fuck you it doesn’t matter, because the deaths are horrifying in and of themselves.
Where I was truly driven mad though was Heuvelt’s choice of language when he describes how people lose their minds. Almost every single time there was a hint of mob mentality or overzealous religious conviction, he defaulted to describing their attitudes with not so subtle Islamophobia. Everything was described in relation to Sharia law when it came to people not acting in sound mind. At first it appeared that one specific character feels that way, and considering that Robert Grim equates himself with Auschwitz, that would at least make some sense. However, the town decides to enact punishments as described by Puritans and fundamentalist christians from the 19th century while atheist characters look on in horror as they can’t believe Islam has come to America. It’s staring you in the face, and again I wait diligently for the punch line and it just never lands. Especially when Grim, aforementioned fascist, is also the voice of reason and tries to stop the punishments.
As much as I want to continue belligerently dissecting this book, I don’t want to bore or poison you. If you’re at all interested, and are left undeterred by this review, go ahead subject yourself to its insanity. There was somewhat of an interesting exploration of the American surveillance state and its relationship with the puritanical foundation of this nation in there somewhere. But the story is so muddy, and feels purposefully written to deliver on the horrifying death scenes more than anything else. The town never goes viral, the characters never truly reflect on their condition, and the town is so lifeless it feels insulting. So now, will someone sew my eyes and mouth shut, so I can remain cursed with this forever, and no one else will have to listen to me talk about it?
Rating: HEX – 3.5/10