Review of Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Hmm. A little too Stephen King for me. But that’s kind of a compliment.
I liked the various shorter works Thomas Olde Heuvelt has had nominated for Hugo Awards, so when I saw this on my library’s New Books shelf, it was a no-brainer. HEX looked like just the right amount of creepy and fantastic: I liked the idea of a social media–influenced modern take on a cursed town. As the narrative develops and the plot descends into ickier and ickier chaos, Olde Heuvelt asks you to come along on a truly twisted ride. It’s not really my cup of tea, but I can see others enjoying it. Hence the “too Stephen King”—his novels don’t do it for me, but I understand why so many people find him captivating.
The town of Black Spring (transplanted from the Netherlands in the original to a small Dutch-descended town in New York in the translation) has a witch problem and a ghost problem. A ghost-witch problem, if you will: Katherine van Wyler haunts the town, silent and accusatory. Any attempts to mess with her, and people just start dropping dead. And Black Spring is the Hotel California of towns: once you move in, if you leave for extended periods of time you get suicidally depressed. So … yeah. Enjoy.
The town’s younger residents chafe against this life. Their Internet access is filtered, and they are tired of living under the yoke of such a curse. So as adolescent boys do, they push back. They transgress—not significantly, at least not at first, but enough to send out the ripples that turn into tsunamis by book’s end. HEX, like many of its ilk in the suspense and horror genres, is all about unintended consequences. I appreciate, however, that this book does not pit the young and old squarely against each other. There are shades of grey, with people like Richard Grim and Tyler’s father, Steve, on the boys’ side (for the most part), squaring off against the more conservative, religious members of the town.
Olde Heuvelt effectively parcels the exposition behind Katherine’s origins and powers into manageable chunks throughout the story. He feeds us just enough that we get to enjoy watching other characters squirm, even as we grow increasingly uncomfortable. The full extent of Katherine’s ability or the nature of her haunting doesn’t become apparent for a very long time. In this way, the novel gradually ratchets up the suspense. I particularly appreciate the interplay between Tyler and Jaydon, and how the latter is someone for whom our sympathy leaches away. He just gets worse and worse, and while it’s true the townspeople are awful to him, his actions are no credit to his character.
The book unfortunately suffers from a dearth of diverse characters. There are, to be generous, only two significant women characters in HEX. As the novel hits its peak they both act in stereotypically unhinged ways. And, you know, that would be perfectly fine—if there were enough other women around who didn’t succumb to histrionics. This is the problem with having one or two women in a cast. The cast list otherwise feels like a boys’ club, and there’s just a very masculine feeling to the various conflicts and storylines.
I’m also a little tired of the “it’s humans who are the monsters!” trope, which HEX leans on heavily in its final moments. I get it. We’re the bad ones, and the monsters are merely reflections of our own darkness. But the ending feels like such a shrug that all I could do was close the book and start the next one. While I understand the source of the punitive nature of Katherine’s ghost, I don’t enjoy these endings as much as ones that were avoidable. (We might debate whether or not the townspeople’s actions might have been nudged to avert going down this road, but I’m not convinced.) I prefer Hardy and Dickens’ abjectly mundane tragedies over those of the supernatural simply because their characters bring about their own undoing without an external agency’s oversight.
That being said, even I’m not immune to the spine-tingling, bone-chilling, blood-thinning effect of Olde Heuvelt’s writing. If you know you like books like this, then you will like this book. It’s just very effective at what it does, and Nancy Forest-Flier’s translation does nothing to diminish these sensations. HEX is the type of horror novel that I do enjoy from time to time, even if I don’t go out of my way to read the genre more widely.