HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor 978-0-7653-7880-4, $25.99, 384pp, hardcover) April 2016
The acclaimed Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt was born around the same time cyberpunk was: 1983. If that could make a person feel old, said person should probably attempt to let another equally valid, more positive feeling triumph: one of happy reassurance. Olde Heuvelt’s youthful presence is a sign that new generations of writers are nobly carrying forward the Great Work of Modern Fantastika, which has been flourishing for a couple of centuries already through just such a succession of talents. As older authors fade away or retreat to the sidelines, they can be assured that their legacy and the field to which they devoted their own youthful days will live on.
According to Olde Heuvelt’s ISFDB entry, HEX is his fifth novel, but only the first the be translated into English. Indeed, aside from a couple of translated stories, he remains unknown to most SF readers, so this book will be his calling card. What readers will discover is a deftly crafted, darkly Gothic, at times surreal tale that is both innovative and traditional in parts. As someone who has avowed Stephen King as an early influence, Olde Huevelt is plainly intent on furthering that particular lineage of Modern Weird, but through the perceptions of a new generation. Additionally, to my sense, this project conveys a cinematic influence from such directors as M. Night Shyamalan. And considering explicit references in the text to The Blair Witch Project, other filmmakers stand behind Olde Huevelt’s esthetic as well.
The town of Black Spring, New York, lying along the upper Hudson River, should be a lovely bedroom community, housing as it does some three thousand well-off souls in a beautiful pastoral setting. But there is one factor which renders the place a miserable hell. The Black Rock Witch rules the town.
Originally a woman named Katherine van Wyler, she was executed in the year 1664. Later on, her corpse had its eyes and mouth sewn shut, and chains were wrapped around it. But mere death did not deter the Witch from reappearing as a ghost for the next three centuries, bearing the marks of her punishment and seeking mute revenge. And in fact, she is a most corporeal spirit, able to interact with people and animals and objects, should any of the former be foolish enough to touch her. Katherine’s random travels through the town—she might materialize in your bedroom, for instance—are tracked by the residents with the smartphone HEXapp, so that they can always be aware of avoiding her. HEX, we come to understand, is the agency that oversees the town and its horrid secret. The administrators of HEX ensure that all safety protocols and prohibitions are obeyed by the townspeople under pain of reeducation or death, and that no Outsiders ever learn about the Witch. Because the few times that Outsiders have gotten wind of the phenomenon and tried to interfere, people began to die in large quantities.
Oh, yes: anyone born into Black Spring or dwelling there for a certain time is forever doomed to remain with the borders, for their health. Native citizens can be away for short periods, but soon begin to face suicidal impulses if distant from home for too long.
Having set up this scenario, Olde Huevelt begins to pick it apart. Naturally, to portray the town during its periods of stability would constitute no exciting story. Instead, the author brings in as narrative engine the younger generation of kids who are chafing at these restrictions and want a revolution. A certain posse of teens is trying to “scientifically” suss out the Witch’s parameters and broadcast her existence to the world through the internet and some viral YouTube videos. Needless to say, this scheme does not go well. Madness, death and sorrow will fill the town.
Olde Huevelt creates a nicely representative and varied cast of characters, all authentically human (even the Witch, in her path of damnation), but he wisely limits his core viewpoints to a handful of folks. There is the Grant family, whose son Tyler is one of the ringleaders of the rebels. There is Robert Grim, HEX cadre, who is torn between sympathy for the villagers and his duties. And there is Griselda Holst, who has developed a strange fetishistic relationship with the witch, and whose son, Jaydon, one of the rebels, precipitates the crisis by physical interference with the Witch. (Is a family named “VanderMeer” a Tuckerization of a certain other fabulist author?)
Olde Huevelt is dealing with one of fantastika’s potent core tropes here, the Shunned or Secret Village that harbors a curse or tainted legacy. His book instantly resonates with scores of other texts, from Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life!” to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to Lovecraft’s tales of Innsmouth. One of the primary tensions in such stories is the dynamic between tradition and change, which Olde Huevelt plays on in his intergenerational warfare. Another is the meaning of Original Sin, for it’s always some initial triggering event which launches the town on its fate. Lastly, this trope is useful for dramatizing the role of the community versus the contrarian individual. We are forced to examine the merits of communal wisdom versus a freethinker’s conceptual breakthroughs. And while most of the times we tend to side with the rebels in such stories, Olde Huevelt manages to show that community standards often exist for very good and practical reasons.
Olde Huevelt strikes me as a tad more old school than such current cutting-edge horror writers as Ligotti, Ballingrud, Tremblay, Nicolay and Barron. His straightforward, in-your-face effects lack the ambiguity of morality and narrativity that those other authors display.
Olde Huevelt is fully capable of creating many suspenseful, nerve-wracking scenes that lead inexorably to his planned, albeit unpredictable outcome. Moreover, his adoption of the North American venue is cannily done, with no false steps a writer working from Europe might be expected to make. The whole setting and events cohere beautifully. But your mileage may vary on how effective or justified or fitting you feel the apocalyptic ending of the novel to be. This is not a book of redemption and heroism, but is instead fueled by the worst elements of human nature and the unforgiving malignity of the universe, starkly limned in blood-red and grave-black.
Lastly, let me give all credit to Nancy Forest-Flier for a gripping, fluid, graceful translation.