Witches have the potential to be freaky as hell. They are an interesting addition to any horror story because they have a lot of potential. There are bad witches, good witches, opportunistic witches, match-making witches, misunderstood witches, and everything in between. The draw to witches for me is that witches are still, at their core, human beings. Sure, they may be ancient, they may be powerful, and they may be so old that they have forgotten their humanity. But they are humans nonetheless, humans who have channeled power either through family history, or a greed-fuelled deal with the Devil. Witches are an easy scapegoat, and as such bring out the worst in human nature (we don’t have to look much further than the Salem Witch Trials to agree on that). They are often villains that we can feel for; they usually have a complex, pain-filled backstory, and the bad ones are often driven that way by torments inflicted on them by other human beings.
That being said, witches, in order to be scary, need to be done right. Too often witches in horror culture become cartoonish. They cackle. They chant. They have cauldrons, black cats, tall black hats…the whole nine. The powerfully scary witches are the ones who quietly observe humanity and turn it on its head. They are the characters that allow us to observe the dark side of human beings, and to consider our own inner nature.
If you’re looking for a read with a witch done right, look no further than HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.
When I read the title, I assumed HEX was actually Hex, as in a curse. Now, this book is definitely centered around a curse, but HEX is actually the name of an organization in the little town of Black Springs that is responsible for keeping a lid on the existence of a witch in their little town. It used to be responsible for keeping outsiders out, but the mayor over the years decided that the town would die if it didn’t grow, so they screen potential new candidates to move into the town. The catch for moving there? Residents of the town are put under a curse by the friendly neighbourhood witch (the Black Rock Witch, aka Katherine van Wyler); once you are a resident of the town, if you leave for more than a few days, you are driven to commit suicide.
How HEX manages to go about its business is actually what makes the book a very clever blend of a traditional, centuries old witch within a modern setting. Residents have an app on their phone that they use to track the witch so that people can avoid her where possible. Internet access is limited and monitored to ensure no one is told about the witch, the fear being that tourism will attract new residents who will also be cursed. The story is put into motion when a teenaged boy and his group of friends decide that they are not okay with the rules, and begin to test them. What begins as an innocent teenage rebellion quietly slides down the slippery slope into chaos and madness as HEX loses its grip on the town.
The witch herself if really, really creepy. She is over 300 years old, and she is the spirit of a woman who was executed for being a witch. Her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, and she bares iron chains. Rumour has it that if her eyes and mouth are ever opened, the town will be destroyed and all of the townsfolk will meet a terrible end. What is almost darkly comical is the fact that the people in the town are so used to her presence that it is part of their routine. In what is now hands down one of my favourite scenes in horror literature, the witch appears in a couple’s living room, and they cover her face with a dish towel while they go about getting dinner ready while she stands motionless in the corner.
When I said this is a witch story done right, I mean it. As the witch does not see or speak, she simply provides the catalyst for people to make their choices, and as things begin to go badly for the town of Black Springs, their light and dark natures are revealed. The author has a really good grip on the human horror aspect of the story, and his style and the spirit of the book remind me a lot of Stephen King, especially Under the Dome and Pet Sematary.
What I find really interesting is that the author is Dutch, and this is a translation in which the setting has been changed to North America. However, the elements of this story that clearly have a European influence fit right in; he has made the sleepy little town a mirror image despite the fact that it is upstate New York. There is never that feeling of “culture shock” when you are reading it; the bizarre elements are right at home in Black Springs. He has also acknowledged that he changed the ending from the Dutch, but in his afterword he says he’s not telling how.
Overall, this was a unique twist on a witch story that manages to modernize it while keeping the traditional pieces that make a great sorcery tale. It never falters in the blend of the modern and the traditional. It is also a genuinely scary read, building the dread with each new piece of information you receive. I read it while staying out in the woods and every snapped twig gave me pause that night. I give it an A, and am hoping that the rest of his books will be translated sometime soon! Check out the book trailer from Hodder Stoughton on their YouTube site here…while I was reading it I thought it would make a great movie, and the book trailer definitely reinforces that thought.
Want to know what else I read this week? Tune in this week for more of my summer vacation book reviews!