Thomas Olde Heuvelt (www.oldeheuvelt.com)
Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier (jimandnancyforest.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
The town of Black Spring lies on the banks of the Hudson River, close to the military academy at West Point. It looks like any other small town, but its residents are hiding a terrible secret from the rest of the world: the legend of a curse, and of a centuries-old witch that still haunts the town is real. As Robert Grim and HEX – whose sole purpose is to keep Katherine van Wyler’s existence hidden from the outside world – work to keep the town’s secret, a small group of teenagers, led by Tyler Grant, are looking for ways to make her existence public. But they have no idea of the consequences of their actions, because Katherine van Wyler has been relatively sedate for their lifetime. That period of peace is about to come to a horrifying end.
Everyone lives in a town with a history, a story about a lingering spirit who pops up from time to time and scare the bejeezus out of some random passer-by. In this respect, the fictional town at the centre of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut novel is no different from anywhere else. What sets it apart though, is the fact that the ghost – in this case a four hundred-year-old witch – is a normal part of everyday life, seen walking the streets, or randomly appearing in the kitchen of the family next door. All of the residents of Black Spring have come to understand this, and to know the rules, laid down in a law that is as old as the witch herself: don’t speak to the witch; don’t touch the witch; and whatever you do, don’t cut the stitches that bind her eyes and mouth closed. It’s a set of rules that has served the town well for centuries, and with the help of HEX and the high-tech surveillance system that covers the entire town, they have managed to keep the fact of her existence contained to the people who live in the town.
It’s a neat background, which Olde Heuvelt lays out in the first handful of pages – no waiting around for the ghouls to appear with this author – and which he builds upon as the story progresses. There are reasons why the residents of this small town continue to live here under the constant threat of Katherine’s wrath, chief amongst them the strange sense of despair that comes over people when they have been outside the town’s boundaries for more than, say, normal working hours; a despair that is so intense that suicide often seems like the only way out. It’s interesting to watch the lengths HEX will go to in order to keep outsiders from moving into the town, because the moment you become a resident, there is no going back.
The story centres around the Grant family, specifically father Steve and oldest son Tyler, and presents us with two different sides to the argument of whether the witch’s existence should be revealed to the wider world. Steve, a blow-in who has lived in Black Spring for almost twenty years, has experienced first-hand the despair that distance from the town brings, and was also present for the most recent explosion of Katherine’s wrath, so he knows why the precautions are in place, but is also aware of the horror with which he has unintentionally burdened his two sons. Tyler is the typical teenager who sees little more than constant surveillance and restrictions not only on what he can and cannot access on the Internet, but also on whether his out-of-town girlfriend can stay over for the night. Blinded by the certainty that he is right, his actions – the secret website, the pranks he and his friends play on the witch – are a disaster waiting to happen. Enforcing the secrecy, and fighting a constant losing battle against the town’s mayor, is Robert Grim, head of HEX. Grim is a pragmatic man who understands exactly what he is up against, but who is powerless to do anything about it beyond the precautions that he has already put in place.
Katherine van Wyler herself is one of the most compelling supernatural creations you’ll find in modern fiction. Dressed in Seventeenth Century garb, she wanders the town, sometimes following the same route on the same days, sometimes appearing somewhere entirely at random. The town’s surveillance system and the HEXApp mobile phone app allow the town to keep a constant eye on her location. Her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, and she makes a constant mumbling sound which, it is said, is enough to drive anyone who gets close enough to hear what she is saying to their own death. She is, in short, as frightening as any ghost, ghoul or monster you have come across before, and the image of her sewn-up face is one that will haunt the reader long after the book is done.
Olde Heuvelt, despite writing the novel in his native Dutch, gives the book a real small-town American feel. The people that we meet are characters we feel comfortable with, characters that feel familiar while still retaining their own vitality, their own unique attributes. The book that sprang immediately to mind while I was reading HEX was Stephen King’s Needful Things: King’s trick of welcoming the reader into Castle Rock and introducing them to the key players is one that Olde Heuvelt uses to great effect here while introducing us to Black Spring. The key to a successful horror story – by which I mean one that actually frightens us, or makes us feel uncomfortable in our own familiar surroundings – is a good understanding of what gets under people’s skin. It’s the reason that much so-called horror fiction falls flat, or turns to gore and violence to elicit a reaction from the audience. That’s not a concern here: Olde Heuvelt has an excellent grasp on both what it is, and how best to deploy it within the story to really get our attention.
HEX reads like the work of a much more mature and developed author, so it’s a surprise to discover that it is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut. Tension and horror combine to make this a story that is impossible to put down, as the deepening sense of unease suddenly flares into all-out shivers that run the length of your spine. Wonderfully written – and presented here in an excellent translation by Nancy Forest-Flier – and perfectly-judged, HEX is old-fashioned horror with a modern-day twist done right. It’s a story that will stay with you long after the lights have gone out, and places Thomas Olde Heuvelt high on this reader’s must-read list.