Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Translated by Moshe Gilula (moshegilula.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)
Nick Grevers has a passion for climbing mountains. It’s a passion his boyfriend doesn’t share, so Nick climbs with other people while Sam Avery stays home and worries. While descending a long-planned summit, Nick and his partner spy a mountain in the distance that they’ve never noticed before, and the need to conquer it is so strong that they set off immediately. This is Le Maudit, a mountain about which they can find very little information. It’s the mountain that will end Nick Grevers’ climbing career, and Augustin Laber’s life. Nick returns from the mountain horribly mutilated, and it doesn’t take long for Sam to discover that he has brought something home with him, something that seems content to hide behind Nick’s facial bandages. For now, at least.
The mountains had bitten Nick’s face off.
As time passes, Nick seems to be getting worse instead of better and it seems that whatever he has brought back from the mountain is slowly taking control of his body, locking his consciousness away from the controls for longer and longer periods. The pair decide to head to Switzerland, to the small town of Grimentz, at the mouth of the Maudit’s secluded valley, as a kind of shock therapy. But proximity to the mountain seems to make matters worse and it isn’t long before Sam is torn between the man he loves and the unbridled power that his boyfriend’s passenger seems to promise. But as Nick’s power grows, Sam begins to realise that there is more at stake here than just his relationship with his boyfriend; much, much more.
Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt first blew the English-speaking horror community away when his novel Hex was published in translation in 2016. It has been a long wait for those of us that enjoyed his tale of witchcraft in modern day small-town America, but Echo is finally here to satisfy our thirst for more from this very talented young man, and it is definitely worth the wait. Echo introduces us to American Sam Avery and his Dutch boyfriend – the perfect specimen of man – Nick Grevers. When we meet Sam, the worst has already happened and he is en-route to Nick’s hospital bed. Heuvelt tells the story through both men’s eyes, alternating between Sam’s notes and Nick’s diary. With an ear for language that is second-to-none, he presents two distinctive voices, with their own rhythms and quirks and – most impressive, given that he’s writing in Dutch – manages to make Sam’s voice distinctly American.
There is a lot of backstory to support the events of Echo, from the history of the strange mountain at the story’s heart, to the history of the small Swiss town that has been keeping its secrets for hundreds of years and the mountain birds who play an important role in keeping those secrets. There’s an element of cosmic horror – the horror of Lovecraft and his acolytes – within the pages of this beautifully-written novel and the slow build and the drip-feed of facts leads to a very unsettling – and uncomfortable – read. There is a heavy supernatural element to the proceedings, especially as Nick begins to recall what exactly happened on the mountain and why he survived while his friend plummeted to his death, but there is also a large human element involved, as the horror unfolds around Sam and Nick and the people who are closest to them. Heuvelt hasn’t just bashed out a scary story here; part of what makes the scare so effective is understanding how it is affecting individuals, and what impact it might have on the wider world.
The author’s inspirations are easy to see, from classics like Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to more modern works like The Stand and The Exorcist. He pays homage to many of these works by using their titles as chapter names within the book, so that – as well as an excellent and highly original read – we also get a reading list to tide us over until the next translation arrives. Most important is the justice Heuvelt does to his predecessors, standing on the shoulders of giants in order to present a novel worthy of joining their ranks.
This past few years has proven to be something of a boom period for horror fiction, not that more horror is being produced – it’s a genre that, like many of its more famous denizens – toils away in the darkness, playing to a hardcore audience; but in the sense that it has been breaking into the mainstream more regularly. Perhaps the pandemic has something to do with it, making it feel much less far-fetched for people who wouldn’t normally read it. Regardless, anything that can increase the audience for the genre can only be a positive step. Thomas Olde Heuvelt is one of a small number of translated authors writing in this space, and Echo is proof (as if we needed it) that Hex was more than a fluke. His is a name I hope we’ll see more of – and more frequently, with luck – in years to come, and Echo is bound to become a classic that is mentioned in the same breath as those novels that have inspired him. Echo has everything you expect from the genre and a strong voice to tie all those elements together into a coherent whole that entertains, captivates and – most importantly – frightens in equal measure.
Heuvelt returns with a bang, following up his English language debut after a six-year hiatus. Echo is packed full of detail that grounds the story in the real world while the author asks us to believe in horrors beyond our wildest imaginings. It’s well-researched and tightly-plotted and it’s difficult to put the book down once you find its rhythm. A rare novel that leaves much of the supernatural horror to the reader’s imagination, this is the genre at its best. Thomas Olde Heuvelt continues to show promise and leaves this reader hoping that there is much more to come. If you’re looking for the next King-Lovecraft-Bradbury-Campbell-whoever, he may not exactly fit the bill but he’s a confident, entertaining writer who is one of the faces of modern horror and he brings to the table what he has learned from those past masters, combined with his own, unique flair.