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by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Tor, $15.99, 384pp
Published: April 2017

This is a fascinating horror novel, for many reasons, only one of which is that it was initially written and published in Dutch, then translated into English by someone other than the bilingual author, who edited it and found his own voice in a language other than his own. It's not quite the same novel either, as some things were changed beyond the story's physical translation from Beek in the Netherlands to New Beeck in the US. I haven't read the Dutch original but the author's acknowledgements include a statement that he ditched the original ending and replaced it with a much scarier one.

These acknowledgements also highlight that, even though the initial influence was in 'The Witches', both Roald Dahl's original novel and the later Hollywood film adaptation, the most fundamental element is the 'utter Dutchness of the book':

'If a sane person sees a disfigured seventeenth-century witch appear in a corner of the living room, he runs for his life. If a Dutch person sees a disfigured seventeenth-century witch appear in a corner of the living room, he hangs a dishcloth over her face, sits on the couch, and reads the paper.'

And this is the heart of the story. This particular witch is Katherine van Wyler, the Black Rock Witch, who is such an inherent part of contemporary life in Black Spring that she's often regarded as Gramma K. She probably arrived in 1647 when the town was Dutch and called New Beeck, but historical documents are patchy. Of course, folk at the time were prone to superstition and van Wyler was an easy target: a single mother living alone in the woods who had left the church. So they sentenced her to death as a witch, on the flimsy grounds that her nine-year-old son is alive: it was said that he had died of smallpox and she'd buried him in the woods, then raised him from the dead. After she confessed under torture, they forced her to kill her 'resurrected' son or they'd kill him and her daughter as well. Then she was hanged.

Things are quiet thereafter, with this odd woman out of the way, though the Munsee, the local tribe, left the area, claiming that the woods are now 'contaminated'; well, quiet until 1713, when the English move in to New Beeck and rename it to Black Spring. Now things start to happen: suicides, murders, madness. One murderess, a midwife, said that a woman from the woods forced her to make a choice and kill one of the children in her care; she couldn't, so killed all eight of them. And a month later, the elders of the church went into the woods, found a 'possessed woman', sewed her eyes and mouth shut and chained her body. All of them promptly died but the town was saved and no further deaths occur.

But... and here's the catch, Katherine van Wyler, for of course she was the 'possessed woman', never left. She haunts Black Spring with emphasis, appearing every day. She follows a set routine of movements for part of the day, then manifests herself randomly around the town for the rest of it, looking ominous but not doing anything except just standing there and whispering through the stitches. She could be out in the woods for an hour, then stand by your bedside for the night, then appear right in the middle of town during the day.

This is a great setup for a horror novel, but Heuvelt doesn't write the one we might expect, because he's starting from that 'utter Dutchness'. The townsfolk simply get used to her presence, adapting their lives to it. They've learned the rules over the centuries. Attempt to damage or destroy her? Well, she vanishes, unharmed, but people around immediately die. Just leave town? You'll last maybe a week before suicidal thoughts take hold and you either kill yourself or come back home. Try to cut her stitches open, to find out what she's whispering? That way lies calamity.

So, Black Springs has become a sort of open prison. The townsfolk live out their lives just like the rest of the world, except they don't leave town for more than a day or two at a time, they deter newcomers who would be unable to leave after experiencing Gramma K for the first time, and they keep the witch hidden from outsiders, while playing up the 'legend' just in case she's seen. This latter is where HEX comes in, as that's the special security team in town. They have surveillance cameras up everywhere and maintain IT solutions to ensure that they always know where the Black Rock Witch is, then mask her presence with a collection of the banal. And they enforce the severe rules of the Council that deal with anyone who might try anything unwise.

This is a fantastic approach. Heuvelt doesn't have a paranormal investigator come into town to solve the problem; he just highlights that that approach doesn't work. He doesn't have a journalist hear about the story and generate chaos through an investigation. The only people he has come in are a couple who get past HEX's attempts at deterrence and buy a house in Black Springs; Gramma K appears in their bedroom during a rather personal moment and now they're part of the curse. Heuvelt stays internal; he builds the mindset of the town magnificently and explores how it and the people in it would function in this scenario. Then he has the youth stir things up because they still young enough to know everything.

There's a lot here in which to immerse ourselves and we almost feel like we're townsfolk ourselves by the time everything inevitably comes down. Many critics and readers have echoed John Connolly's quote that this is 'reminiscent of vintage Stephen King', though King himself is quoted on the cover saying that 'HEX' is 'totally, brilliantly original.' While I'm not King's greatest fan, I think this comparison is valid. What King does better than anything else is to document the little rituals of American life, especially as performed by children as they come of age; he conjures up something odd and usually horrific and extrapolates how people would react to it given the rules of their society, culture and timeframe.

And that's exactly what Heuvelt does here, although he abstracts a little from mainstream Americana by isolating this town for a few centuries and sprinkles fewer American brand names throughout his prose. My biggest problem with King is that I grew up in another country and so don't recognise or understand many of his rituals or references. Heuvelt is more accessible and more universal, even as he attempts to do precisely what King does so well: grounding his characters in a well-drawn culture, defining the rules that govern all that they do and then exposing the wounds in society to see how that shakes everything up. Heuvelt's concept also lends itself to an easy and enticing grounding in history.

For all the talk of 'HEX' being Heuvelt's debut novel, it's only his debut novel in English; it was his fifth in Dutch and it was revised during translation. In between its 2013 publication in Holland and its 2016 release in the States, Heuvelt racked up four major award nominations: three Hugos and one World Fantasy Award, with a Hugo win for the short story, 'The Ink Readers of Doi Saket'. Clearly, we're going to be seeing a lot more from Heuvelt and it's not surprising. This is mature writing, with a set of themes neatly woven into the prose, multiple subplots that each contribute to the whole and that blistering new ending.

Its most obvious success, though, is in the way it's able to play seemingly disparate elements against each other: the supernatural with our modern technology, the timeless with the contemporary, privacy and secrecy with wide surveillance. That sort of talent bodes really well for the future and I look forward to the inevitable translations of his earlier Dutch novels, along with whatever he's going to write next. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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