Review: Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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Hex
Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Publisher: Luitingh Sijthoff
Publishing year: 2013
Pages: 352
ISBN:  9789024560257
Language: Dutch
Genre: horror
Rating: 4/5

This is the 2013 version, which has a different ending compared to the 2016 version. For folks who aren’t Dutch: this version also takes place in the Dutch village Beek rather than the American Black Spring.

With these technicalities out of the way, let’s go to my very first review.

I’m a bit of a coward when it comes to horror. Movies, video games…it takes me a great deal of courage to watch or play anything that’s scary. Interestingly, I do not have the same problem with books. Though the imagination can make matters infinitely scarier and more gruesome, I do enjoy scary books from time to time. The more tension, the better. With the recent hype around Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, I grew curious about a horror story taking place so close to home (relatively speaking; Beek is still on the other side of the country for me). With Halloween approaching, I felt this would be a good choice.

The small village of Beek suffers from a curse: Katherina van Wyler, otherwise known as the Wylerheks (Wylerwitch) haunts the village’s inhabitants who are unable to leave. Her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, and what whispering the witch is able to produce leads her unfortunate listeners to commit suicide. She wanders through the village and the nearby forest, enters people’s houses to stand silently at their beds or dinner tables, seemingly awaiting the moment she’s able to finally take revenge. The residents of Beek go to great lengths to keep her a secret from the outside world, but considering this is a horror novel: the proverbial shit is going to hit the fan eventually.

What I found especially interesting about this novel was the use of social media and smart phones, which largely contrasts with the medieval element of the Wylerwitch. The residents of Beek use social media and modern technology to keep track of the witch’s whereabouts, partly to make sure she won’t be discovered by outsiders. I also found the way the residents dealt with the witch in the beginning remarkable. Making jokes, throwing a towel over her face, putting up lines with laundry around the witch to keep her hidden from visitors…it almost felt like a display of the typical Dutch practicality.

How wrong I was…

As the story progresses, Hex shows its true colors. The witch herself doesn’t even do a whole lot, but it’s the threat that people perceive her to be that proves to be far more dangerous. The evil does not stem from Katherina van Wyler, but from humanity itself. From human hysteria, the choices of flawed human beings made out of either fear or hate or even love. It’s because of this that we eventually get that disturbing ending which my co-worker described as reminscent of Dante’s Inferno (which I haven’t read yet, so I can only assume she’s right, but I can surely see why she would say this).

Hex also reminded me of Stephen King’s work, but in a good way. Though King’s novels often have a supernatural threat, they are also about the evil stemming from humanity. Moreover, King’s novels contain that feeling of watching a train that’s going to crash eventually, except the magnitude of the wreck wasn’t something you had anticipated. Hex was the same way; you could see that the situation would escalate eventually, and that tension of what exactly was going to happen was present all over the course of the book.

The novel has a few downsides, however. One of them were the characters. Though I could understand the motivations of the ‘main’ family, especially of Timo and Stefan, some other characters such as Jelmer or his mother Gemma (or even ‘good’ characters such as Grim) were a bit flat. I felt there was a little too much of a dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters, and I think some nuances in their characterization could have made them more interesting. Another point against the book was that ending: even after a couple of weeks I don’t really know what to feel about it. It was disturbing and unexpected, yes, but I also felt it was a little over-the-top. This might be why Olde Heuvelt has revised the ending, but as I haven’t checked out the 2016 version yet I can only speculate. Still, the decision Stefan made at the end, though flawed and even unsatisfying, was an interesting one, so it also contained an intriguing element.

Either way, there were definitely some creepy scenes and tense moments that kept me at the edge of my seat. Even with the downsides and the comparison to Stephen King, Hex is still worth checking out — especially if you enjoy Stephen King’s novels.  Olde Heuvelt has included elements – the dichotomy of modern technology and elements of medieval horror and practices – that, along with the commentary about hysteria and human fallibility, that made Hex a bit different from most horror novels I’ve read.

I’m really curious about the other ending. Has anyone read the new 2016 version? If so, how did you feel about it? I plan to read the new version some time next year. I might even write a separate review about that one.

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