HexBy THOMAS OLDE HEUVELT (Tor; 2013/16)

One of the most unexpected surprises of 2016 was this altogether odd and unpredictable horror thriller from the Netherlands.  It was apparently revised for its American publication, with a new ending that author Thomas Olde Heuvelt claims is better than the original.  Obviously I haven’t read that original version, and so can’t say how the two books compare, but I can say that this particular text is quite strong.

The setting is Black Spring, an upstate New York town (apparently a Dutch village in the book’s original version) haunted by the specter of Katherine van Wyler, a woman who back in the 17th Century was tortured and executed as a witch in the land that became Black Spring—where her ghost, appearing as the old woman she was with eyes and mouth sewn shut (there were attempts made in past years to unsew the ghost-Katherine’s orifices that apparently didn’t go well), has remained ever since, roaming the town and turning up unannounced in peoples’ houses.

HEX, a high-tech control center, has been set up to monitor Katherine’s doings and keep her hidden from the rest of the world.  HEX also functions as Black Spring’s very own Big Brother, keeping tabs on its citizenry and making sure they stay within the town limits, as by residing in Black Spring one becomes a part of Katherine’s “curse.”

Black Spring, however, is about to go haywire.  A group of troublemaking teenagers, understandably dissatisfied with the cloistered existence forced on them by HEX, decide to rebel—and in extremely reckless and violent fashion.  This has the effect of making Black Spring’s connections with its less enlightened past horrifyingly apparent, resulting in stoning, public flogging and a toxic atmosphere of suspicion and persecution.  Worst of all, Katherine’s spirit becomes quite agitated, and grows more actively involved with the flesh-and-blood people among whom she walks…

The novel is quite absorbing despite the fact that its American setting is never entirely convincing.  The disarmingly matter-of-fact manner in which the people of Black Spring deal with the ghostly presence in their midst is, as the author admits in a nonfiction afterward, a very Dutch attribute.  Likewise, I’d add, is the at-times over-the-top sentimentality displayed in passages like the one in which a teenage boy has a crying fit in front of his father, who cradles him like a baby (summed up by the line “What could have been less perfect than the intimate embrace of a father and son?”), which doesn’t strike me as very American.

But those things aside, HEX is a terrific read regardless of one’s nationality.  It’s one of the few recent novels that succeeds in effectively marrying ancient superstition and modern technology, with the internet and streaming video playing major parts in the narrative.  It’s good enough, in fact, that I’m nearly tempted to excuse the novel’s most grievous flaw: the fact that it, like so many modern horror novels, is around 100 pages too long!