Horror novel, written by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. The title is rendered in all-caps as "HEX." It was published in the Netherlands and Belgium in 2013 and, after translation by Nancy Forest-Flier, in the United States in 2016. The English edition of the novel moves the setting to America and changes the names of characters, but also included a somewhat different ending. As I have only read the English version of the novel, that's the one I'll review here.
The novel is set in Black Spring, New York, a small town of fewer than 3,000 people in the Hudson River Valley near West Point. On the surface, it's a perfectly normal, modern town. In truth, the town and all its residents live under a terrifying supernatural curse.
Black Spring is haunted by Katherine van Wyler, a colonial-era woman executed in 1664 and now known as the Black Rock Witch. Her arms are chained at her sides, and her mouth and eyes are stitched shut. She wanders the town on a loose schedule but periodically vanishes and appears in various locations all over town. Sometimes in the street, sometimes in backyards, sometimes in the town square, sometimes in private homes.
You do not touch the Black Rock Witch. You do not listen to what she tries to say. You do not, under any circumstances, cut open her stitches.
Residents keep track of Katherine's movements around town using a cellphone app called "HEX," named after the local security organization that keeps watch over Black Spring.
And moving away is no escape. In fact, if you live in Black Spring, you can never move away. You can make brief trips outside of town, but if you're gone for more than two or three weeks, you're overwhelmed with crippling depression and a nearly irresistible compulsion to commit suicide.
Katherine is not precisely a secret. Everyone in Black Spring knows about her. Certain government figures in West Point know about her. But beyond that, her existence is hidden as much as possible. Surveillance keeps visitors away from anywhere Katherine roams. The Internet in town is almost non-existent. The city fathers believe that if confirmation of the Black Rock Witch ever got out, the town would be swamped by the curious, by scientists, by new agers, by religious fanatics -- and eventually, one of them would decide to cut open those stitches.
The town's conservatism, fearfulness, and oppressive surveillance do not sit well with everyone, though. A group of high school students have been filming Katherine in secret, hoping to go public with their footage, partly to drag Black Spring into the 21st century, partly just to go viral.
But despite all that, Black Spring is still a normal town to live in, a safe place to live, a happy place to live.
Until everything finally goes straight to hell.
We follow a small set of main characters -- the Grant family, Steve and Jocelyn, eldest son Tyler, youngest son Matt, beloved dog Fletcher; Robert Grim, the man in charge of HEX; Griselda Holst, owner of the local deli and awkward freelance cultist -- and a few important minor characters, chiefly Jaydon Holst, teenaged troublemaker, and Colton Mathers, the dour, judgmental neo-Puritan minister who runs the town council.
And that's just about all I can say about the plot. Almost everything I could tell you would constitute a major spoiler, and there's a lot of horror and joy in this book that I'm not willing to spoil.
But I can tell you this book is filled to the top with shocking, blood-curdling terrors. There are lots of supernatural horrors -- there's the creek running red with blood, there's the footage of the doctors who snipped a single stitch from Katherine's mouth in 1967, there's the utterly eerie and horrifying fates of REDACTED and REDACTED and REDACTED, there's every single time the Black Rock Witch appears out of nowhere, looming over a panic-stricken citizen, terrified of what they might hear her whisper to them.
And there are mundane horrors, too, because this book is largely about how thin the veneer of civilization is, how quickly modern society can devolve into savagery and murder and torture, how eager seemingly normal people are to fling themselves back to medieval levels of cruelty, and how virtuous people will sacrifice everything for the worst reasons.
Heuvelt specializes in luring the reader to a point of full complacency. Everything is fine, everyone is happy, all the problems are solved -- and then pulling the rug out. The characters endure vast suffering, total destruction, degradations beyond imagining -- and the reader follows along, shocked, horrified, shivering, dreading what must come next -- and still turning the pages, because the story is just so fucking good.
This is not a book to offer easy solutions, monsters that can be gunned down, last minute rescues before the final page. This is a book that offers no hope, no good outcomes, only horrors to make the mind reel. And you'll keep reading, because you couldn't stop if you wanted to. This book horrified me and shocked me and broke my heart, it made me love its characters and hate its characters and mourn its characters, and I'm glad I read every word of it. Go pick it up, horrorhounds.