Hex – A Book Review

The premise: a phantom witch, her lips and eyes sewn shut, haunts the small town of Black Spring. Read Paul Miller's review of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s HEX.

A staff recommendation drew me to HEX. You know, the little handwritten notes posted alongside certain books in bookstores. The note and the sombre jacket of this book encouraged me to buy it. HEX is an easy read but I have mixed feelings about it. The premise is engaging: a phantom witch, her lips and eyes sewn shut, haunts the small town of Black Spring. She pops up at random, sometimes in the woods, sometimes in a living room, sometimes at the side of a bed — the sleepy occupants move to the sofa downstairs, waiting for her to vanish again. Condemned as a witch in a bygone era, Katherine van Wyler is Black Spring’s big secret. The town is shaped by the cast iron rule that the secret does not get out. Black Spring’s HEX committee follow Katherine’s visitations in a sort of war room for the paranormal, and the town itself hides the witch in plain sight, playing her up as harmless local superstition to the outside world. Neighbouring communities visit Black Spring, ignorant to the real threat. People drop down dead if she is displeased.

The author, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, is Dutch and HEX, not his first novel, was originally published in different form in the Netherlands. With translated fiction it is sometimes difficult to know where the author’s voice ends and that of the translator’s begins. Conveniently, Heuvelt provides a note in HEX that explains its genesis. Fluent in several languages, he rewrote the novel for the English market when the international rights were sold. (Nonetheless, a translator, Nancy Forest-Flier, is credited on the edition I hold.) He admits to it being a very different book, having transposed the Dutch village setting of the original to a town outside New York, and adding several new scenes, including the entire cataclysmic final act – the weakest point of the novel in my opinion.

The concept is great and the HEX app a wonderful idea: Black Spring residents use it to monitor the witch’s whereabouts on their mobile phones. It doesn’t hold up to close analysis, of course. Could a whole town keep a secret this fantastic in an age of, say, HEX apps? (A recent age: Obama is vying for Presidency.) But this isn’t the problem. Hex was a shorter book in its original form. Heuvelt has had the good sense not to jettison his roots entirely and makes Black Spring a former Dutch colony, tied with references to the folklore and superstitions of its past. The let-down comes with the overblown prose and the increasing sense that the author is winging it. The writing is a little too loose. Breathless set-piece falls on breathless set-piece, which, for this reader, has a debilitating effect. A shame. I feel I would have really liked the original.

HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.
Translated into English by Nancy Forest-Flier. Hodder and Stoughton, 2016.

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