Tor, 2016 (originally published 2013 in Dutch), 384 pages
Whoever is born here is doomed to stay 'til death. Whoever settles never leaves.
Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a 17th-century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children's beds for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened, or the consequences will be too terrible to bear.
The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town's teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiraling into dark, medieval practices of the distant past.
Hex was originally written in Dutch, but you wouldn't know this from the English translation, because it's a very American story, set in the fictional small town of Black Spring, New York, but surrounded by real places (Highland Falls, Newburgh, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point), all of which fit into the setting seamlessly.
Hex mixes two elements that are hard to mash together plausibly: a ghostly witch who's been haunting the town since it's earliest settlement, and modern technology. This isn't an urban fantasy with a secret supernatural world somehow being kept hidden from the mundanes, and yet it shares the same problems with those stories.
Katherine van der Wyler, the Black Rock Witch, was tried for witchcraft in the 17th century. The asshole townspeople forced her to sacrifice one of her children to save the other before they hanged her. Now she manifests corporeally in Black Rock, wandering around with her eyes and mouth stitched shut, being concealed by the townsfolk who track her with an elaborate surveillance system, and the help of the U.S. Army, which secretly set up the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a cover centuries ago. Anyone who encounters the witch, including the entire population of Black Rock, is cursed to live in Black Rock forever. They can leave, but the longer they stay away from the town, the stronger their suicidal thoughts become, until eventually all victims of the curse either return to Black Rock or stab themselves through the eyeballs with a pair of scissors. Katherine's whispers drive anyone who hears them for too long insane and suicidal.
Thus, Black Rock has become a modern town with Internet access and whose people can make trips to nearby cities, and have all the modern comforts, and they even welcome tourists where the infamous "Black Rock Witch" is an attraction (but not one they actually allow anyone to see, of course), and at the same time, they live under a set of stringent "Emergency Rules" which allow anything up to and including flogging, solitary confinement, and even death to those who threaten the town by meddling with the witch.
Of course, a generation of teenagers with access to the Internet and YouTube are going to eventually buck the rules and start meddling with the witch.
On one level, this is a supernatural horror story. On another, it's more like The Crucible, a morality tale about hysteria and paranoia and small-town small-mindedness. Of course it ends in tears, since the whole book has been teasing us with how terrible it would be if Katherine ever opens her eyes, but it turns out the witch is not the most terrible thing in Black Rock.
Most of the characters are bland and stereotypical. Pretty much everyone acts foolishly at one point or another, and on the supernatural level, I kept having those nerdy questions that genre fans have, like "Seriously, no one has ever tried this in the last 350 years?" or "The U.S. government has gone to all this effort to conceal one witch in one small town, so is this supposed to be the only place this is happening, or are there secret witches and cursed towns all over the world?"
The premise of Hex is interesting and the story is engaging as it slowly builds to its climax, with plenty of grue and horror along the way, but it will be very dated in a few years with all its topical references, and Heuvelt doesn't quite have Stephen King's knack for blending human drama with supernatural horror. A decent read, but not exceptional.
Also, the author seriously has an obsession with nipples.
Also by Thomas Olde Heuvelt: my review of The Ink Readers of Doi Saket.
My complete list of book reviews.