“A chilling indictment of modern society seen through the prism of ancient customs”
In this day and age, it’s difficult to conceive that anything that went on in the world, particularly in America, would be able to escape the glare of the seemingly omnipotent social media network, and on the whole you’d be right. Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s novel Hex, however, not only challenges this assumption but does so in such an interesting way that you’ll begin to wonder what else is being hidden in plain sight.
Set in the remote north-east American small town of Black Spring (not so very far from Stephen King small town country), Hex puts forward the idea that, due to a very localised curse dating back to the 17th Century, the entire town has voluntarily agreed to a complete media blackout, enforced through the use of high-tech surveillance equipment, in order to keep the existence of the Black Rock Witch from the world.
The reasoning behind this strange behaviour is simple – it’s a matter of survival. Katherine, the Black Rock Witch, is bound in chains, her eyes and mouth sewn up, and randomly appears around the town. One day she may be in the town square, the next standing in a bedroom, and while the residents are not exactly comfortably with her existence, they accept it as a part of their day to day lives. Leaving town to escape this phenomenon is impossible, as anyone who tries to get away, or even spends more than a week or so away from the town, begins to experience suicidal thoughts, and the last official attempt several decades previously to study Katherine and attempt to end the curse ended very badly for all concerned.
As a result, the residents of Black Spring are very keen not to alert the outside world to her existence, as any attempt to interfere with their uneasy coexistence with Katherine could quite literally be fatal.
However, and there’s always a however, a group of teenagers in the town have decided that they want to push the limits of their closeted existence and have set up a website called Open Your Eyes that chronicles the Witch in a series of weblogs and video clips. Created by Tyler Grant, the existence of the site is known only to five teens, and is never accessed from within Black Spring due to the impressive security protocols kept in place by council member Robert Grim, who, while not exactly enamoured by the fastidious way that the town sticks to ancient customs, respects the need for them and reluctantly helps to enforce them.
Inevitably, one of the teens, Jaydon Holst, goes too far and the uncomfortable truce between Katherine and the town is stretched to breaking point, and herein lies the crux of Heuvelt’s story. Though effectively existing in a high tech prison of their own making, as events begin to spiral out of control the townsfolk succumb to human nature and the lengths that they go to in order to preserve their secret and repair the damage is a chilling indictment of modern society seen through the prism of ancient customs.
The parallels with King go further than the small town setting, with Hex feeling like a distant relative of Needful Things as one event leads to another and Black Spring begins to unravel. Events occur that are repulsive, horrific and yet uncomfortably familiar from the news and while the first two acts are relentless in cranking up the fear and tension surrounding Katherine, the third act becomes a terrible descent into human nature that compels the reader to keep turning the pages, like being strapped into a runaway car without brakes hurtling down a steep mountain slope.
The premise of witches and curses is nothing new, of course, but in grafting these familiar tropes to the modern world of surveillance and social media Heuvelt has created an original hybrid that might just become a modern classic. Hex is a dark novel, at times graphic and disturbing but never less than captivating and will draw the reader in, ensuring that like the residents of Black Spring they are unable to pull away until the grimly satisfying end.
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Release Date: 28 April 2015
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