After a long day at work, university lecturer Stefan de Graaf returns to his home in the sleepy Dutch town of Beek, kisses his wife and sits down at the kitchen table. The wife tells him Grandma K has come to visit. They laugh and talk about their day. In a corner of the living room stands a silent woman, dressed in rags and chains, smelling of decay. Her eyes and mouth have been sewn shut. The wife has hung a dish towel over the head so she won’t have to look at the face.
This is the wonderfully creepy beginning of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, which focuses on Beek and its witch, Katharina van Wyler. In the late middle ages, Katharina was burned as a witch and since that time, she’s haunted Beek. The residents have learned to deal with her: there are cameras everywhere and they send each other the witch’s locations through their own Hex app. A loyal group of volunteers keeps Katharina hidden from outsiders; when she walks across the town square a group of chattering retirees will surround her and when she appears on top of the balcony of the town’s hotel, a curtain is artfully draped around her.
Yet the residents live in perpetual fear of angering Katherina. An attempt to take the wire ouf ot her eyes and mouth left several people dead, and those close enough to hear the whispers coming from the corner of Katherina’s mouth inevitably commit suicide – as will those who try to leave Beek permanently. Internet access is tightly controlled for fear of attracting publicity and the town’s domineering senior councillor will send any violators of the town’s emergency ordinance into a special jail below the church. Corporal punishment is not eschewed. Fed up with the status quo, a group of teenagers tries to find a way to get rid of the witch – with disastrous results.
There’s something to be said for the way Hex starts its story. People go about their small-town lives where everyone has a fixed role and things never change. They gingerly crack jokes about Katherina then go about their day. Yet there’s an undercurrent of fear that runs through them and it’s not long before things go awry. The local creek bleeds. People gossip. Animals panic and die. The town looks for a scapegoat.
In the epilogue, Olde Heuvelt giddily admits that he took his inspiration from the works of medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch. He didn’t need to let me know: I figured it out by myself, both because of the novel’s oddly old-fashioned language (I have no idea whether that was done on purpose or how well it translates, but either way, it works) and because the novel lacks subtlety. The conclusion (which Olde Heuvelt rewrote; the version I read is apparently the third one) is a little heavy handed and not nearly as clever as the author seems to think. It’s also needlessly cruel in its assessment of small town workings, though he’s not wrong either.
There’s a misantropic current that runs through the book that I didn’t entirely care for and yeah, sure, the book is creepy-not-terrifying, but nevertheless I quite enjoyed it. It’s well-written. The mix between old-fashioned witch and the new technology with which she’s kept – barely – under control is well thought out. Some of the characters are a little heavy-handed, but most of them are, at the very least, credible. Most importantly, there’s a sense of foreboding and dread that sucks you in and keeps you hooked, and heavy-handed or not, it delivers.
Note: I read the Dutch edition of the book. The English translation is set in the Hudson Valley and I have no idea which of the two endings it uses. It does come with a recommendation from Stephen King, which doesn’t surprise me.