Several years ago, in my early years at university, I took to calling myself a witch. At the time, I did so because I considered myself Wiccan, and though I know a Wiccan may call himself or herself whatever he or she so pleases, I felt that “witch” was as good a term as any for who I was at the time. The word was also interesting in that it played at a hint of rebellion. As I have mentioned in my review of Tom Bissell’s Apostle, I have always tended to question, rather than simply accept, all the things I have ever been told about the Church, and that questioning reached its height when I entered university. And since I was also a rather angry teenager (in my own way) at the time, calling myself “witch” was satisfying not only as a label I felt I could honestly identify with, but also as an upraised middle finger at an agglomeration of conflicting concepts so flimsy it crumbled at even the lightest intellectual poke.
Nowadays, I no longer call myself a witch, nor even a Wiccan, for that matter; I feel I cannot use those words to describe my notion of faith and still be truthful about it. Nor does the word hold the same spirit of rebellion it used to for me, although I can fully understand and appreciate how it can have that kind of meaning for other people. My current (and likely continuing) interest in witches and witchcraft is associated with other things, particularly where they overlap with feminism, power, faith, and fear. After all, witches and witchcraft have occupied an interesting space in history and culture: alternately loved and hated, adored and feared.
Or perhaps more of the hatred and the fear. The 21st century might look a bit more kindly upon those who call themselves witches (in the West and strongly Westernised countries, at any rate), but even a cursory look at history shows that witches have not been treated kindly in the least. There are many historical events one could point to, but the quintessential example is the Salem Witch Trials. Many scholars have minutely studied the event, and tend to vary on their emphases on what caused the Trials to happen in the first place, ranging from the socio-psychological effects of living in a relatively isolated puritanical community to ergot poisoning. However, they tend to agree that a combination of various factors acted upon the community in the same way a glass hothouse nurtures otherwise-delicate plants; the Trials were merely a final, bloody flowering of the small, seemingly-innocuous things that came before it.
Something similar happens in Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s novel HEX. Set in a small town called Black Spring, the community is haunted by an entity known as the Black Rock Witch, who makes regular appearances around town and even in residents’ homes, at any and all hours of the day and night. Due to this, the entire town is under a perpetual lockdown of sorts: no one may talk about the witch to Outsiders, not even on the Internet, which the townspeople have access to but is heavily regulated. The town and surrounding woods are also monitored via a system of surveillance cameras: used to watch the witch’s movements, but also to observe the citizens. Despite these pressures, the people of Black Spring have managed to achieve a certain balance in their lives, and all is generally well.
But all of that is about to end. The events that created the Witch were some of the darkest in the history of Black Spring, and history is about repeat itself. The survival of the town, and its residents, hangs in the balance.
Heuvelt introduces the Black Rock Witch (properly named Katherine van Wyler) right at the beginning. She is described thusly:
…a small, shrunken woman, skinny as a rail and utterly motionless. She looked like something that didn’t belong in the clear golden light of the afternoon: dark, dirty, nocturnal.
… The dishcloth has slid off her face, and in a fraction of a second…we see that her eyes are sewn shut, and so is her mouth. It all happens so fast that it’s over before we know it, but it’s the kind of image that burns itself into your brain, not just long enough to pull us out of our comfort zone but to completely disrupt it.
Based on this image, Katherine is actually a familiar figure: her description matches closely with that of Yamamura Sadako from Ringu (The Ring), and Saeki Kayako from Ju-on (The Grudge). Considering how those two films terrified me when I watched them, it stands to reason that Katherine should terrify me as well. But it is not that Katherine physically resembles Kayako and Sadako that I find terrifying: it’s what she stands for.
Both Sadako and Kayako are examples of onryō, a type of ghost from Japanese folklore. Yokai.com’s onryō page states that onryō are driven by vengeance: they want to punish any and all people involved in their (usually painful and grisly) deaths. They are capable of laying powerful curses that can spread, like a disease, to any and all that come into contact with it – and those curses are usually attached to a specific place (though in Ringu this is stretched to include objects). Even worse, the curse continues to exist even when the onryō that cast it has been exorcised.
Whether or not Heuvelt intended it, Katherine actually fits the above characteristics of an onryō. She died under terrible circumstances; she came back as a powerful spirit that curses the place where she died; and that curse spreads to all those that come into contact with it (albeit under certain specific circumstances). Because of this, HEX could easily have become a Westernised, prose version of Ju-on, in which case I would probably just have rolled my eyes and put it aside without really finishing it.
But that’s not what it is. HEX is not just another take on popular Japanese horror films because Heuvelt does something different. Instead of focusing on the fact that Katherine exists, he instead chooses to focus on what created her in the first place – and showing how those same circumstances can repeat themselves in the present.
Much of the novel lingers on the question “What makes us civilised?” In the 21st century most people (particularly in the West) tend to think that “civilisation” is associated with altruism, generosity, mercy – in short, all the positive characteristics of our species. We also tend to believe that, in the present day, we are more altruistic, more generous, and more merciful than our predecessors in “the bad old days” – that we would not, we would never, allow ourselves to, say, be subjected to a surveillance state, or that we would treat prisoners with appropriate mercy, or that we would not persecute others without due cause. We tell ourselves those are things for the dark, wicked past, for the Inquisition and la Terreur. That is the past; we live in the present, and that darkness has no hold on us anymore.
But HEX shows us that this belief in our civilisation’s superiority is utterly false. Heuvelt foreshadows it early with the following scene, from the first chapter:
“But, seriously, Dad. Say you had two buttons in front of you, and if you push one your own child dies—moi, that is—and if you push the other a whole village in the Sudan dies, and if you don’t make a choice before the count of ten they both get pushed automatically. Who would you save?”
“It’s an absurd situation,” said Steve. “Who would even force me to make such a choice?”
“And even then, there’s no right answer. If I save you, you’ll accuse me of letting an entire village die.”
“But otherwise we all die,” Tyler insisted.
“Of course I’d let the village die and not you. How could I sacrifice my own son?”
… “What’s this report about, anyway? Our involvement in Africa?”
“Honesty,” said Tyler. “Anybody who says he would save Sudan is lying. And anybody who doesn’t want to answer is just being politically correct. We asked all the teachers and only Ms. Redfearn in philosophy was honest. And you.”
When we are confronted with a difficult choice – in this case, saving one’s child versus saving an entire Sudanese village – which one would we choose? Some might answer that they would choose the village, believing it is more “proper” to sacrifice one for the sake of the many. And yet there are others who would choose to save their child, if only because that one child is more important to them than some unknown, unseen many – and we cannot fault them for that choice, because in the 21st century we laud the deep emotional bond between parents and children. Which, therefore, is the more human, the more “civilised” choice?
The answer is that there is no “civilised” choice, not if we are to measure it by 21st century standards of what is civilised. The “civilised” answer would be to save both, but if that choice is taken away, if it is an either/or decision, there is no choice but to make a “barbaric” decision.
Heuvelt continues to assault the notion of “civility” later on in the novel, this time in a more pointed manner:
“Do you know how many basic human rights they violate with Doodletown?” Tyler remarked.
“That may well be, but you’re not dealing with a dictator here. Katherine is a supernatural evil. That renders all norms invalid and makes safety our first, second, and third concern.”
“You sound like you support it.”
“Of course I don’t. But did you ever notice what a puritanical bunch of bastards most of the people here in Black Spring are? It doesn’t matter whether I support it or not; they support it. And I’d like to see you try to refute their arguments. What else can we do?”
“Come out of the closet,” Tyler said, dead serious.
I can already hear the scoffs some readers might utter upon encountering this scene. At this point in the novel they might agree with Tyler, believing wholeheartedly that revealing the existence of Katherine to the world might be the best solution, if not the only solution, versus living in a virtual lockdown. And yet, Steven (he is the other speaker in the excerpt) has an excellent point: addressing the issue of Katherine is not exactly the same as dealing with a dictator. Would revealing her existence to the world beyond Black Spring really, actually help? Might it not lead to disaster for the entire town? Is it wrong to sacrifice an entire way of life for the sake of freedom? Or is it selfish to desire freedom when the safety of an entire town is at stake? These, and other, more complicated questions, come to the forefront as the reader progresses through the novel, but Heuvelt gives no easy answers. It is always up to the reader himself or herself to decide what he or she thinks is right – and to live with that decision.
As the reader continues encountering and renegotiating his or her understanding of Black Spring and the people that live in it, it soon becomes clear that the true evil, the true horror lying at the heart of this story, is not Katherine herself, but the fact that all our high-flown pretensions of being “better than the past” are nothing more than lies we tell ourselves so we can feel better about the world around us: a world where we commit terrible atrocities upon others for a variety of reasons, many of which are shallow and pointless. We claim we are enlightened, that we do not “judge” others without due cause, and yet we judge others all the time. We might scoff at the people of Salem, dismissing them as “stupid” or “blind” for allowing the Salem Witch Trials to happen, but in HEX, Heuvelt makes the reader ask himself or herself: am I really so different?
Overall, HEX is an excellent slow-burn of a horror novel, one that shows, through a carefully-constructed plot, that the real monster is not the Black Rock Witch, but the residents of Black Spring itself. Though they think they have distanced themselves from the past, though they believe they are far better than the original colonists who set up the town, it does not take much to strip that “civilised” veneer and show that, in the end, they are really no different from the people who created the Black Rock Witch in the first place. In doing so, Heuvelt holds a mirror up to the reader’s face and makes him or her see the monster within – the monster that lives within us all.