Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Hex has a great opening line:
Steve Grant rounded the corner of the parking lot behind Black Spring Market & Deli just in time to see Katherine van Wyler get run over by an antique Dutch barrel organ.
It's set in Black Spring, New York, which has been cursed for centuries. Idyllic on the outside, but claustrophobic and dangerous on the inside. Internet is filtered, social media is monitored, there are cameras everywhere, and rules must be followed or harsh punishments are enacted.
The Black Rock Witch keeps to herself, mostly. And as long as her eyes and mouth stay stitched shut and no one gets too close, living in her town is challenging and weird, but not necessarily deadly.
The residents do their damnedest to keep other people from moving in—once you move in, you can't leave because if you stay away too long, you'll fall into a suicidal despair—and while some factions within the federal government know about their situation, they're mostly on their own. Over the years, everything has been tried—exorcism, scientific experimentation, weaponry—but she always comes back.
And so a group of Black Spring teenagers decide to do what the adults don't have the courage or the imagination to do: they decide to go public.
There's a blurb from John Connolly on the back of the book in which he compares Hex to "vintage Stephen King," and yes, USUALLY that would make me roll my eyes. Because, for real, how often are up-and-coming or debut or new-to-the-English-market horror writers compared to Stephen King? PRETTY MUCH ALWAYS, RIGHT?
In this case, though, it's true.
Like early Stephen King, Hex deals with adolescence and generation clashes; it's set in a claustrophobic small town and has a great understanding of small town politics, relationships, long-held grudges and resentments and prejudices; it looks sideways at religious zealotry; and most importantly, it understands that human beings are far scarier than supernatural monsters. While it's dark and violent and scary, there's also a good amount of humor, especially in regards to the various ways that the residents have kept their secret hidden for all of these years:
After a heated debate, they had decided to set up a Black Spring billboard behind her and hang a banner that read: GET YOUR PICTURE TAKEN WITH THE REAL WITCH! After they pinned a button on her that said: WELCOME TO BLACK SPRING, no one believed she was real. All the children wanted to have their pictures taken with the funny lady. It turned out to be a relatively safe and especially lucrative business: All the parents gladly paid five bucks to get a shot.
It's about—among other things—how people can get used to pretty much anything; how we can find ways of justifying even the most horrifying acts; how easy it is to sit back and say nothing, to internally tell your ideals and your conscience to just... shut up.
So, you know: Kind of a downer. But that's horror for you.
Note the first: There's some sexual violence in here, and some Islamophobic language. In the case of the sexual violence, both cases are uncomfortable and awful and disgusting, but both feel necessary—especially the case that involved the witch herself. The Islamophobic language and behavior mostly comes from characters for whom it's in... er... character to be slinging around vile opinions/words, but there are also a couple of moments in which it feels like the Islamophobia is coming from the narrator. Which, gross.
Note the second: Unlike most books in translation, Olde Heuvelt did a huge amount of re-writing for this English language release—not only did he change the setting and backstory of the town and surrounding area and, to a degree, the characters, he also CHANGED THE ENDING! I did some poking around to see what the differences are, and I've got to say: It really sounds like the story changes he made were a huge improvement—I think I wouldn't have been nearly as into the finale of the Dutch version.