While it is interesting that people feel the need to explain the continued popularity of horror, my favourite account is that people choose to subject themselves to scary things as a form of vaccination. The idea being that you watch a horror film or read a horror story because that way you experience a little bit of negative emotion in what are otherwise perfectly controlled conditions. That way, when you encounter things that are legitimately scary, your brain is less likely to get overwhelmed.
The neat thing about this theory is that it also accounts for the different levels of abstraction found in horror-based media. Scary monsters might make you jump, but at the end of the day they do not exist and even if they did exist they would not really change that much about the world. Under the above theory, scary monsters are ontologically distant from the real world and so much easier to process than something like a serial killer and a serial killer is a lot easier to process than a character like the next-door neighbour in Jack Ketchum’s The Woman Next Door. The closer we get to the real, the harder the horrors are to process and the scarier they become. This also goes some way towards explaining the continued popularity of cosmic horror as even if big rubbery monsters like Cthulhu don’t actually exist, you still have to deal with the possibility that the universe is an inscrutable well of pitch-black suffering that is utterly indifferent to our existence.
Originally published in Dutch but re-published in English in 2016, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex is one kind of horror novel masquerading as another: The title and cover suggest that this is a novel about a witch but maybe that’s not what should be scaring us.
The book is set in a small town in up-state New York with the excellent name of Black Spring. Though pretty enough and quaint enough to draw in the tourist dollars Black Spring has been cursed for centuries. The inhabitants know it, and the government knows it. While the exact history of the curse remains somewhat unclear, the curse manifests itself firstly as a tide of suicidal thoughts that manifest themselves whenever the town’s inhabitants spend too much time away from home, and secondly by the figure of a witch. This witch presents herself as an old woman with chains hanging from her limbs as well as mouth and eyes that have long been sewn shut. Any attempt to interfere with the witch seems to result in people dropping dead and learning about the witch means becoming subject to her curse. Having tried to ‘deal’ with the witch in a number of different ways that all ended in failure, the US government effectively turned their back on the whole affair and left it in the hands of the locals to manage their own curse.
The town’s management of the curse is subject to a tug-of-war between two sets of interests with very different approaches to the problem: On the one hand, we have a kind of paranormal neighbourhood watch that favours a distinctly technocratic approach to managing the problem. On the other hand, we have the traditionalists on the town council who use fear and Christian rhetoric to keep everyone in line. While tensions do exist between the two groups, they manage to meet somewhere in the middle by adopting a reverent tone to the witch whilst also hiding her in plain sight. For example, whenever the witch appears in public, Hex deploys a choir of old people who a) serve as camouflage for the elderly figure of the witch and b) drive tourists away with their terrible singing.
There’s a real humour and science-fictional edge to the early sections of the book as the local residents have adapted to the realities of their curse in a number of quite amusing ways. However, while there’s something incredibly funny about the townspeople setting up a booth to let tourists have their photographs taken because the witch has suddenly decided to spend hours standing stock still in the middle of a car park, this combination of performative reverence and technocratic pragmatism does seem to be concealing some very strange ideas.
The first set of strange ideas we encounter are those of a group of teenage boys. All well-drawn and equipped with sometimes quite complex motivations, these boys spend their time conducting experiments on the witch in the hope of maybe someday making their results public in an effort to take the witch mainstream and effectively lift the curse. At first, the experiments are nothing more than a bit of fun but it soon turns out that one of the boys has somewhat violently mixed feelings about the witch and things start to spiral out of control.
The interesting thing about the witch is that while she is a fact of life and behaves in somewhat predictable ways, her motives and desires remain completely incomprehensible. When the army stepped in and tried to cut the threads binding her mouth, the witch caused a number of deaths and so all attempts to communicate with her immediately ceased. Worse than that, the villagers got it in their mind that having the witch open her eyes or mouth would result in some sort of apocalypse. There was never any evidence to support that idea, but it nonetheless remained lodged in the minds of the townspeople and soon ossified into a superstitious attachment to the status quo, a status quo that winds up getting disrupted first by the teenagers and then by a number of other villagers.
While Hex may present itself as a story about the ghost of a witch haunting a village, the book is actually about the how humanity’s natural reactions to fear, desperation, and superstition can create something far more evil than an undead witch. In truth, the witch only responds to human action at the end of the novel and even then her actions remain somewhat ambiguous. It’s not the witch that causes the town to tear itself apart; it’s just people being people resulting in a novel of brutal jet-black cynicism that I absolutely adored.
There’s a horrid directness to Heuvelt’s imagination that makes for an incredibly compelling read. This is a book that shows little trace of either the romanticism or the ambiguity that you get on the more literary end of the horror genre. Conversely, while a lot of the book’s fun lies in these fevered descents into madness and brutality, it never quite reaches the pyrotechnic nastiness of splatter-punk. Don’t get me wrong, this is a book in which horrendous things happen but they’re imbued with just enough metaphorical weight to make them uncomfortable. Black Spring is not a village full of cartoonish monsters or deformed cannibals, the people doing these things are just like us and that’s precisely where the book’s power lies. Black Spring’s un-hinged reactions to the witch breaking her patterns resonate with every folk panic and every resulting government over-step. This is not horror that’s easy to process, it’s real horror… the kind that hits home and reminds us who and what we really are.