In a recent post, I covered various instances of mob scenes in literature, film and television. That entire list, however, is outnumbered by the number of examples of angry-villager activity found in Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s extraordinary novel Hex.
Heuvelt’s story originates in an act of awful Othering–the persecution of an accused witch. In 1664, Katherine van Wyler is forced (upon threat at having her daughter killed) to murder the son she is believed to have resurrected from the dead. Katherine is then forced to hang herself, but her ignominious death will make life miserable for people for centuries thereafter. The witch continues to haunt the town of Black Spring with her posthumous presence, teleporting all over the place–sometimes right into residents’ bedrooms, where she might loom unnervingly for days. An early attempt (by a group of church elders) to curtail Katherine’s menace by wrapping her body in chains and sewing her eyes and mouth shut hasn’t done much improve Black Spring’s cursed condition. Any resident who lingers outside town borders for too long plummets into the blackest pit of despair and is plagued by a mounting desire to commit suicide. Within Black Spring, the townspeople dare not try to attack Katherine, who emits a “freak energy when she’s under great physical or emotional distress” that causes innocent citizens in the vicinity to drop dead. Worse still, the people of Black Spring have to work unceasingly to conceal Katherine’s existence from the world at large, for fear of an influx of curious Outsiders and an incautious snipping of the witch’s stitches. The dread is that if Katherine’s evil eye is free to wander, and if her lips are able to articulate spells, the entire populace will die. This unrelenting fear causes Black Spring to shackle itself with iron laws:
The only thing that made the situation in Black Spring manageable–survivable, as some claimed–was that Black Spring was an indoctrinated commune. The townsfolk lived according to strict rules because they believed in those rules and adopted them without question. Children took in the commandments of the Emergency Decree with their mothers’ milk: Thou shalt not associate with the witch. Thou shalt not say a word about her to people on the outside. Thou shalt comply with the visitor regulation. And the mortal sin: Thou shalt, never, under any circumstances, open the witch’s eyes. These were rules prompted by fear, and Steve knew that fear invariably led to violence. He’d seen plenty of blank, pale little faces with black-and-blue patches and swollen lips on the playground of Black Rock Elementary in earlier years, faces of children who had spilled the beans with friends or cousins from out of town and had been beaten until they were fully reprogrammed according to their parents’ example.
The perennial pressure of dealing with a “paranormal time bomb” has doubtless taken a toll on the town, and their are plenty of early indications of Black Spring’s civic instability and penchant for harsh intolerance. Back in 1932, when a group of laid-off tree-farm workers threatened to blow the whistle about Katherine unless they were awarded new employment, the “town took a vote to set an example for other blackmailers. They were publicly flogged and killed by firing squared in the town square.” The town’s annual Halloween celebration includes a Wicker Woman burning and mock tests in which a declared young “witch” is “chased around by a group of pitchfork brandishing actors form Black Spring dressed in seventeenth century rags.” More seriously, when Arthur Roth (a mentally unstable resident who was imprisoned for talking about exposing Katherine) ends up beaten to death, Black Spring votes to get rid of the dead body by burying it anonymously. One citizen, Pete VanderMeer, vehemently opposes the idea: “Come on, people, we’re not barbarians, are we? If we go down that road, we’re one step away from a lynch mob.”
That step appears even closer to being taken in a subsequent town meeting, in which a group of Black Spring teens who threw stones at Katherine are charged with brazen violation of the Emergency Decree. Outraged citizens in attendance act “like a rioting street mob,” shouting out impetuous suggestions such as “Let’s throw stones at ’em till they’re dead!” The teens are spared that fate, but hardly get off easy, being sentenced to lashes by a cat-o’-nine-tails in a public ceremony in the town square. “The impulse to point the finger, to assign a scapegoat,” which has marked the town from the very beginning here gives rise to a sadistic scene born of “collective madness.”
From here, the novel spirals toward a literally-riotous climax, as an orgy of irrational violence erupts after the witch’s eyes are unsealed. Armed with “kitchen knives, hammers, baseball bats, and guns” the fear-stricken citizens of Black Spring proceed to raise hell and raze buildings. I won’t go into further (spoiling) detail here, but will just mention that one of the book’s main characters is subjected to a spectacularly gruesome lynching.
This English-language translation/revision of Heuvelt’s novel, which transplants the setting from a small Dutch village to a town in New York’s Hudson Valley, proves an exemplary work of American Gothic fiction. The book boldly rewrites American history, positing that West Point was actually established to help keep the supernatural situation in nearby Black Spring under cover. Heuvelt also conflates historical eras, censuring Black Spring’s “puritanical soul” as the town is “catapulted back into the seventeenth century.” Hex makes for one horrific read, not just because of its spooky witch figure, but because of its demonstration of how quickly modern civilization can revert to savagery.