Horror in any form is always subjective because what is horrifying to me may not be frightening to someone else. I think that’s why there is such diversity within horror – after all, anything can become scary if given the right context and circumstances. Personally, I love the horror genre because it’s an excellent way to work out your own fears in a controlled and safe way, and it also gives me an interesting perspective on the nature of fear and humanity. We are all a jumble of fears, memories, associations, and experiences that are uniquely specific to each of us……and yet, there are universal fears that cross gender, race, ethnicity, nationality and language. I think that’s why I loved this book, Hex, so much, because it takes the universal fear of the witch and marries it to the concept of mob mentality, entwines the medieval mayhem of witch trials with modern-day technology and social media and gives us one of the more unsettling and genuinely creepy stories I’ve read in ages.
The original book was written in Dutch and set in the Netherlands, with this translation being set in upstate New York State in a small town called Black Spring. The small town itself is pretty stereotypical, with the mayor, the town council, the preacher, the town doctor, the widow, except that this town has its own, bona-fide witch that just shows up randomly in houses, bedrooms, businesses, streets, fields and scares the bejesus out of everyone who sees her. With elements of The Blair Witch Project and Pet Sematary – the only movie and the only book that have ever genuinely scared the shit out of me – Hex is an excellent and harrowing read.
To make it worse, once an Outsider has seen Katherine the witch, that person is damned to stay forever in Black Spring or be haunted with overpowering thoughts of suicide which eventually kill them. The town, having suffered this haunting since the witch – Katherine – was murdered 300 years prior, has developed elaborate security systems, tracking systems and volunteer systems designed to keep track of the witch, let residents know where she is, and gives the town council the authority to essentially do as it pleases to residents who engage with the witch, acknowledge the witch to Outsiders and basically control the town under the guise of controlling the haunting.
It’s a fascinating premise, taking the ubiquitous use of technology, surveillance, the Internet and social media and combining it with the timeless concept of witchcraft. And like the witch trials from hundreds of years ago that were fueled by and fed on mob mentality, here too the idea of a mob of terrified residents fanning the flames of destruction is taken to the next level. I suppose the lesson in this book is that, no matter how much 21st-century technology we throw at this medieval problem, ultimately we as human beings haven’t changed much, if at all. We are still controlled by our own fears, by mob rule, we are still primitive creatures of instinct no matter how much we believe we have evolved into sensible, moral human beings. Just because we have GoPro cameras, smartphones, iPads, high-tech security cameras and semi-automatic weapons doesn’t make us more highly evolved. In fact, I think you could argue, in this case certainly, that the use of and dependence on technology makes the situation not only far worse but escalates it horrifyingly.
The story starts off relatively harmlessly, with four town teenagers using cameras, iPhones and YouTube channels to document their sightings of Katherine and essentially to try and fuck with her. It’s out of boredom as much as frustration with the rules about not engaging with the witch, not recording the witch, and the secrecy that surrounds her haunting of this town. Tyler, Baruk, Lawrence and Jaydon have been secretly recording the haunting appearances of Katherine, in all her horrifying glory with her stitched-up eyes and mouth and arms chained to the sides of her body, but that soon goes awry when Jaydon, who has always been a bully and whose abuse at the hands of his dead father (killed by Katherine at the egging on of Griselda, Jaydon’s mother) has turned him into just as much of a monster. Katherine soon goes rogue due to Jaydon brutally attacking her with a knife and with rocks, but it’s the townspeople and their collective medieval mob mentality that are ultimately the greater horror than the witch ever could be.
I will warn you that it gets into some dark territory as time goes on. Child death, animal death, and some pretty gruesome physical violence are concepts that are terrible enough in real life, and this book incorporates them very well as essential parts of the plotline. But if you’re triggered by such things, be warned. And the ending is very dark and bleak. Overall I was put in mind of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, as several themes from that book are essential to Hex’s plot, though IMHO, this book has more of a sense of humor and takes itself far less seriously.
The town has tried to take the haunting and make it as tolerable as possible, both for residents and for Outsiders who don’t know any better. One way they’ve done this is to hold a Halloween festival each year that celebrates the burning of the witch with the immolation of a life-sized figure into which residents stuff items that have negative connotations, the idea being that they will burn the negative energy along with the symbolic destruction of the witch herself. Griselda, the butcher’s widow, runs a local butcher shop and herself contributes the head of a calf to the burning before opening up her shop and selling food to the locals and tourists alike who take place in this gruesomely satirical festival.
The kitchen of Griselda’s Butchery Delicacies was a hive of activity that morning. Griselda had hired six extra people to get her traditional goodies delivered to the food stand on the town square on time: potato salad, tapas, roasted meat on the spit, special green witch’s stew (pea soup with meatballs) served from a real copper kettle, and of course, large plates of Griselda’s own sour Holst pate.
Pea soup with meatballs is maybe not the most summery dish in the world, but it was intriguing to me as I’ve never thought of adding meatballs to pea soup. I do love a good split pea soup, but being that it’s been 100 degrees each day this past week, the last thing I wanted to to was turn on the stove. So, my trusty slow cooker Crock-Pot came out of summer retirement to do duty. It worked wonderfully well. I was inspired by Barak’s character in the book and his Muslim family to give this soup a Middle Eastern twist, so I did Persian pea and rice soup with lamb and pork meatballs. Yum!
6 baby carrots
3 ribs of celery
6 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup dried split peas
1 cup each of fresh cilantro, fresh mint and fresh parsley
4 cups chicken stock
2 cubes of chicken bouillon
Salt and pepper
1/2 lb ground lamb
1/2 lb ground beef
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup soft goat cheese
1/2 cup fresh mint
1/2 cup fresh parsley
Finely mince the onion, garlic, carrots and celery, and heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the cinnamon and turmeric, and saute the onion and garlic in this mixture for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent.
In a Crock-Pot, add the chopped carrot and celery, then pour in the dried split peas and the fresh chopped herbs. Add in the sauteed garlic and onion, cover with the chicken stock, and cook on high for about 7 hours, stirring occasionally and checking for texture.
At the 7-hour mark, add in the rice, re-cover and let the rice swell and cook in the pea soup. This will also thicken the soup as the rice absorbs liquid.
In a mixing bowl, combine the lamb, ground beef, egg, breadcrumbs, fresh mint and cilantro, and the scallions. Mix together with your hands before adding the goat cheese and mixing again.
Form small meatballs with your hands by taking a spoonful of the meat mixture and rolling. Refrigerate the raw meatballs for about 45 minutes.
One meatball at a time, add into the piping hot pea soup and cover. Let the meatballs cook for about 30 minutes before serving.
I made some pomegranate molasses by reducing pomegranate juice and a teaspoon of sugar in a small pan until it thickened, and garnished the soup with this ruby-red reduction, but the soup is equally good served by itself. It’s wonderful! The mint, cilantro, parsley, cinnamon and turmeric give it a unique flavor that elevates a traditional split pea soup into something truly delicious, and the lamb-beef meatballs with goat cheese are moist and tender. Overall, a keeper and something even a witch might not turn up her nose at. Enjoy!