Hex: Two Versions of a Witch Tale
Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Adapted and translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
Hodder & Stoughton, 28 April 2016
Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Luitingh-Sijthoff, 22 June 2013
€ 16,95 (paperback)
The Netherlands might be the last country one would imagine as suitable for producing a horror novel. There are no towering mountains, no age-old dark forests. The only wolf to have been sighted since the eighteenth century was dragged in, dead, as a practical joke. There are hardly any places where one would not see a town on the horizon. Although horror film director Dick Maas, best known for Amsterdamned (1988), managed to break through internationally, there is hardly a tradition of commercially successful horror authors: Jack Vance is one of the very few whose works have been translated to English.
Thomas Olde Heuvelt (1983) thus broke with all nonexisting Dutch horror traditions when, first, in 2013 his novel Hex caused a stir for being a thoroughly unsettling, well-written horror novel set in a twenty-first-century Dutch town, and second, when in 2015 he won a Hugo Award. 2015 was an astonishing year for these science fiction and fantasy awards: for the first time ever, the winners included translated works. Liu Cixin won Best Novel with Santi (The Three-Body Problem), and Olde Heuvelt won Best Novelette for “De vis in de fles” (“The Day The World Turned Upside Down”). These winners were all the more surprising as this year, two conservative groups, threateningly named ‘Sad Puppies’ and ‘Rabid Puppies’, attempted to boycott “academic” and left-leaning nominees by pushing several works onto the nomination list that were endorsed by them. As this included authors such as the homophobic John C. Wright, most voters responded with disgust and withdrawal. In nearly all categories, voters decided to elect ‘No Award’ rather than something that carried the mark of puppy approval. And in some categories, the fans went for the few untainted works: works by authors few had heard of before, by authors who had hardly been translated to English before. The poor puppies’ boycotts backfired, and Liu and Olde Heuvelt, innovative authors bringing new cultures and languages to the Hugos, were awarded. Naturally, Olde Heuvelt’s most famous novel, Hex, had to be translated into English after this victory.
Yet Nancy Forest-Flier ‘s 2016 English version of Hex is not a mere translation. Olde Heuvelt decided to seize an opportunity not many writers are in a position to do: he rewrote the book for the translation, creating a novel with a different setting and ending, a ‘second edition’ that is usually only produced by textbook writers. This version was then translated to English in consultation with Olde Heuvelt, who has a degree in American literature. Whereas the revision of the storyline is largely beneficial, the Dutch reader would be surprised to discover that Olde Heuvelt has uprooted the story from its Dutch setting and planted it in a village in New York State instead. Only the witch remains Dutch.
The premise of the story is the same in both versions. The village of Beek (Black Spring) has been haunted by Katharina (Katherine) van Wyler ever since she was hanged as a witch in the seventeenth century. She appears and disappears at will throughout the village, standing in people’s bedrooms at night. Though her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, whoever gets too close to her or touches her will hear her whispers and become suicidal. Whoever settles in the village cannot move out again, or they will face this same fate. The government’s security services are aware of the situation, and help the villagers live through ill fortune without revealing the witch to the outside world: the village has their own security service, HEX (heks is Dutch for witch, too), which filters the internet and tracks the witch’s whereabouts via an app. The village teenagers, however, are not happy with the many ways in which their freedoms are restricted, and prepare to let the world know about the witch.
So why does the English version take place in a different country? Olde Heuvelt explained his motivation behind Americanizing his novel in a blog:
To thoroughly scare readers, you have to create a perfect sense of familiarity in a story and then rip it to pieces as soon as they’re hooked. And here’s where the Dutch setting becomes problematic. If I’d read a horror story set in, say, rural Azerbeidzjan, I’d be worrying all the time about what the place actually looks like, what’s the norm for these people, what are they scared of and oh, by the way, how do you even pronounce their names? Bang! Familiarity gone, and a missed opportunity to make me scream at night.
It is easy to sympathise with this choice in the case of an author whose first novel is about to be translated into English, which remains an impressive feat for a Dutch author. It is also easy to attack Olde Heuvelt for having ‘sold out’, but this particular moral decision in one that lies with the author— who, besides, recognises success when he sees it. My main issue with the second edition, however, is that Olde Heuvelt’s arguments in favour of it are not convincing. The reverse argument is easily made. The most popular horror author in the Netherlands is, unsurprisingly, Stephen King. His Dutch readers can easily get over the fact that in their country, the death penalty does not exist (The Green Mile), there are no mountains to be snowed into (The Shining), and a sixteen-year-old girl would have known about menstruation from compulsory sex education from primary school onwards (Carrie).
Most importantly, Olde Heuvelt seems to have thoroughly underestimated how frightening his work already is. The Dutch setting does not influence this effect as much as he seems to argue – wouldn’t that make the Americanized translation equally inaccessible to a UK reader? In fact, one of the more unsettling parts of Katharina/Katherine’s history as a witch sounds less impressive in a North American setting: the village she was hanged in emptied out overnight. It is widely known that such a thing really happened in the early US settler colonies, and is much more likely to happen there than in the by then already densely populated Low Countries. Rather, it is the deeply unsettling way in which Olde Heuvelt shows that the things that used to terrify us can still do so in this technology-ridden, global, open world. We do not need cabins in the woods, areas without phone reception, medieval settings. In Hex technology coexists with age-old anxieties as successfully as in Paranormal Activity and Koji Suzuki’s Ringu.
At the same time, the changes that he made ‘Americanize’ the story no more than superficially. The setting has changed, but the witch and her actions have not. Olde Heuvelt claims that some of the actions in Hex are characteristically Dutch: “If a Dutch person sees a seventeenth-century disfigured witch appear in a corner of the living room, he hangs a dishcloth over her face, sits on the couch and reads the paper. And maybe sacrifices a peacock.” However, the inhabitants of Black Rock do exactly the same. Is this a typically Dutch sense of practicality, or a universal acceptance that will come over everyone who has this happen to them from the moment they move to a haunted town?
Although one can empathise with Olde Heuvelt’s perspective, as it indeed is very rare for a relatively unknown writer to be translated for the US market, the translation did make several entirely unnecessary edits to the names. “I mean, how do you actually pronounce Olde Heuvelt?” he writes when explaining his edited version, ignoring the fact that horror fans have been perfectly capable of dealing with the name Cthulhu since 1928. The boy Max is called Matt in the US version; Jasmine inexplicably becomes Bammy. An even worse name change has occurred in the character of Gemma Holst, who is called Griselda in the US version. This is a book about a witch; why insert a name that sounds so witch-like it turns the character into a parody? A more appropriate name joke has been inserted through translating the mayor’s name, Kobus Mater, into Colton Mathers.
The best part of the English version of Hex has little to do with this translation/Americanization, but with the fact that Olde Heuvelt has been able to access the storyline a few years after publication and improve on it. Although most improvements are very minor, such as the removal of several (but not all) unnecessarily gruesome birthing scenes, the final chapters and the epilogue have been rewritten completely, significantly improving the realism of the horror story. In the Dutch version all hell literally breaks loose in the final two chapters, leading to a scene that, as Olde Heuvelt writes, “only found its equal in Dante, in De Sade, in Jheronimus Bosch” (“vond alleen zijn gelijke in Dante, in De Sade, in Jheronimus Bosch”). For the English edition, Olde Heuvelt merges the final two chapters into one, removing this supernatural sadism and making the ending more realistic. These horrors are now caused by humans rather than by a grudging witch alone, reinforcing the point the book makes throughout. In the aforementioned blog, Olde Heuvelt points out that publishers interested in translations to other languages have always chosen the English edition to base their own translations on: this is entirely understandable not because of the changed setting, but because of the improved storyline.
The majority of Dutch secondary school graduates are able to read novels in English. This means that with his English edition of Hex Olde Heuvelt has become his own competitor: should Dutch readers read the original Dutch version, or the English edition, new, improved, yet mediated by another voice? As the plot improves the story more than the US setting is likely to distract any non-US readers, this translation would in fact be recommended to any Dutch reader fluent enough to handle it.
Kanta Dihal is a third-year DPhil candidate in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She was formerly Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.