“This is a low-flying panic attack” – Radiohead, Burn the Witch
Moving the action of a European or Asian film to America when Hollywood remakes it is not unusual. Moving the location of a European novel to America when translated into English, however, is.
Published in English in 2016, HEX is the story of the small New England town (where have we heard this before?) of Black Spring, which has lived under a very real curse for centuries. Largely, and deliberately, cut off from the outside world, the town is haunted by a long-dead suspected witch – Katherine – who manifests randomly, her eyes sewn shut and her mouth constantly whispering. What she whispers makes those who hear it feel suicidal, and there is no escape: leaving Black Spring for any length of time causes the same feelings. She has this town locked down. The kids, armed with their iPhones and YouTube channels, rebel against the consensus that keeps the town in this frozen state, and that’s where the fun starts.
It’s a bleak book, up (or perhaps down) there with – as we’re in roughly the same area – Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Bleak, but worth reading; enjoyable in that “am I actually enjoying this?” feeling that effective horror gives you.
My early thoughts, given the author’s nationality and the novel’s location, were that with it’s many references to the early Dutch settlers, Olde Heuvelt was reclaiming American history for the Dutch: after all, they were there before the English (but not, obviously, the Native Americans). Or that although not strictly in his territory of Maine, that this was an affectionate nod to King. It wasn’t until I was near the end that I looked into the publishing history, and found something far more interesting.
Published in Dutch in 2013, HEX is the story of the small town of Beek, in Limburg, south-eastern Netherlands, which has been held hostage for centuries by a witch, Katharina.
HEX was successful in the Dutch-language areas of the Netherlands and Flanders (the northern half of Belgium). Given that Euro-horror novels are relatively uncommon in the UK, and that I love European fiction and horror, I’d have liked to read a direct translation. I speak some Dutch (de Nederlandse taal), and read it well enough to understand newspaper and magazine articles but not, I suspect, a novel. So I should be pleased that I can read HEX at all, but unfortunately not the author’s original.
When the English translation rights were sold, the decision was taken to relocate the novel’s action to America. Olde Heuvelt himself was thoroughly involved in this work (alongside translator Nancy Forest-Flier), and was excited by not only the chance to expand his readership, but to revisit the novel:
“I love the fresh perspective that comes with reading fiction from different cultures. Being Dutch, 90% of the books I read come from abroad. Sometimes I even want to be taught about these cultures. The Kite Runner gave me a much more nuanced view about Afghanistan than Fox News. Murakami taught me more about Japanese customs than any sushi restaurant I’ll ever visit.
But there’s a limit to what I want to be taught. Some books I just want to read for the fun of it. The thrill. Or the scare. And I realized my novel, HEX, was such a book.”(1)
The author was given the chance, as he says in his afterword to the novel, to play with his characters again (and to change the ending from the original), without it being a sequel. Which writer hasn’t felt such a temptation? I understand that.
But there’s something depressing about the fact that such a change was felt necessary. Old Heuvelt jokes about this (“the book had—quiver, Americans—a Dutch setting”), but on one level, it isn’t funny at all. I’d like to think that U.S. publishers woefully underestimate the American reader, who I hope are happy to read books set outwith their own country. Yes, the names may be unusual (but aren’t most American surnames derived from immigrants?) and the setting unfamiliar, but even allowing for cultural differences, in the immortal words of Depeche Mode, “people are people”.
The other depressing thing is distance. Beek is 815km from where I write this, and a mere 314km from the nearest point to it in the UK, Dover. That isn’t far, and is much closer than upstate New York. But I don’t mean geographical distance; I mean the cultural distance which dictates that in Scotland I must read a U.S.-translated-and-located version of a novel set in a neighbouring country; that we’re beholden to America when it comes to experiencing the work of a fellow European, and when it reaches us it’s had almost all of the European-ness removed. I’m reminded of when the small part of Border Books (remember them?) devoted to foreign-language literature was called something like “books not yet translated”. I paraphrase, but that was the essence: that work from any language other than English does not properly exist until it has been translated. In the case of HEX, in a sense it doesn’t properly exist afterwards.
I don’t want to sound too down on HEX or Olde Heuvelt: as I said above, I enjoyed the book, I recommend it to horror fans, a TV adaptation of either version would be welcome and whoever had the idea of reworking the novel, the author has taken it in good spirit. But still. When I read China Mieville’s speech at the 2012 Edinburgh World Writers’ conference on the future of the novel, I didn’t necessarily disagree with him:
“To love literature doesn’t mean we have to aggrandise it or those who create it. That aggrandisement is undermined by the permeable text. Be ready for guerrilla editors. Just as precocious 14-year-olds brilliantly – or craply – remix albums and put them up online, people are starting to provide their own cuts of novels. In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but “which mix”, and why?”(2)
But here we aren’t talking about a fan’s – or even a translator’s – remix. This was a conscious decision driven by not so much profit as by the idea that an entire market of readers would be put off by the thought of encountering something even a tiny little bit, well, different, from the culture that surrounds them. In the era of Trump and Brexit, that’s a step as unwelcome as it is unwise.
But again, without that decision I wouldn’t have come across the book at all. So maybe I should stop moaning, buy the original and improve my Dutch…
Olde Heuvelt, Thomas: HEX (Hodder, 2016)
Photo: Jamie Gorman