“My uncle’s scary stories when I was a kid helped me become a horror writer”
Interview | Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Dutch writer Thomas Olde Heuvelt is perhaps best known for HEX – a gripping and scary novel that brings the reader to the seemingly picturesque town of Black Spring that is haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. The book has been lauded by legendary writers such as Stephen King and George R.R. Martin and became a global literary sensation, and is published in China by Unread·Beijing United Publishing House. Heuvelt said that the idea for the book stemmed from scary stories his uncle used to tell him when he was very small.
“When I was a kid, my uncle used to tell me scary stories. He would take me to the woods and on the trail, we would come across a fairy ring—toadstools growing in a circle. He would tell me that the ground was cursed because witches had danced there, that night, and that I had to walk past the fairy ring with my eyes closed, or I would get seven years of bad luck. I was seven years old, and I believed him, of course. So I always walked the trails through our woods with my eyes closed,” Heuvelt said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival.
“He planted the seeds for what would later become HEX. I wanted to tell the scariest story I could think of. And it is spectacularly awesome when readers from all over the world – the book is now published in over 25 countries – tell you they were scared while reading it. That they see the Black Rock Witch in their own bedrooms, when they turn off the light at night. As a writer from a small country like the Netherlands, it is very rewarding when a book crosses so many borders and touches the emotions of so many readers.”
Heuvelt’s story collection The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, named after the Hugo Award nominated title story, is also available in Chinese translation. Heuvelt started off writing longer novels but later started also experimenting with the shorter form.
“I started writing short fiction after writing three novels, to develop, nourish and refine my voice as an author. Short fiction is great, because it forces the writer to think of every single word. Every word has to be there for a purpose. And as a reader, I love the short form, because you can discover entire new worlds in a heartbeat. Novels take a while to read, but short fiction you can finish in one sitting, which makes for a more intense experience. For me, my short stories opened many doors. It was through short fiction that I was able to be published in many countries around the world. One of the stories in the collection, called The Day the World Turned Upside Down, won the Hugo Award, and as a result, I found a literary agent and my novels are now read around the globe. Nowadays, I still write short stories occasionally, but my focus is on new novels,” he said.
In a recent novel Echo, Heuvelt serves up a thrilling horror and adventure ride that blends fairy-tale myth, popular culture and the supernatural. In the story, Sam’s boyfriend Nick returns from a mountain-climbing accident on the forbidden peaks of the Maudit that leaves his face disfigured and his climbing partner missing, presumed dead. And it soon becomes apparent Nick has somehow awakened a malevolent and primal force on his expedition. Heuvelt is himself an avid mountain climber, and this story developed as he scaled peaks around Europe.
“Echo is a possession story, like The Exorcist. But in western culture, possession stories are always about religion. There is the devil or demon as the evil power, and the priest or religious man coming to exorcise it. But I wasn’t raised religiously, and possession can be about so much more. I am indeed a mountaineer, and every time I’m on a mountain, it feels like mountains have souls. Some are welcoming, some are hostile, and all are much, much stronger than you as a human being are. I thought it would be a fantastic idea for a story: a mountaineer who gets possessed by the soul of a mountain. And thus, Echo was born.”
Heuvelt wrote Echo around the time HEX was blowing up around the world, which made it something of a challenge for him as a writer to come up with the next successful story – just as gripping and scary, if not even more so – in the aftermath of the original success.
“It was definitely a hard novel to write. HEX’s success was awesome, but also froze me. I want to always top myself. So when Stephen King tells you your book is brilliant, as he did with HEX, how do you top that? The answer is of course: by having fun and loving the next story you write. I seldomly had so much fun in writing as when I wrote Echo. And indeed, it turned out to be a very creepy book.”
Heuvelt was in China once before and said he hopes to soon return.
“I was in Being in 2018 to promote HEX and The Ink Readers of Doi Saket and I absolutely loved meeting the many Chinese readers who came out to the events. I love the experience of sharing stories. A story creates an intimate relationship between the author and the reader, and therefore, meeting readers gives me great pleasure. I cannot wait to come back to China again. Hopefully soon with new books: Echo, Oracle and November are the titles of my new novels.
Based on his own experience and growth as a writer, he believes that the most important lesson for aspiring writers is to tell the stories that you want to tell.
“Read lots, to develop your voice. Look at what other writers are doing, within your genre, but also beyond it, and beyond borders. Then, write lots. Write every day. Every day ten minutes of writing is better than every once in a while a long stretch. Like anything you’d love to get good at, it takes lots of practice. And most of all: tell the stories you want to tell. I always tell myself: what novel would I just love to read, but doesn’t exist yet? Then I go ahead and write it.”
At the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival, Thomas Olde Heuvelt and Chinese science fiction legend He Xi will join Yang Feng to discuss “Human Nature, Fantasy, Social Reality and the Supernatural”.