It’s 1591 and Geillis Duncan sits alone in a cold, dark cell deep beneath Edinburgh. She is awaiting her execution, scheduled for the morrow. There is no chance of reprieve; she has been convicted of witchcraft. However Geillis will not die without some comfort. A girl named Iris, travels from 2021 through what Fagan calls the Null and Ether and materialises in Geillis’s cell. The two will spend the night talking about their lives … and the contemporary reader will discover that when it comes to misogyny and control not much has changed in the intervening decades. Says Iris:
I would like to reassure you that five hundred years from now the fine line of misogyny no longer elongates from uncomfortable to fatal, yet I cannot.
Teenage Geillis Duncan was a victim of the North Berwick Witch Trials. James VI of Scotland (soon to be James I of England and Ireland) was deeply fearful of witchcraft and ignited panics among the population, resulting in hundreds being tortured and killed. Women put to death because of their use of herbal medicine, skilful midwives for their knowledge of how to save mother and child. Knowledge is power, and the menfolk had to see to the sidelining of those with such knowledge. There is some of that in Hex, but Fagan also shows that the charge of witchcraft was one easily brought, when ulterior motives, such as trying to get access to an inheritance, came into play. Geillis, a poor maidservant, finds herself caught up in a plot to undo a wealthy and independent woman …
Neither is this abuse the first Geillis has suffered. Every man that she has worked for, every man that has imprisoned her has sexually violated her. As for the unsuccessful interrogation scene and the torture inflicted on Geillis to extract a confession – well, Fagan doesn’t wrap her readership in cotton wool. Be prepared.
With Fagan’s interest in the supernatural (her previous novel, Luckenbooth, was apparently steeped in it, which is why I passed it by), this novella was a natural fit for her. She does approach the supernatural element – actually, the whole conceit of Iris’s visit – ambiguously. It’s not quite certain whether Iris’s visit is real. Could it be a dream? Is Iris a familiar? Some reviewers see this as magic-realism. The ending suggests occult influences to me.
Hex is the second novella in Polygon’s Darkland Tales series, in which contemporary Scottish novelists retell dark stories from Scotland’s past. This one sent chills right through my bones.