What is The Hexer from Salem?
The Hexer from Salem, a novel series in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, was created and written almost entirely by Wolfgang Hohlbein. The epic began in 1984 in a pulp-fiction series: Ghost-Thrillers from Bastei Publishing and later as a stand-alone series under The Hexer from Salem, before it finally became available in paperback and collectors editions.
The story takes place primarily in nineteenth century London, following the chilling adventures of The Hexer, Robert Craven and, later on, his son as they encounter the Great Aged — godlike creatures hostile to humans — and their representatives on earth.
Wolfgang Hohlbein is a phenomenon: With more than 200 books selling over 40 million copies worldwide, he is one of Germany’s most prolific fantasy writers. Hohlbein is well-known for his young adult books and above all his novel series, The Hexer from Salem.
The Tree Demon
Howard put a finger to his lips and pressed himself closer to the wall, waiting with bated breath until the voices and steps drew closer and then faded. Only then did he judge it safe enough to emerge from the shadows and make his way to us carefully, crouching the entire way. He squatted between Rolf and me, the halting, nervous movement revealing his exhaustion more than anything. Wiping the back of his hand across his brow, he pointed behind him with his thumb.
“I think we can risk it,” he murmured. “It’s just a few blocks and it’s getting dark.”
He was speaking even faster and more clipped than normal, and his fatigue was clearly visible even in the dimming gray light of dusk. He moved rigidly and uncertainly, as if his arms were tied to strings held by an invisible puppeteer.
Tired myself, I looked to where he was pointing. The arched entry gate seemed to me like a foreboding cave entrance. The street and houses beyond were mere flickering specters revealing the occasional, fleeting light depending on how the wind blew, ripping open the veils of rain which were ceaselessly pouring down on the town. The harbor was still burning.
Howard bent forward, steadying himself with his left hand on the edge of one of the barrels we’d taken refuge behind he reached for Rolf’s shoulder with his right. Rolf groaned. His eyelids opened wider, but the eyes behind them were cloudy, their gaze empty and dull. His face was shiny, and in the gray light the burn blisters dotting his face looked like pockmarks. His sweat smelled sour and foul.
Howard had found this abandoned courtyard six or seven hours earlier, and we’d been hiding here ever since like rats being chased by cats, hiding under refuse, shivering from cold and fear. We were being hunted more mercilessly than animals. Rolf had already lost consciousness more than once in this time. He came to every time, but the gap between him being at least partially lucid to feverish and frantic — he kicked and screamed so much we had to forcibly hold him down and silence him — was shrinking rapidly.
Seeing this stung me. I’d known this looming, brash and constantly irritated man for three months, but it was only in the last few hours that I realized how much I liked him. Meanwhile, I sat there freezing and shaking in terror, waiting until it was finally dark, watching helplessly as his condition worsened.
“He needs a doctor,” I said. Howard looked up briefly, silently watching me for a moment before nodding his head in a way that made it clear he both agreed and that it just wasn’t possible.
“I know,” he said. “But he needs to hold out until we get to Bettyhill. If we’re spotted by just one person here …”
He said nothing further, nor did he have to. We weren’t hiding out like common criminals in backyards and trash heaps for fun. An icy anger was rising within me as I thought back to the events of the last few days, which now felt like years.
We were just normal visitors when we first arrived in Durness — city folk. But the locals of this northern Scottish harbor town looked down on us, smiling indulgently with the arrogance common in the Scottish people. They despised us as outsiders and perhaps found us secretly amusing as long as we spent our money in their stores and pubs. Now they were calling for our heads.
I thought back to the previous night and morning while next to me, Howard was trying to shake Rolf gently awake and help him to his feet. Again, I felt this mixture of agonizing helplessness and anger. They had hunted us like animals. The mob’s insatiable wrath became so violent they had set our boat on fire, and the harbor too, with oil, all in an effort to burn us alive.
The consequences were immediate. The burning oil spread with breathtaking speed across the harbor, consuming not only a dozen ships but the homes and storage facilities nearby. And still the fire raged, despite the combined efforts of the town to put it out. It was a wonder the fire hadn’t yet turned the whole town to ash.
“Help me,” Howard said softly. I jolted back from my thoughts and turned around with a sense of guilt. I put my hands under Rolf’s back. He was awake and tried to help, but his movements were erratic and without strength. As soon as he was back on his feet he nearly collapsed, which put his considerable weight on our shoulders.
The rain pelted us as we limped to the gate. Ice was also forming and I smelled snow. I thought it absurd until I realized it was nearly December and Christmas would soon be upon us. Rolf’s weight was a painful strain on me. Howard was also struggling as we stumbled into the shadow of the gate.
He carefully let go of Rolf’s arm, leaning him against the wall, and nodded his head in the direction of the street. “Hold him for a second,” he said. “I’ll see if the street is clear.”
“It’s no use,” I protested. “We won’t make it Howard, and Rolf won’t either.”
Howard said nothing. Worried, his gaze raked Rolf’s face, and I had never seen him look so despondent. Until that moment, I had been certain there was nothing this man couldn’t shake off. I was wrong.
“We need help,” I said when Howard made no move to answer me. “A doctor. At least a wagon.”
Howard still didn’t answer, but he didn’t need to. Durness considered us dead. Many believed they’d seen us burn in the harbor. Good thing they did — if they even suspected we hadn’t, the witch-hunt would begin anew. It really was a witch-hunt in the truest sense of the word, since they were certain that we, and especially I, were servants of Satan. The disaster that the Necronomicon had unleashed upon this small harbor town came back to us, and the people here reacted like people had since the dawn of time when encountering something unknown, something that made them afraid: with hatred and violence.
“No … doctor,” Rolf mumbled. He’d heard me but it took awhile for him to find the strength to respond. “No one must see us, lad. They can’t … know we’re alive.”
“That may change quickly for you, Rolf,” I replied earnestly. “The next doctor may not be until Bettyhill, and that’s still thirty miles from here.”
“Robert’s right,” Howard agreed darkly. “You can’t make that.”
“Then leave me behind,” Rolf answered. His voice trembled weakly, but I could sense how serious he was.
“That’s out of the question,” I retorted. “I’ll find help somewhere: If not a doctor, then at least a wagon.” I motioned defiantly to the street. The reflection of the massive fire down at the harbor cast a glow like fresh blood across the wet cobblestones. “Someone in this damned townmust still have his wits about him.”
“And who would that be?” Howard asked with an air of cynicism.
This time it was I who had no response. The rage with which these people chased us couldn’t be rationally explained. They were under a spell in the truest sense, and we were fighting powers that defied all logic.
My eyes came to rest on the large, black, leather-bound book held under Howard’s left arm. It looked so harmless, and ordinary. Yet it was the cause of so much death — and our precarious position.
Howard was startled by my expression. He didn’t have to say anything. The way he was gripping the book was enough. I really did consider, for a moment, using the powers of the Necronomicon to get us out of here. Of course, it wasn’t possible; the book was pure evil. Whoever became mixed up in its powers paid dearly for it — a terrible price I’d seen with my own eyes …
“Go back,” I said. “I’ll try to find a wagon somehow.”
Howard seemed to want to protest, but just inhaled loudly and nodded reluctantly. Carrying Rolf those few steps had made it clear how helpless we were. Perhaps we could have made it out of the town, but the thirty miles to Betthyhill would be a stretch even for a healthy man. For us, and especially for Rolf, it was unthinkable. It would have been easier trying to swim back to London.
“Try,” he said finally. “We have no other choice.”
“No, you do,” Rolf said defiantly. “You two can make it if you leave me here. I’ll find a way myself somehow.”
“Nonsense,” Howard said. “As soon as they’ve put out this fire, you’ll be swamped by people again. Robert’s right: We either make it together or not at all.”
Rolf continued: “But that’s …”
“The only sensible thing,” Howard interrupted. “You think we’ll have any chance if they find you? They’d kill you and then start looking for us. No, Rolf, we have no other choice but to get out of this together.” He looked at me. “Go. We’ll wait here. Take care no one sees you.”
I nodded, turned without another word, and ducked into the street. The crackling of flames and the murmuring of a huge crowd of people drifted up from the harbor. There were shouts, noise, and the clanging of a bell, yet the street around me was completely empty.
I walked into the town with wide strides, my head full of thoughts. My task wasn’t nearly as easy as I had tried to make Howard believe. Durness was a town, not a farming village where every house had a horse at the ready. I could only hope to find a wagon to steal.
Though perhaps there’d be someone to help us …
It was quiet here, deep under the earth. The thing had reached the foot of the chalk cliffs and had emerged from the tide in a clump of darkness and terror made physical. It was a black demon raised from the depths of time and hell, bringing with it a fear that hadn’t existed for thirty million generations. It oozed up over the rocky cliffs like an absurdly oversized amoeba, pausing at the edge to either gather its strength or orient itself, though it didn’t appear to possess any sensory organs. Then it moved south, driven by the combined instincts of the hunter and the hunted, seeking out the protection of the nearby forest.
It left a wide, slimy path of bare stone and sterile earth in its wake. It was a trail of death, not even the most microscopic of life form was left untouched. Even the dirt was sterilized as if scoured by corrosive acid.
The creature kept on, reaching out to its left and right with black, slippery feelers, stopping occasionally before finally reaching the edge of the forest. Its feelers had divided into countless, hair-thin probes reaching out greedily in all directions, searching for life — to feed a hunger it had not been able to satisfy for two billion years.
A wide, scorched trail cut through the forest like a jagged, half-formed tunnel, marking the route the shoggote had taken.
When it reached a clearing, it stopped again, sending its feelers into the ground to carefully search for what it needed: a cavern, void of light and air, thirty or forty feet below ground formed by nature eons ago. It had no trouble burrowing through the earth despite its enormous size. Its body had transformed into a gelatinous mass that could flow through the earth like oil, only to reform into its massive self once underground.
There, it lay motionless again, for a long time; a meaningless collection of dark cells and unconscious protoplasm, pulsating regularly. Then, some hours later, it sent feelers out again — hundreds of times thinner than a human hair — in a wide circle through the ground to begin the creation of a vast, underground tissue — invisible to the naked eye — like a massive spiderweb with the giant shoggote sitting in the centre. It could feel the life force around it and this, again, spiked its lust to consume and absorb everything it could reach.
Yet it didn’t. Its tentacles encountered the roots of trees and grasses, bonding itself to a mesh of fungus permeating the forest floor, connecting with the forest to create something altogether new and terrifying …
It had gotten dark as I crept like a thief from door to door, shadow to shadow, scurrying ever further into the town before heading east to avoid taking the main street leading back to the harbor. I encountered a number of people but none who took notice of me. The onset of darkness and the fire at the harbor protected me. Durness was by no means a large town, but it was large enough that not everyone knew each other. Still, I kept my hat low over my head so no one could see my face clearly.
I wasn’t sure if I could find the house again, but the darkness was actually helpful, contradictory though that may sound. It was also dark the first time I came. I hadn’t paid particular attention then, but there were, nonetheless, a few landmarks I could recall. Sure enough, less than a half-hour later I was standing in front of the shabby house and peering nervously to my left and right. I wasn’t too far from the harbor and, every now and then, when the wind blew just right, I could hear the crackle of flames and the shouts and calls of the fire brigades. Half the town must be working to put the fire out, and they’d be preoccupied with that most of the night. Enough time for us …
I looked around again before firmly shoving the door open and ducking inside. The hallway, with its steep, wooden staircase, looked even more dilapidated than before. After the cold, crisp air outside, I could hardly breathe when I stepped inside.