Consensual Hex


By Amanda Harlowe

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$34.00 CAD

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The Craft for the #MeToo era, this debut unfolds a riveting psychological drama shot through with sharp humor and dark magic for readers of Ninth House and The Power.

When Lee, a first year at Smith, is raped under eerie circumstances during orientation week by an Amherst frat boy, she’s quickly disillusioned by her lack of recourse. As her trauma boils within her, Lee is selected for an exclusive seminar on Gender, Power, and Witchcraft, where she meets Luna (an alluring Brooklyn hipster), Gabi (who has a laundry list of phobias), and Charlotte (a waifish, chill international student). Granted a charter for a coven and suddenly in possession of real magic, the four girls are tasked by their aloof Professor with covertly retrieving a grimoire that an Amherst fraternity has gotten their hands on. But when the witches realize the frat brothers are using magic to commit and cover up sexual assault all over Northampton, their exploits escalate into vigilante justice. As Lee’s thirst for revenge on her rapist grows, things spiral out of control, pitting witch against witch as they must wrestle with how far one is willing to go to heal.

Consensual Hex is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive portrait of a young woman coming of age, uncovering the ways in which love and obsession and looking to fit in can go hand in hand. Lee, an outstanding, magical anti-heroine, refuses to be pigeonholed as a model victim or a horrific example. Instead, her caustic voice demands our attention, clawing out from every page, equally vicious and vulnerable as she lures us, then dares us, to transgress. Dark, biting, and archly camp, Consensual Hex announces Harlowe as a significant talent.


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THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF rapists, the corkscrew-haired receptionist at the local hotline says with an additional drag on her cigarette—she doesn't smoke often and she's going to quit any day now, probably tonight, probably after this one last smoke, it's just that she's only come back from the hospital in the past hour and now she's being questioned and she needs to take the edge off, you know?

There are two types of rapists, she repeats. Her eyes are dark underneath, shot with cracked-glass veins—she's just returned from the hospital, you see, she had to hold the hand of a three-year-old going through a rape exam after they picked her up from her stepfather's trailer at midnight. If that's not an excuse to smoke…

She takes the cigarette away from her mouth. Smoke unfurls over the monitor of her mid-aughts Dell. The phone starts to ring. She cranes her long neck over the cubicle divider.

"Georgia, can you grab that?"

She sits down. Her fingers shake, and her cigarette wilts like a half-dismembered branch after a hurricane.

The first type of rapist is stupid, she says. He openly admits to rape. The jury laughs at him in court, standing in front of the judge in his hockey jacket (not that she means to demonize athletes, but the stupid ones are often athletes), saying that, yes, he "forced" his penis into Ms. Doe's mouth, until the jury thinks about it and their lips go numb.

The other type, she says, is a snake.

He joins feminist groups. Collects signatures for Planned Parenthood. Even wears a T-shirt with THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE displayed across his skinny chest. The hetero girls think he's gay. Or bi, hopefully. He listens like a good ally when the girls discuss Margaret Atwood and Judith Butler. He shuts his mouth like a man should.

In three months he rapes four girls. All in his room. Because alcohol was involved, he proposes that they simply don't remember what really happened, that just because a sexual experience wasn't enjoyable doesn't mean it was rape, my God, don't victimize yourself.

At once, the receptionist with the birthday-ribbon mass of hair draws her hand over her mouth like a curtain and leans in.

This is not for the record, but that boy you've come in asking about—she knows him.

She can't say what happened, not definitively. She doesn't remember all of it. Just his Axe cologne. And the jaded yellow tile of the bathroom floor. And—well, you get the picture.

But when she took him to court—to upgrade her campus no-contact order to a civil order, the kid was stalking her after the incident and she had loads of texts, he was a little novice of a garter snake, not a viper—he shook and shook and the six-hundred-dollar-an-hour Hamptons lawyer his parents flew in started wiping his brow repeatedly with the edge of his Brooks Brothers sleeve and checking his watch.


All right, then.

So you want information on the potential whereabouts of John Digby Whitaker III, otherwise known as Tripp, the Amherst senior who disappeared right before finals?

You think this could be connected with the vigilantes from the fall—the "witches" (obviously the boys showing up at various infirmaries with burns and broken thumbs meant to say bitches)?

The receptionist finishes her cigarette and laughs.

Chapter One

Amoral Familism

THE TRUTH IS, I DIDN'T want to go to college at all. Even once we're chugging gas down I-90, west to the foot of the Berkshires, the end of Massachusetts and the beginning of New York, I don't have the overwhelming desire to leave home and find myself at the bottom of a tequila bottle. I just wish home were populated with different people. I tried to tell my parents that I didn't want to go to college—I wanted to write books, or go to L.A. and live out of my car until I made it as a big-time director—several times: the drive up to Middlebury sophomore year; baccalaureate, graduation robes slung with not-enough honors; when my mom was crying in the master bedroom last night. My dad's response, lingering on the edge of Miller Lite bliss, was the same as before: I'd have to experience college before I could hate it.

He doesn't understand. My distress comes not from unawareness, but from intense, crystalline knowledge of communal shower floors and the piercing memory of my chemistry tutor's story about her cousin who died from swine flu because his roommates forgot to get him Gatorade and he got dehydrated. She had a tattoo of his face, forever young, in black ink on her left calf. Sure, I was relieved, after four years of delirious coasting (still doing better than the pissing-yourself-in-front-of-your-sophomore-soiree-date-after-too-much-vodka majority, but never as well as I could have), sneaking food into the computer lab behind the ninety-year-old nuns' backs and playing with the Adobe suite some donor paid for, to have gotten into Smith, a bona fide very good college that will enable me to go to a law school that I can really brag about. But my desire to do more than scrape by, to have reached some kind of summit on the cliff of my potential rather than just sunbathing on the valley floor, always rises from the dust of Zara's drawer (where we would always hide our report cards before my parents started calling the school and asking for extra copies). In the two-plus hours between home and Northampton, meditating to emo drums and drizzling window views of the remote stretches of the Mass Pike, pines craning their slender necks over the guardrails, I feel nothing but subterranean dread, on a day that's supposed to be bursting with the fresh juice of a major life milestone.

We reach Northampton—lesbian couples with strollers, hemp clothing store, yarn emporium—around three, and my father is angry. He's screaming at the car in front of us, a crimson Honda Civic with a REDDIT license plate and a driver who bears an uncanny resemblance to George R. R. Martin.

My father beats the horn as we round the traffic circle. He then interjects with "Cocksuckers!" because homophobia helps him let off steam.

The light turns green. We're about to cross the intersection when a couple with a Baby Bjorn and two French bulldogs saunter onto the street. My dad hits the brakes.

"Jesus Christ, do all the dykes in America live in Northampton?" he says, and I remember how the absolute last thing I want to discover is that I'm gay at college, because then I'd be a scarlet-lettered LUG (Lesbian Until Graduation), gay before May, a trend chaser, a sheep, not my own person. Weird. A failure. If there's one thing that would deepen my father's frown, that would make things worse than him just ignoring me every time I walk downstairs and say "Hi, Dad," like I'm a ghost, like I'm dead, it's discovering I'm gay at college. Though he mentioned once that it would be okay if I were really gay, which I wasn't, so long as I were to marry a real woman and become one half of the type of lesbian couple "men like to fantasize about," my mom added, before she also assured me that I definitely wasn't gay.

But I won't be gay at college. I've never touched a dick but I know I love them.

We cut through the maze of cars and arrive at my new residence, Chapin House, the biggest house not on the Quad. Margaret Mitchell lived here for one year before she dropped out, and her description of the staircase at Tara is said to have been inspired by Chapin's staircase, except the building got renovated ten years ago and they demolished those stairs and built something dull and dark in their place (Yankee revenge on the fictional Old South). Behind Chapin is the greenhouse, and then there's the lake, and across the lake are the woods. I don't think the woods are forbidden, but the close-crocheted amber summer pines remind me too much of Wompatuck, the huge reserve in my town where sex offenders camp out with stolen greyhounds and a year's supply of baked beans. I vow not to go hiking, at least not alone.

My roommate Rachel's mother has MS, so Rachel's family got permission from the school to move in one day early. Even though Rachel and I swore on Facebook in June we would make a floor plan for the room together, draw straws or flip coins or rock-paper-scissors, she's gone ahead and claimed the good side of the room and I can tell by the horde of overhydrated plants occupying her superior windowsill that she has no intention of drawing up a treaty or agreeing to a cease-fire. I'm not surprised. Rachel is the kind of person who doesn't get why people hate John Green, and it's often those Pumpkin Spice Latte types who can't be fully trusted, not with matters like collaborating on our room design.

My dad goes back to the car to grab my fourth suitcase.

"Are you feeling okay?" My mom puts her hands on my shoulders, and I realize I don't remember the last time she touched me.

"I'm glad I'm at school," I say. "I need a new start. And to start exercising."

"That's all a doctor would ever tell you to do," she says, kneading her fingers between my shoulder blades like I'm made of frozen dough.

I push her away and go to sit on the edge of my bed. "You still don't think I should get checked out?"

"Any doctor would just tell you to exercise, honey." She goes to open the window, starts talking about the importance of fresh air in her Snow White lilt, as if she's about to burst into song and command the little sparrows to dust the cabinetry. It's just like sophomore year, when she was sitting in the green velvet chair in the newly renovated living room with the floor-length windows and her only response was No you don't, honey, like I was a three-year-old ranting about Pretty Pretty Princess and not a nearly grown woman who'd just worked up the courage to say I want to kill myself.

My dad returns, complaining about all my stuff and how not all parents are so generous, how most parents would not let me bring four suitcases. "You're going to love college," he continues. "It's such an intellectual environment, you'll fit right in." Of course, intellectual is code for impractical, useless, disappointing, but I thank him anyway and promise to get perfect grades and get into Harvard Law.

He dumps the suitcase on my desk chair, brushes the dust from his hands, and reminds me that I wouldn't survive at Harvard Law, not like his friend's son who is just more that type of kid, if I catch his drift.

"Columbia Law," I say, and he reiterates that he's just trying to help, and I don't need to worry about where I go to law school; it's not about where you go to school, it's about who you know and whether or not you make Law Review. And Mom never went to graduate school, she went straight into the workforce and she hasn't exactly done badly either.

"Honey, I have a call this afternoon so we need to move it along," she says.

Once I have the mattress pad down (so Mom can sleep at night, knowing I won't be in contact with whatever has happened on the mattress before) and Dad makes sure I have a phone charger and a raincoat, my parents hug me and leave.

"Goodbye," I yell after them, watching the backs of my mom's older-than-me Eddie Bauer suede and my dad's Patagonia flash through the door.

"Love you," my mom says, feigning tears.

My dad seizes her arm and barks something about traffic.

Alone. I check my phone. Then I check to make sure I have my birth control pills. I open the package and—shit. I took two pills last night when I was supposed to take one. I think I put one pill in my mouth and halfway through swallowing I thought Zara texted me, so I ran in the direction of the vibration before discovering that it was just my iPhone calendar letting me know that I was leaving tomorrow.

Hormones—probably why I feel like shit. Or I feel like shit because of Zara. But I shouldn't feel like shit because of Zara, because Zara said goodbye really nicely and waved and smiled and I'm sure she's going to text me and we're still going to be friends.

Rachel comes back. She's sipping a venti mocha and won't mention where we're going to get dinner until I ask her point-blank.

She finishes watering her plants, screws her Poland Spring closed, and leans over her twin XL to crack open the window. "I actually was going to get dinner with Katherine from next door, if that's okay," she says.

I wait for her to ask if I want to come with them.

She leaves. I rush across the room, slam the window closed, and sink my face into her pillow. I know I should get up, but I can't stop crying, even though this is Rachel's pillow and I'm going to have to replace her pillowcase with one of mine and she's going to notice. This is the same feeling I've had all summer: observing my decline into sedentary misery like a reptile-blooded surgeon standing over my own shaven-head form, ready to cut my skull open right along the hairline and scoop out the problem and replace it with what should have been my rightful human inheritance, the ability to gracefully sit in a darkened cubicle of a room and do as I am told.

Too bad what's wrong with me can't be fixed with a scalpel.

In the absence of social validation, after replaying and recontemplating Rachel's obvious hatred of me and what it could be about my skull and scent and skin that makes people loathe me as soon as they are unfortunate enough to look my way, I opt for the momentary delight of mindless consumerism—the sustainable, proto-commune type. Chapin's free bin is right at the foot of the stairs, a decrepit cardboard box underflowing with Dora pencils and Pocky boxes, and a pair of really obscene platform shoes, complete with pornographically high heels, in goldenrod yellow. The kind of shoes that belong in the attic of that great-aunt who lived in the East Village back when it was the real East Village, during her tenure as the free love girlfriend of an art dealer with an overgrown handlebar mustache.

I exchange Zara's Old Navy jacket (a navy blue cropped bomber I actually really like but I now hate because I hate Zara now) for the shoes, because maybe height does equal power.

After dropping the shoes off in my room, I find the will to go to the bathroom. There's a pair of feet in stiletto Oxfords in the last stall. I hear the subtle clack of thumbs on a screen, and a few sniffles, so I assume if she does come out, we'll make a silent pact to ignore each other and, if we see each other again, pretend we never met.

I'm still sobbing when I get to the sink, so I splash my face with water repeatedly, but it doesn't help, I still have the blotchy cheeks and red eyes of a social-media-induced twenty-first-century breakdown.

I'm about to turn the water off when she comes out of the stall.

She's a waifish Asian girl in Pippi Longstocking thigh socks and denim cutoffs, a dog-eared Didion crammed inside her elbow, and when she smiles and says "Hello," she's already my enemy because she's seen me all red and slathered in mucus and I'm sure she's thinking how weak and pathetic I am and how it would be better for the world as a whole if I just had the courage to hang myself with my baby blanket.

"I'm Luna," she says. She tells me she lives in the room right next to the bathroom, and she accidentally has a single because the girl who was supposed to be her roommate is taking a gap year.

She asks if I want to get dinner. She's going with her friend who lives in Lawrence House. Afterward, we could swing by Lawrence and try to see Sylvia Plath's old room. Luna knows the girl who lives there.

"I'm good," I say. "I'm already getting dinner with someone."

She smiles, like she hates me. "You sure?"

"I'm sure, thanks."

"Cool. See you around," Luna says with a wave of her vermilion nails, and part of me, suddenly, desperately, wants to join her side, compliment her hair, ask her about Slouching Towards Bethlehem and get bubble tea after dinner and not stop talking until we come back to the bathroom to take off our eyeliner.

"See you," I say.

"I live right next to the bathroom," she repeats with a glance over her shoulder, in a tone I expect to interpret as pity, but feels like a golden June fireside, a whole branch of marshmallows dripping onto her thighs.

Chapter Two


I GO TO ALL THE required Orientation events, the auditorium speeches about the honor code and diversity and sexual misconduct that you have to attend in order to get your registration code, but otherwise I sit in my room and try to pay attention to Orphan Black, or, when I figure I should go outside, sit cross-legged on the lawn with a book in my lap, watching people learning and flirting and smoking weed with confidence and the adventurous, toothy ruggedness that accompanies a self-image that isn't constantly sifting through your fingers and expanding into an ever-greater pile of quicksand.

People try to talk to me, try to get me to come and join the icebreakers in Chapin's common room (they assure me they won't do the viral one from Swarthmore, where everyone has to line up in descending order of oppression). I always have an excuse: migraine, cramps, all the graphic period issues you're not supposed to talk about in the big wide polite world of not-women's-colleges, where you must say you're under the weather to seem dainty and appealing to hypothetical male listeners.

"We're totally understanding of that here," one of the Orientation leaders assures me. "Let me know if you need any Midol."

Way back when—junior year, when Zara and I would go to Starbucks and loudly discuss Gramsci and Gloria Steinem, until she fell out of fashion for being a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist)—I had this idea that I was going to be a Campus Activist, and when the Smith course catalog arrived with a list of clubs, I vowed to go to the first meeting of every "political" student organization. But by the time Orientation week rounds up on a rainy Friday, I only feel okay enough to go to Smithies Against Sexual Violence, which meets once per month and doesn't require members to attend every meeting.

They meet in an empty lecture hall basement decorated with a solitary poster explaining that you should not speak just to speak; you should let other folks talk when the issue concerns their daily bread, not just some tragedy you saw on the news. There are a couple of guys at the meeting, male allies from the other Five College campuses. One stands out from the scruffy hipsters in his Amherst hoodie and whale-print pants (in that washing machine accident they call Nantucket red), sand-hewn Sperry topsiders on his feet. But he's carrying a copy of Judith Butler, which washes him clean like a bucket of holy water. He's the sort of guy I suppose I should like, who might play a round of golf with my brother and spontaneously whip out a bouquet when he's got his arm around me on top of a Ferris wheel, overlooking the shore fading to dark Atlantic, the end of the cotton-candy seersucker world.

I wonder if it will play out like Zara promised me over flatbreads and carrot hummus at the deli where she worked. That day she didn't tell me that no guy could ever be attracted to me (unlike that other time, with Gianna in my room, where we all confessed we'd touched ourselves without ever using the word masturbated, and Zara assured me I was safe from sexual harassment because, in her words, No offense, no one is ever going to look at you as a sex object, and Gianna objected because she's nice). At the deli, Zara assured me it would happen, with a friend, after we got to know each other over common interests and that sort of thing just arises out of getting coffee and exchanging DVDs and eventually making out. Only I didn't have any male friends. Zara then criticized me for intentionally attending a women's college and started telling me about her friend with a pineapple allergy who had to go to the hospital the other night because she was hanging out with her boyfriend, and then, you know, she started to go down on him and all of a sudden she was like, "Cade! You know I'm allergic to pineapple!"

I didn't want to blow any male friends, I said. I wasn't sure I wanted to blow anyone, especially if blowjobs land girls in the emergency room.

Zara rolled her eyes and assured me she hadn't gone down on that guy she was seeing, who worked at the café at Barnes & Noble and desperately wanted to unlock the Zara Karen Khoury Pussy™, especially after he kept paying for dinner. It must be great to have so many guys into you, I said, watching her lick the dripping white feta from the webbed skin between her fingers.

Before the meeting starts, I learn the Amherst guy's name is Tripp—which we almost started calling my brother before my mom objected—and he's from Greenwich. Great, I'm from Fairfield, originally, before we had to move for my mom's job. We talk about Connecticut and dogwood trees, Metro-North, and the Blue Man Group. Oh, I'm a freshman—sorry, first-year? Intending to be a history major? We have something in common. "Great shoes," he adds, pointing to my feet wobbling in the platforms, his hand accidentally brushing mine.

He says he's a sophomore and he just thinks it's so critical that male allies work together with women activists to fight sexual assault. Like how in Sweden, they did that big campaign encouraging men to stick up to their buddies trying to steal disoriented women from bars, and it cut rates of sexual assault by a huge margin. We should all be like Scandinavia.

I'm asking him why he's at the Smith group, instead of the one at Amherst, when a girl trips over his outstretched legs. Her hundred-calorie bag of Doritos catapults into the air and spills over his lap.

"Go to hell," Tripp says with a smirk, brushing the crumbs off his pants. Then: "Sorry, I didn't mean—are you all right?"

He helps her up, his knee a ladder, his hair shining like the helmet of a knight.

"Are you all right?" he repeats.

The girl doesn't respond, and as she's walking away she looks me in the eye.

It's her again, the Chapin bathroom girl with the thigh socks—Luna—but this time, instead of staring at me with Fourth of July–seaside-barbecue, serape-blanket expectation, she's seething. Her brown eyes are muddy, her glasses fogged up with tears.

So he broke up with her.

Tripp and I sit next to each other during the meeting, which is moderated by a blue-haired senior with rainbow feathers dangling from her ears and her shorter, Justin Bieber–lesbian roommate. They want us to make T-shirts about sexual assault, which they will use for a protest art exhibition on the Quad, with all the T-shirts arranged in a big circle. But they want us to turn the shirts inside out during the day, so as not to trigger anyone.

They're just about to discuss the budget when heavy feet in sneakers crash down the stairs.

It's a petite girl, and she's halfway between sobbing and cackling. She reaches the last step, careens out of the shadows, and turns to the messy rectangular assortment of tables and chairs, student limbs sprawled everywhere. But her eyes, red and shot with veins, aren't looking at the confused congregation—she's staring up at the high fluorescence of the ceiling, as if she's been blinded.

The girl grips her middle and chokes back a sob. She's swaddled in athletic gear, running shorts and an Amherst sweatshirt, blue k-tape wrapped in a thick layer around her knee, but she's frail, with small wasted muscles and ankles so delicate they look ready to snap at a vigorous gust of wind. She is barefoot (there's a tattoo clenching her ankle, the red string of fate). Her hair is wet, her face pocked with acne.

She reaches into the fleece pocket of her hoodie and removes a long plastic object that I realize too late is a vibrator.

The girl cries out and flings the vibrator at the group, knocking over the slim white vase holding a sprig of white daisies, just as more feet pound down the stairs: Campus Police, mumbling into radios, followed by a pair of paramedics bearing a slim white stretcher.

I stare at the vibrator on the floor, the mess of flowers and water and ceramic shards, as the girl screams over the radio fizzle and the paramedics wrestle her onto the stretcher.

"You know who you are," the girl is screaming. "I have your texts, I have the sweatshirt, I have evidence—"

The paramedics start hoisting her up the stairs, one officer bounding up the steps to hold the door open—but I can still hear her, "I have proof, it's not just my word."

The stretcher disappears, the door creaks and shuts, the screams roll away, and all that's left are the girl's muddy footprints.

We stare at the moderator, who doesn't know what to do.

"Uh, can people help us clean this up?" she says, indicating the flowers and the vibrator.

No one wants to touch the vibrator, but I pick up a daisy and the Bieber lookalike finds paper towels in an abandoned cabinet.

"Are you all right?" says Tripp, hand on my back, as I spin the daisy and try to look busy.

"What? Yes—" I drop the flower.

He picks it up.

"For you," he says, handing it back to me.

Someone else is sobbing.


  • "An intense, unflinching, and supernatural coming-of-age tale."—Kirkus
  • "A story told with great verve and panache! A gripping study of revenge, justice, and the perils of attempting to deliver either."—Paula Brackston, New York Times bestselling author of The Witch's Daughter
  • "Gloriously angry and deliciously weird, Consensual Hex is oh-so satisfying - a tale of rage and revenge that's delivered with both heart and savage wit. Darker than a midnight sky on a new moon - I devoured it in a single, breathless gulp."—Katie Lowe, author of The Furies
  • "A rapturous, riotous novel that I loved as much for its daring ingenuity as for its big brassy heart."—Caroline Zancan, author of We Wish You Luck
  • "Smart, edgy, ghoulishly gripping, fiercely political, and radically funny, every Lit major with a candle on her altar and feminist vengeance in her heart needs to read this book."

Amanda Yates Garcia, author of Initiated: Memoir of a Witch

On Sale
Oct 6, 2020
Page Count
320 pages

Amanda Harlowe

About the Author

Amanda Harlowe was born in Manhattan and grew up in the Boston area. Consensual Hex is her first novel.

Learn more about this author