As night draws through country lanes, and darkness sweeps across the hills and hedgerows, shadows appear where figures are not; things do not remain in their places; a new home is punctured by abandoned objects; a watering hole conceals depths greater than its swimmers can fathom.
Inspired by our native landscapes and traversing boundaries of the past and the future, this collection is Tom Cox’s first foray into fiction.
I’m not a huge reader of short stories as a general rule but I do make an exception for ghost stories. There’s something sublime in reading a snippet of the strange and uncanny, like getting a little shot of the shivers straight into your spine. So I was thrilled when I discovered that Tom Cox was planning his first foray into fiction with Help the Witch, a collection of ghost stories, inspired in part by a very cold, dark winter spent living in a possibly haunted house in a remote part of the Peak District.
I’ve been a fan of Cox’s writing for a while, having been introduced to it through the medium of Twitter and the account of the much-missed @mysadcat, otherwise known as The Bear. Cox has written four humorous, wry and observant books about The Bear, his other feline companions Shipley, Roscoe, and Ralph, and the indefinable way that cats have of upending your life whilst still managing to make themselves one of the most adorable things in it. Those books, in turn, led me to Cox’s website/blog, with its fantastic posts about everything from walks in the countryside to conversations with his (VERY LOUD AND EXCITABLE) Dad, via cat anecdotes, 1970s folk music, love letters to the beach and, of course, the occasional ghost story.
Cox’s writing has a fantastic richness of language, something he showcased to great effect in his non-fiction nature/memoir/essay collection, 21st Century Yokel, and which is on display in Help The Witch. In just a few words, he conjures spirits out of hill fogs, and talismans from tree branches. The collection is filled with the shadows that lurk behind doors and live forever at the corners of your vision. It’s fabulously atmospheric writing, couched in a real sense of landscape and place.
As with all short story collections, I had my favourites. The title story, Help the Witch, is the probably the most traditional ‘ghost story’ in the collection, featuring an isolated house, a long, dark winter, and more than a few bumps in the night. I particularly enjoyed the subtle observations within the story, told in diary form, of everyday encounters, twisted here into loaded encounters imbued with possibly sinister meanings. As with many of the best ghost stories, Help the Witch finds madness lurking just beneath the realm of the everyday.
As a former estate agent, the story Listings provided some amusement, being made up of a number of advertisements for a property with a very unique selling point. And Just Good Friends provided a fantastic slice of sinister, showing how the supernatural can creep into our everyday existence through memory, wish-fulfilment and longing.
This is a collection influenced by folk tales, with their strange, twisting narratives and sharp, sinister finality. This is most evident in Folk Tales of the Twenty-Third Century, a brilliant collection of shorts that encompasses a fabulously dark Rumplestiltskin re-telling and a cautionary tale about a banjo player and the perils of fame. However, it’s also imbued with Cox’s warmth and his wryly observant humour. Seance, for example, features a medium channelling an embittered cyclist who doesn’t realise he’s dead, a life coach called Adrianne (“Adrianne is actually quite boring”), and a fox, much to the disappointment of a client expecting a rather more personalised encounter with the spirit realm.
By turns spookily sinister and wryly amusing, this is an eclectic and quirky collection written with a light but controlled touch. Beautifully evocative of the eerieness inherent in nature, Cox has an eye for the unusual and a real skill for conveying this. Gorgeously produced, with artwork by Tom’s talented artist mum Jo throughout, and a stunning front cover by Joe McLaren, Help the Witch would make a fantastic gift for yourself or a loved one this festive season – it’s the perfect collection for curling up by the fire with on a dark winter’s night!