Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! Help the Witch by Tom Cox

40799510As 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!

Help the Witch by Tom Cox is published by Unbound and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Unbound, Waterstones, and Amazon

 

Seasonal Reads

Spooky Reading Recommendations

The leaves are changing, the nights are drawing in, and it’s time to drag that favourite  jumper out of the closet. Is any more of an excuse needed to settle down with a mug of tea, curl up under your favourite blanket and pick up a book? And, for me personally, if that book has a touch of the sinister about it – something that’ll send a slight chill down my spine despite all that cosiness – then even better! So without further ado here are five of my favourite chilling reads, plus a few choices that I’m hoping to get to during 2018’s season of spookiness.

584843I can’t talk about spooky books without mentioning The Woman in Black. Susan Hill has written a number of ghost stories but this, without a doubt, remains my favourite. Possibly this is because I first read the book one dark All Hallows Eve, curled up in a caravan on the wet and wild Welsh coast whilst the rain lashed on the roof and the wind howled outside. Talk about pathetic fallacy! Having re-read the book many times in considerably finer weather since however, I can attest to it being an extremely fine ghost story with just the right level of menace. Arthur Kipps’ visit to desolate Eel Marsh House and his glimpses of the vengeful woman in black remain utterly terrifying on even the brightest of days.

8350864More readily known for her young adult series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Michelle Paver has also written two chilling ghost stories after the Gothic mould. My favourite of the two, Dark Matter, is set during an ill-fated expedition to Arctic and brilliantly adds chilling events to an even colder location. Her second, Thin Air, takes place during a similarly doomed mountaineering expedition. Both books play with ideas of repression and psychology, cleverly weaving the characters’ fears into the narrative so that the reader begins to doubt the veracity of their narratives. Paver is also excellent at using the stark yet dangerous beauty of the natural environment to great effect when creating her sinister tales.

36434359Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions, which I reviewed at the start of the year, is an unsettling gothic chiller that will leave you curled up under the covers and peering into the shadows. Part ghost story, part psychological mystery, the book uses interweaving narratives from the 1600s and 1800s to unravel the unhappy tale of the wooden companions that haunt crumbling country estate The Bridge, with possibly sinister intent.  Plus it has a really creepy child in it and nothing says dark and disturbing quite as much as childish innocence gone bad.

10692Moving away from ghost stories for a moment, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a brilliant romp which combines the gothic horror of Dracula with the country-hoping adventure of a Dan Brown thriller. Late one night when exploring her father’s study, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters ominously addressed ‘To my dear and unfortunate successor’. When her father goes missing, our unnamed narrator is forced into an epic cross-continental quest that takes her into the heart of Romania, uncovering the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s disappearance, and constantly coming up against the name of one Vlad Ţepeş. As you can probably tell from the synopsis, The Historian is a bit of a romp but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one written in a high gothic style and with plenty of literary and historical references for Dracula fans.

6550482For those who like their horror to come with a more literary flavour, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger combines Waters masterful prose with a dash of the supernatural. Set in the crumbling Hundred Hall, the novel follows the provincial, middle-class Dr Faraday as he gradually integrates himself into the life of the once wealthy Ayres family. Struggling to keep up with a changing society, the Ayreses are haunted by past glories. But are they also being haunted by something more sinister than their dying way of life? Combining a thoughtful meditation on class in post-war Britain with a creeping sense of dread and a fantastically creepy atmosphere, this is a slow, understated chill of a novel with a fantastic twist in its tale.

So what is on The Shelf’s spooky TBR for this season? Having still not got around to Laura Purcell’s latest chiller, The Corset, I’m eager to pick that up. Sarah Perry’s latest slice of gothic, Melmoth, is also on the pile – I loved The Essex Serpent so much that I’m almost afraid to read it! I’m taking part in the blog tour for SJI Holliday’s psychological ghost story The Lingering in November so am also very much looking forward to reading that, especially given all the high praise it has been getting from fellow bloggers. Finally Katherine Clements’ The Coffin Path picked up a lot of praise on its release last year but remains unread so I’m hoping to get to that now that the season is appropriate again.

As always, I would love to know if you’ve read any of my recommendations – or any of my TBR books. I do love a good ghost or supernatural story so if you’ve got any chilling recommendations for me then do also drop me a line in the comments, or come say hi over on Twitter (@amyinstaffs), and let me know about them!

Happy Reading!!

 

Reviews

REVIEW: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Silent CompanionsI always feel that the first book you choose to read in a year is, somehow, a reflection of what that reading year will be like. A silly superstition I’m sure but we all have our quirks and picking my first book of a new year is one of mine.

Last year I started with The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which ended up being one of my favourite books of 2017 – so my first read of 2018 had big shoes to fill! Fortunately The Silent Companions, which had been lingering on my TBR far too long, turned out to be a great choice to kick of 2018 – spooky, atmospheric and spine-tingling, it had me turning the pages whilst curled up under the duvet and checking the shadows for sinister beings!

Set in both the 1800s and 1600s, the novel recounts the sinister string of events that have led to Mrs Elsie Bainbridge being examined in a psychiatric hospital on suspicion of arson and murder. Mute and traumatised, Elsie is gradually forced to recollect the events of the previous year which started with her new husband Rupert’s death and her journey; accompanied by Rupert’s cousin Sarah, to his ancestral home, The Bridge. Gothic and crumbling, The Bridge is an eerie place, made all the more unsettling by the hissing noise emanating from the locked garret. Yet when Elsie and Sarah force their way into the dusty attic space, all they find is a Silent Companion: a wooden figure, carefully carved and painted to fool the eye into thinking they are real. But is there more to the Silent Companion than meets the eye? Why does it bear a striking resemblance to Elsie herself? And why did Robert’s ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who lived at The Bridge back in the 1600s fear them so dreadfully?

There is a strong psychological element to this ghost story. Elsie, confused and traumatised by the events of the previous year, is a fantastically unreliable narrator and, as the only surviving witness to her version of events, it becomes impossible for the reader to decide on the true narrative. Is Elsie really the victim of sinister supernatural forces that haunt The Bridge? Or is she a psychotic murderess whose own dark past has finally led her to commit terrible deeds? Even at the end of the book, it’s far from clear what the true course of events actually is – as with all the best ghost stories, it’s left to the reader to decide how much you really believe in the tale being spun.

The supernatural elements themselves are handled really well and I completely bought into the Companions as objects of terror. Whether you see them as objects of Elsie’s tortured imagination or as the inanimate hosts of an unspeakable evil, they’re sinister, creepy and guaranteed to leave you with the shivers.

There’s also a fantastically charged and controlled atmosphere throughout the book. Every page oozes with tension and there’s a creeping sense of horror and dread as you turn the pages. Seemingly innocuous conversations, objects and events become charged with meaning as you switch between Anne Bainbridge’s diary, Elsie’s recollections of The Bridge and her present life in the psychiatric hospital.

And the horror isn’t just supernatural but social. I felt that there was an underlying narrative within the book about the roles and perceptions of women. Whether it’s suspicious whispers about witchcraft in the 1600s or the fear of female madness and hysteria in Victorian England, the events of the novel cleverly illustrate the myriad ways in which fear of the strange and supernatural has often been tied into the control and subjugation of women. It makes the book genuinely frightening, both in term of the supernatural agencies that might be at work and the real world fears of societal exclusion and condemnation faced by Elsie and Anne.

With it’s creeping sense of dread and shades of Gothic horror, this novel reminded me very much of the works of Susan Hill combined with elements of Wilkie Collins and M R James. Utterly terrifying (but in a good way!), I’m definitely up for more of Laura Purcell’s particular brand of spooky in the future so was delighted to read that she has another Gothic thriller due to be published in 2018. In the meantime, if you don’t mind your reading year starting with the spooks, definitely add The Silent Companions to your TBR!

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books (Bloomsbury) and is available now in hardcover and ebook from all good bookshops. 

Reviews

REVIEW: The White Road by Sarah Lotz

The White RoadAh, summertime. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the grass is blowing gently in the breeze. What better time then, than to read a twisty psychological thriller (complete with a side of creepy supernatural goings on) set on Everest’s dark and snowy peak? Enter ‘The White Road‘ by Sarah Lotz – my choice of reading over one of the hottest weekend’s of the year!

Desperate to get their click-bait website ‘Journey to The Dark Side’ off the ground, wannabe filmmaker Simon Newman is persuaded by his friend Thierry to go caving in the deadly Cwm Pot Rat Run with the aim of filming the bodies of three students who died there years before. When Simon’s own horrific experience in the caves goes viral, the pair seek the next challenge – an ascent of Everest, the ‘Death Mountain’. But, when Simon gets to Everest, he discovers there may be more dangerous things on the mountain than the elements – and this time, his luck may have run out.

For me, one of Sarah’s main achievements in this book is the creation of Simon, our narrator. He is, in all honesty, a bit of a louse. Lazy, dishonest and largely out for himself, Simon is not a likeable narrator. He is however interesting and well formed as a character and we see flashes of the person he could become and the life he could lead if he chose to. Fully aware of his own deceits, he becomes torn between his best and worst selves which really added to the psychological suspense as he battles with his personal demons. The supporting cast are also well realised – Thierry was slightly one dimensional, being the epitome of the self-centred, obsessive ‘internet sensation’ but that’s a minor niggle. In a genre that often relies on tense plotting rather than well constructed characters, it was great to be in the head of someone who felt so real and was surrounded by people you felt you could actually meet.

The opening salvo in Cwm Pot is deliciously dark and full of menace – a great way of setting the tone for what is to follow – but it’s once Simon reaches Everest when, for me, the book really comes to life. The sense of place and of the challenge of the climb really came across and I found the incidental details about climbing and the mental and physical challenges posed by being at altitude absolutely fascinating. It made me want to read some non-fiction about the history of Everest and find out more about mountain climbing in general.

I also felt that the supernatural elements were well handled – I’d never heard of the ‘Third Man’ concept before but it’s a really intriguing one and used to very good effect here. Even at the end of the book, I couldn’t decide whether or not to consider this a ghost story!

Tautly plotted and immensely enjoyable, ‘The White Road’ balances psychological intrigue with dashes of the supernatural to create an intense thrill ride that grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go until I’d turned the final page. Fans of Michelle Paver’s recent ghost stories (especially ‘Thin Air‘, with which this shares a great deal in terms of theme and setting) will find much to enjoy here, as will fans of psychological suspense and anyone who enjoys being gripped by a good book!