Help The Witch by Tom Cox (Unbound)
Help the Witch is a collection of spooky stories from Tom Cox, he’s yearned to write fiction for years he says but is glad he waited (nine non-fiction books precede this, I reviewed 21st Century Yokel, the most recent, here) . Whatever effect the waiting has had on Tom’s fiction writing this is a fantastic book – the writing is excellent, sometimes funny, and unsettling as supernatural stories should be.
The book itself is a beauty, black and gold – the declaiming tree-man and hare cover art by Joe McLaren is striking. Internal illustrations are by Jo Cox and are wonderful as usual. Jo has created witch marks which appear between each chapter, as well as two beautiful lino prints of a plague doctor, and a woman and a hare (have a peek under the dust jacket too, if you have the hardback). It’s a compact book – its size feels slightly old-fashioned – I have an old edition of The Moonstone, this feels exactly the same in the hand – a change from the giant tomes so many books seem to be these days.
This book is just right for curling up by the fire and reading in one sitting. Which is exactly what I did, the second go around. I had, through my own impatience, to read it on my Kindle for the first go – and reading books on a kindle the vintage of mine is a bit like reading books on an Etch-a-Sketch. Even so, the stories shone through the plasticy technology, if shone is the correct word, for some of them are very dark tales. There are ten stories in this collection, all quite different, and some you may not even think of as ‘stories’ at all.
The collection begins with ‘Help The Witch’, in which the protagonist moves to a remote house in winter, an academic taking a break before going to a new university job. If you follow Tom Cox’s blog then you’ll immediately recognise his experience of last winter in the Derbyshire peaks in this. It was a strange experience as a reader, coming to this having read the pieces Tom published online during that time. It was familiar and yet not; the bits I’d already been told intertwined with stranger supernatural events. It was like reading, months or years later, the diary of a friend who’d recounted to you most of what happened to them that spooky winter, but not everything. However you come to it, it’s a fabulous story. It seems lazy these days to say something is ‘very M.R. Jamesian’, but it is.
The idea of place being as supernatural and spooky as any ghost or spirit is a huge influence on these short stories – whether that’s winter in the peaks, summer in Devon (The Pool, initially), or the way houses can be really wierd (Nine Tiny Stories about Houses). I think one of the very best stories in the collection is ‘Listings’. As readers we almost have to construct the story ourselves from a collection of estate agents listings, newspaper clippings, party invitations and the like, all about one place. Presented with the bones of the story, your own mind fleshes the rest out (your own mind can be quite a frightening place actually). The atmosphere of malevolence grew as I read on, perfectly anodyne pieces of information seemed soaked with warnings, why didn’t people notice! Making your way through these snippets – like an archivist discovering a terrible thing – is an incredibly effective way of disquieting a reader.
Cox has a great sense of the ridiculous and surreal. Having spooked us to death for a while we get to breathe calmly during some of the very short stories, though ‘Robot’ is still really quite creepy. “Folk Tales of the Twenty-Third Century” are incredibly clever and funny takes on popular culture twined round traditional folk and fairy tale motifs. I think I’ve worked out who’s household ‘The Little Goth Twat’ lives in…and I absolutely loved ‘Steve Who Was Just a Tomato’.
The final story is ‘An Oral History of Margaret and the Village by Matthew and Five Others’. This takes the form of reports from various villagers which read very much like those collected for local history projects. Matthew’s parts are in dialect (Nottinghamshire I assume) as if transcribed from a tape, others – such as those of the vicar or schoolmaster – feel more formal, as if from an older person. Through these reports we hear about ‘Miss Critchley’ who, despite coming from an old village family, is an outsider; she’s the kind of person who’s garden you’re too scared to get your ball back from, I think most communities had/have a person like this among them. People are suspicious and slightly frightened of Miss Critchley, and though some feel sorry for the lonely old lady, reading between the lines in the interviews everyone somehow feels she is not like them…
This is an excellent collection of stories (I haven’t covered all of them here, ). They aren’t in your face horror stories or jump from your seat ghost tales, they’re much more subtle, atmospheric and quietly malevolent than that, and I loved them. They deliver what M.R James called ‘a pleasing terror’, a hard thing to quantify but I know in my bones what he means. I read them all twice in a week and will read them again; if the mark of a great ghost story is that you can be unsettled and scared by it over and over again, then Tom Cox has written some classics here.
Now, I must go an investigate that odd knocking noise in the next room…