It’s such a pleasure today to be joining the blog tour for Help the Witch, the short story collection by Tom Cox, published today by Unbound: my thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours and the publishers for my advance reading e-copy. I’ll readily admit that all I previously knew about the author’s writing was gleaned from my passion for the soulful face of My Sad Cat, the author’s excellent blog posts about his melancholy friend (you’ll find Tom’s farewell to The Bear here, and it moves me to tears every time I read it), and the wonderful The Good, The Bad and The Furry. But a collection of folk ghost stories? And one that’s currently number one best seller in the “horror short stories” category? Not a natural choice for me – but one I didn’t regret for an instant.
Inspired by our native landscapes, saturated by the shadows beneath trees and behind doors, listening to the run of water and half-heard voices, Tom Cox’s first collection of short stories is a series of evocative and unsettling trips into worlds previously visited by the likes of M. R. James and E. F. Benson.
Railway tunnels, the lanes and hills of the Peak District, family homes, old stones, shreds fluttering on barbed wire, night drawing in, something that might be an animal shifting on the other side of a hedge: Tom has drawn on his life-long love of weird fiction, folklore and nature’s unregarded corners to write a collection of stories that will delight fans old and new, and leave them very uneasy about turning the reading lamp off.
To manage your expectations, it would be remiss of me not to mention the quirkiness of this collection – I’ve never read anything quite like it before, and will confess that the jury’s still out on how I felt about some of the rather weirder very short stories included as grouped stories within the whole. But there was so much about the writing that I really loved, and I’ll focus on the stories that I enjoyed the most.
In the first story – also called Help the Witch – the descriptions of unforgiving nature and isolation in the depths of winter are quite exceptional: you’ll feel the chill in your bones, and that’s only intensified by the ghostly tale that unfolds. I just loved the gentle humour, the historical elements, the curmudgeonly landlord, the conversations with the “near neighbour” – and those other conversations too. And the reliance on crisps and Monster Munch – I did mention the humour, didn’t I? And I really loved the writing – is there any cat person who can’t find “wibbling” a wonderful word to describe the noise that first wakes him in the night?
The second story, Listings, is entirely different, and so cleverly done – a sequence of estate agent and other adverts with newspaper articles, telling a really unsettling story. I really liked Speed Awareness too, set in the world of the familiar, with such wonderful characters (some types too, all sadly too recognisable), and a really disturbing edge. I also enjoyed Seance – the distinctive voice of the narrator, the humour, and the ideas behind it.
I was a little dismissive earlier of some of the “shorts” – just a little too off the wall for me – but I did very much like King Idiot and his Goose and, rather surprisingly, Little Goth Twat and Steve Who Was Just A Tomato. See if you have a favourite! And I’ll also be interested in the views of others on the last story, An Oral History of Margaret and the Village – Matthew’s voice is very cleverly done, and wonderfully sustained, with intermissions for other voices. I admired it – but sadly just couldn’t love it.
And after that rather mixed – and personal – “review”, would I recommend the book to others? Oh my goodness, I most certainly would – this was some of the most clever, original, intriguing, funny and imaginative writing I’ve read in a long time.
If you’re intrigued by this one, you might like to read the author’s piece about it on the Unbound website – link here – because it’s just excellent. This certainly is a collection that has you saying “oh go on then – just one more…” – and I really should have mentioned the Britishness!
About the author
Tom Cox is the author of nine previous books, including 21st Century Yokel, which funded on Unbound in just seven hours, and the Sunday Times top ten bestseller The Good, The Bad And The Furry. Tom lives in The Peak District and writes about – amongst many other subjects – nature, folklore, music and books on his voluntary subscription website, having quit writing for traditional media outlets entirely in 2015.