Help the Witch by Tom Cox is a collection of short stories and modern fables. It was published in 2018 and won a Shirley Jackson award. It was crowd funded through the site Unbound, to over 300% of it’s target.
I’m a huge fan of Tom Cox and have a couple of his non fiction works, including Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. He writes in a gentle, funny, comforting style that is like a cup of tea and a hug. (Also, my gosh he loves his cats. I thought I was pretty obsessive about animals, and my cat in particular. Compared to him? No.)
Synopsis of Help the Witch
“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.
“Help The Witch, my first work of fiction, is… the book I have been wanting to write since I was nine. It’s full of subjects I’ve been yearning to tackle for years – subjects that I knew only fiction would allow me to fully open my imagination’s floodgates and write about properly.” – Tom Cox
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.”
The first story in this wonderful collection could almost be autobiographical. A man enduring a recent breakup moves to a remote cottage in Derbyshire with his two cats, to try to write his novel. Doubly poignant in that the day after funding opened for the book, Cox moved back to Derbyshire, “Just down the road from what is known as ‘The Plague Village’.” Apparently one reader said Cox had “written himself home”.
The other stories are beautiful, but many are snippets; flash fiction more than anything. Although Just Good Friends is possibly even better than the titular story. A beautiful and poignant character study of a woman’s life in her mid thirties – with a ghostly twist.
“The house over there was just smudgy memories now, memories of memories: the stepping stones over the small creek… the old empty cottage up the hill with it’s thick, knobbled walls, a well she’d been obsessively warned by Alice not to venture close to…” – p144
The Black Death
The first tale is dotted with stories about the Black Death.
The protagonist has moved to a village called Grindlow, (acting as a stand-in for Eyam). The tale relates that during the Great Plague, the villagers – or rather the village priest, Wentworth – opted to seal themselves in to save others. There’s a poignant anecdote of a young couple who would meet every day at the boundary of the village, 100 feet from one another. Until one day the boy didn’t turn up. The girl tried and failed to kill herself.
“Each day the pair would meet at 2pm at the exact halfway point between the villages and stand a hundred yards apart, staring longingly at each other, yearning for the time when the pestilence would pass.” – p27
Another tale is of a woman named Winifred who buried her husband and six of her children. Despite their self sacrificial altruism, the stigma of plague followed Grindlow inhabitants. They were pelted with stones if they tried to go to Sheffield (the nearest city). Even surrounding villages were suspicious of them; Winifred’s descendants were later accused of being witches. The stigma of plague followed them to the next generation. The women were accused of sickening farm animals, and burned at the stake.
Isolation and Loss
It’s a strange coincidence during quarantine and lockdown, but many of the stories in this book by Tom Cox focus on pandemics and isolation.
Help the Witch is part focused on the Black Death, and the future set Folk Tales of the 23rd Century features a plague which decimates the royal family. It’s odd to think that many of our ghost stories coincide with plagues and disasters; with great human tragedies of grief so vast the human mind cannot fully comprehend it.
The man, isolated in a remote part of Derbyshire, trapped by snow, ice and the ghosts that haunt him, both figuratively and literally. The young couple, separated by self quarantine measures – where he dies, but his sacrifice preserves her life. The supposedly idiotic King, thrust into power because his relatives die of plague, who rises to the occasion and saves the country from invasion. The woman in her thirties, retreating to the countryside when her mother passes, haunted by the ghost she befriended as a child, and her sense that she neglected her mother in life.
In the End
Some of the stories left me a little unsatisfied; but that’s because I wanted more! Just Good Friends was probably the best story, followed closely by Help the Witch. There was a delightful set of classified ads charting a Goblin’s reign of terror in a rural town, and a series of vignettes set around horrors in different houses. The young woman, replaying her dead father’s records, mulling over his flaws, which included breaking down a door with an axe in a Shining style rampage, was a subtly alluded to twist, but a good one.
Like in many stories I’m drawn to, from Some Distant Memory to A Pale View of Hills, the characters (and us as humans), are haunted. Not by incorporeal shades, but by memories, guilt, isolation; the creaking shutter, the love we lost, our failings and mistakes.
These tales of loss, love and longing are the perfect accompaniment, and balm, to our loneliness, fear and grief during these dark times. Would recommend.