Help the Witch, a collection of ten stories from Tom Cox, shows how even in the most mundane life there can be a bit of the fantastical. Within these ten tales Cox utilises a number of different techniques to relay stories of break-ups, bleak futures, and loss. Straddling the line between horror, fantasy, and character drama, we are left with a mixed bag that never quite reaches its full potential.
Each of the stories seem to have one horror or fantasy element. A ghost haunting a house in the wilderness, a spirit warning of the dangers of speeding, a monster in a basement. But, they never stray that far into the strange. Instead we focus on the character or setting and let the unusual flutter in the background. The spooky touch of the story becomes the spice and less the driver of the story.
The structure of the stories themselves are the shining star of this collection. Cox’s experiments keep you moving from one story to the next, wondering what new device he’ll use to deliver the tale.
Listings, for instance is a collection of advertisements and articles regarding a specific house. Mundane descriptions of a three-bedroom home give way to strange articles regarding accidents in a certain location or discoveries of caves. By the end you realise that a full narrative was delivered to you and you might not look at craigslist ads the same way.
Another story, Nine Tiny Stories About Houses, is focused solely on the life of different houses. Some of them extremely creepy, others sad or weird. There isn’t a theme or connection between the tiny stories, except the concept of what happens in a house. It did throw me off for a bit, I kept looking for a bigger narrative until I realised there wasn’t one. Yet, I enjoyed the concept, fully believing houses to live their own lives.
Folk Tales of the Twenty-third Century, is another collection of smaller stories wrapped up under one title. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a number of different folk tales, usually focused on how the tale came to be. These stories covered the gamut of funny to cautionary to completely random. I found it went on a little longer than it needed to. It began to get a little tedious going through another strange event waiting for the punchline to hit. However, I did think it was a nice touch to have them take place in the Twenty-third Century. We never know what happened, but Cox sprinkled hints at the state of the world and left the rest to our imagination.
The title story, Help the Witch, is probably the most dread inducing one of the lot. Winter and isolation play a huge part and Cox’s descriptions will have you huddling up under a blanket as you read it. The story is a series of journal entries from a man who moved to an isolated house on a mountain, has a new job, is planning on writing a novel, and his girlfriend just broke up with him. Through these entries we discover there’s a ghost haunting the house and instead of being frightened, he strikes up a friendship. I do enjoy this twist on a haunting, who says ghosts have to be evil and want to kill?
I’m not sure if the man ever really helped the witch. They talk a lot, and she seems to eventually enjoy his company. But our focus is pulled away from the witch and directed toward how the man withdraws from society to deal with his break-up. If you were looking for a story where the man exorcises the spirit or figures out the thing keeping her here, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
The confusion between horror and character studies is what ultimately detracts from this collection. If the stories could have leaned more toward the horror they would have been terrifying. And if the fantastical elements had been removed we would have some great stories about break-ups or satirical looks at the future. Instead we are left in this middle ground unsure which genre we should focus on.
If you’re looking for something frightening to read this Halloween season, I’d recommend passing on this. However, if you are looking for a well-written, unique collection of broken characters and bizarre locations, Help the Witch by Tom Cox would be a wonderful book to add to your library.
Help the Witch is published by Unbound and has now gone to print – if you would like to find out more about this project please click here.
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.
Reviewed by Matt Brandenburg
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