Book Review: Help the Witch, by Tom Cox
When I joined Twitter a few years ago, my hellacious cat, Ser Pounce-a-lot ensured that I followed several luminaries of the feline twitter-verse. He assured me that about 40% of the non-pornographic traffic on the WWW is cat-related and as such, if I wanted to stay abreast of current trends, following prominent cat celebrities was absolutely essential.
One of the most interesting cat celebrities turned out to be @MySadCat, a.k.a The Bear, a mournful black senior-citizen feline, whose philosophical, poetic Twitter feed was a source of much joy. Occasionally, The Bear would mention that he had under his wing a human, an author named Tom Cox, and he shared the said human with three other cats—Shipley, who swore a lot, Ralph, who was a rockstar-cat, and Roscoe, a businesswoman-cat.
Following Cox’s Twitter feed and reading his work on his website was a joy, for he was clearly a seriously talented writer, combining wit, humour and quirkiness with a taste for the slightly macabre that made his work unpredictable in outcome, but always enjoyable.
Help the Witch, Cox’s first short-story collection, came out in October 2018 and while I bought it almost immediately, it took me till a recent train journey to finally read it, and it turned out to be…well, different.
Help the Witch begins in an epistolary format, with a narrator excerpting from his diary about moving into a new home in the north of England. Gradually, two neighbours are revealed, his landlord and a tenant farmer, and the narrator comments on the mysterious behaviour of his cats as well as the tendency of his wooden Owl figurine to end up in the trash. The village itself has a darker past than is at first apparent, and by the time the source of the strange happenings around the narrator are revealed, you settle in for what looks like being a very different sort of spooky novel…
And then it becomes something else entirely.
For Tom Cox is clearly not writing to his audience, even if he is writing for one. Help the Witch is, nominally, a collection of short stories, but it is not quite that simple. All conventional ideas about how a collection should be compiled are thrown out of the window, and stories jump from horror to humour, from charming ghost stories to slice-of-life narratives, from first-person to omnipresent third-person viewpoints. Through all of it, the only constant is Cox’s amazing ability to pitch the language in just the right way to keep a reader interested in the moment.
That said, the sheer non-linear, unstructured nature of the stories and the book overall, is likely to be a turn-off for some readers. The horror elements are unconventional, and Cox’s humour relies on absurdity and clever turn of phrase rather than satire or situation. What holds the disparate tales together is their deep love for the environment from which they spring; a viewpoint that sees nature as neither a deified mother-figure or an unimportant part of the background, but as a living, breathing element in symbiotic co-existence with us. Sometimes, she is scary, and sometimes, she is stunningly beautiful, and that, really, is what Cox brings out best in his writing.
Help the Witch left me smiling, and even from a third of the way across the globe, the environs and people Cox wrote about came to life very vividly. All said and done, a quirky, meandering trek through a fascinating corner of the world that I would only recommend to those who don’t mind getting their brain slightly scrambled by the end.