Rating: 5 stars
Last year, Tom Cox published his wonderful book of nature writing, 21st Century Yokel, through Unbound. Having loved that book, the writing, the design, the entire spirit of the thing, as soon as he announced his first collection of fiction, I pledged.
The book arrived a couple of weeks ago. I saved it to take on holiday, to read on my birthday. Hallowe’en seemed an appropriate moment to read a collection of spooky short stories. I didn’t read it all on my birthday. I ended up drawing it out for as long as possible because I wanted to relish the stories.
I started with the last story in the book, because the title intrigued me. An Oral History of Margaret and the Village by Matthew and Five Others is wonderful writing. Part direct reminiscence of childhood, part oral history excerpts, it examines the nature of being slightly different to your peers, not fully accepted and easily othered. Everyone has a backstory. When that backstory is one that makes the comfortable feel discomfort, it is too easy for the comfortable to turn their fear of discomfort into an attack. It put me in mind of fly on the wall documentaries, with the punctuation of Matthew’s experience of village life with testimony from people who had lived there for longer than him. The use of dialect reminded me that, although we set ourselves tribal boundaries, there isn’t much that separates us. The Derbyshire twang in this story is close to the Lanky I grew up with and the Yorkshire across the border.
I went back to the beginning of the collection next, and the title story. This tale is written in a style that allows the reader to layer their own meaning on top of Cox’s seed of an idea. From reading the pieces on his website and following him on Instagram, I recognised elements of his own life in the story, but I started to read it as the story of a woman, possibly the witch herself, made flesh in the narrator. There’s a line that sat well with that feeling, where the narrator says, “I just hadn’t noticed that I had hands.” Even though the witch becomes a separate entity further into the story and outs the narrator as a man, my own perception lingered. This is also a story about not being accepted, being seen as other, because of communal fear of difference. It’s a story, too, about solitude and the power of isolation over the mind. The landscape is a character in the tale. It is white and hard and sharp. It has its own smell. It has fangs. The light forms barriers of different kinds as the seasons change. The fog is a threat, with no thought of nostalgia. Nothing is a direct threat, but nor is it a reassurance.
As I skipped about through the stories, I noticed commonalities. The presence of hares. People (and geese) with limps. A level of whimsy that was darker than whimsy usually has us believe it is. A tongue in cheek humour that urges us not to take things so seriously. A reminder that the dead were people too, no different to us, with the same petty frustrations and inconsequential obsessions. That sense that what we call the supernatural is our own mind reacting to the things we don’t want to acknowledge about ourselves, the things about ourselves that we would rather externalise and demonise.
The title of the collection made me think about witches in a way I haven’t done for a while. Because my birthday is Hallowe’en, I have spent a lot of time thinking about witches over the years. I’ve often thought that you can’t self appoint as a witch. You have to be nominated. I’ve known a fair few people who, on discovering that my birthday is Hallowe’en, have told me that they are witches, but they weren’t at all. They just wanted to be thought of as different.
Witches have been a presence in my imagination since the moment my sister (eleven years older than me and with a sophistication of imagination better developed than mine at the time) told me that they lit a bonfire and danced around it on the day I was born. That folklore doesn’t seem as embedded in everyday life in the way it was in the 1970s. If you made an observation like that to a child now, they’d probably think you’d lost your mind. Perhaps it was different in my family, though. We’re from a moorside town in Lancashire that industrialised rapidly and developed a veneer of sophistication because of its proximity to Manchester. I don’t think it ever fully lost its pre-modern ways, though. Lancashire has a history of witchcraft and witch hunting, both of which were taught in school as part of our heritage. In my family history, too, is a strand of Welshness, which is where my sister’s notion of lighting a fire on the occasion of my birth probably came from. The Welsh tradition centres on Nos Galan Gaeaf, when fires and naming stones are used to protect the living from the spirits that cross the border between realities.
The stories in this collection pick away at what it might mean to be a witch. In Folk Tales of the Twenty-Third Century, for example, there’s a folktale called Big Lev and the Origin of the ‘Unlucky Thirteen’, in which witches band together to form a democracy without leaders. It’s a practical co-operative, the opposite of what we tend to think a coven is.
That particular tale made me smile because the day before I read it, my husband had unexpectedly revealed to me his worry that he lacks any of the necessary skills to survive in the imminent survivalist world it looks like we’re entering. The tale of Big Lev is set in a future past where electricity only exists in the east of England and those of us on the sinister side of the country, which I took to be that side that lies west of the Pennines, have returned to the old ways of hunting and gathering. I argued against my beloved’s pessimism, being firmly of the belief that we’re an adaptive species with enough curiosity to work things out in a world devoid of electronic memory and mass communication. We’ve evolved to adapt and survive and to kid ourselves that we have mastery over our environment, and we will adapt and survive again to maintain that collective delusion.
Over the rest of that day, my mind wandered away from our apocalyptic debate, resting on the word sinister and what it means. Obviously, in Latin it means left hand side, which fits with Cox’s assertion that the return to a way of life determined by nature would be in the west since, when you look at a map, the west is on the left. But then in the wider west, we associate sinister with the east, because when we were conquering the world and imposing our Christian perspective on people who had developed their own ways of interpreting the world, the ways of ‘The Orient’ were viewed as occult, for which sinister had come to be a byword. That’s the sort of tangent my brain likes to follow.
I started to read Help the Witch while we were staying in the Lake District, a landscape that lent itself well to Cox’s stories with its rugged fells and fragments of mist sitting over valleys, floating above lakes and riding the tops of the hills. We visited Dove Cottage, and I was struck by how recently we still lived in close contact with nature, something that we no longer do with our access to electricity, central heating and running water. Dorothy Wordsworth gathered rushes to increase the light of the tallow candles she made. She walked up the lane to collect water from a well. Her buttery was cooled by a culvert running down from the nearby hillside and under the house. Her toothbrush was a twig, her toothpaste either a paste of salt or ashes from the fire. This way of living would have kept the Georgians and early Victorians in closer communion with nature than we are today. Cox’s stories are set in the now and the approaching now, and they remind us that we are not as far from the forces of nature that have threaded humanity’s existence as we try to insist we are.
The Pool is a perfect example of this. It’s my favourite story in the collection. It inhabits the short story form perfectly. Short story writing is a different discipline to novel writing. A short story is not a shorter version of a novel or a taster of a chapter. It is cleverer than that. It’s a glimpse into a moment, complete and of itself. The Pool brings together a series of vignettes, tableaux from people’s lives that connect through a body of water. It hints at something bigger, some force that influences the people who visit, but it never draws a conclusion about that force. To do so would insult the reader. It’s clever in the way Shearsmith and Pemberton’s Inside No.9 is clever. Some short story writers make the mistake of thinking a story needs a beginning, middle and end. A good short story drops you into a moment or opens your senses to a feeling and leaves you free to draw your own conclusions.
I’d chosen my reading pattern based on the chapter titles and how much they drew me in to read them. I don’t usually do this with story collections, preferring to respect the order that the author has chosen. A bit like not putting an album on shuffle. I left Just Good Friends until the end. I don’t know what it was about the title, maybe it was too redolent of the 80s sit-com starring Jan Francis and Paul Nicholas, but it really didn’t grab me. What a treat the story is, though. Cox demonstrates his understanding of a particular type of woman. Helen is utterly believable. I’d add her to my list of literary characters I’d like to have a drink with. I was comforted both by the specific similarities in Helen’s life to my own and by the realisation that my experience of life has much in common with that of other people. Clever how he brings that sense of community in there again. I’m not going to say anything detailed about the story, just that it was the perfect way to end my reading shuffle. The story used to be available online at the Drugstore Culture site, before the magazine folded in 2019. I haven’t been able to find the story online elsewhere. If you want a flavour of Cox’s writing, he has made Robot from this collection available on his website.
I finished reading the collection back at home in suburban south Manchester. As the modern world of cars and internet and encroaching workplace time demands filled my head with noise and distraction again, it was a pleasure to immerse myself in these short reminders that just below the surface of this frantic existence, within touching distance, is another way of being in the world. Science is great, enlightenment is great, but sometimes we need to remember what we are as a species and where we have come from, reconnect with the place where we live in both its materiality and its intangible lore.