There is a line where mist becomes fog and during the early days of December it is crossed. But it’s not during fog that what has been growing in the river breaks the surface and takes a look around. It’s on a clear night after a frosty day where sheer cold has made resilient leaves surrender and quiver to the ground.
Today I am delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for the first fictional offering from writer, Tom Cox. I’ve been a follower of Tom on social media on both Facebook and Twitter for some time now and have very much enjoyed his cat related musings and following his highs and lows over the years. I am very much a cat (and general animal) lover and so have been drawn to the sensitivity and connection that he quite clearly has towards them. He is a person who appears to feel things deeply; sensitive, enquiring and what I would call an ‘old soul’. Therefore I was incredibly excited to hear about his latest project of a selection of short stories. Ghost stories. So I am delighted to have been invited to take part in this blog tour celebrating this fantastic book and also to be able to put some questions to the author.
Help the Witch is a beautifully presented selection of short stories with a ghostly, other worldly theme. Storytelling has been prevalent since before man could read and write. Tales told orally would be passed down from generation to generation as a means to educate, inspire and entertain. Of course now there are many means of telling a story. Tom has delighted us for years with his writing through a variety of mediums including books, journalism and his website ,where he states ‘since 2015 I’ve written many many thousands of words about about nature, folklore, music, books, landscape, family, social history, films and more’. I love reading his work and he has a wonderful gift of putting words together to create something rather magical. Help the Witch is his first book of fictional stories and I asked him what inspired him to write this particular selection of short stories.
‘Walking and what I find while I do it has always been a big inspiration for me – particularly during my latest non-fiction book, 21st Century Yokel, and – in a more wintry, haunting sense – ‘Help The Witch’. Derelict buildings. Old clothes left on fence posts, creating an inadvertent figure who, upon being approached from the other side might potentially have a gnashing nightmare face. Copses and spinneys that retain and trap events from the distant past. What you have in ‘Help The Witch’ are some remnant echoes of the folk horror novels I tried and failed to write in my late 20s and early 30s – hopefully in more coherent, less overreaching form. It’s all really the result of a burning ambition to write spooky stories that I’ve had since I was seven years old, but tempered with scepticism, questions, a reverence for nature as the true magic and religion, and executed in a manner more minimalist than it might once have been, allowing some spaces for the reader to choose their own adventure.’
So now I ask you reader, do you believe in ghosts? Some people are sceptical, after all we now live in a world where our thirst for knowledge can’t be quenched. In the past 100 years science has moved on in an alarming rate and yet there are still so many questions that remain unanswered. To some, if we can’t explain it then it simply can’t be real. Yet constantly we seem drawn to tales that go straight to the heart of these unanswerable questions, perhaps because they spark curiosity and fear. It is natural to fear the unexplained. Tom has a wise voice, an old soul, who, although a self-confessed ‘near sceptic’, questions the world around him and looks beneath the layers of what surrounds us. I asked him what it is that fascinates him about ghost stories.
‘Apart from the basic thing that makes so many people fascinated by ghosts – a slightly inward looking question about what we are and where all our energy goes when we’re no longer alive – I’m interested in the idea of buildings, and other spaces, that absorb events and seem to hold them. I am interested in the intangible magic that age gradually begins to add to some objects. What is also interesting when you’re writing ghost stories and tell people that is that nearly everyone has a story to share from their life, even if they are a total sceptic: an incident, often nocturnal, with no rational scientific explanation. I’m not a total sceptic, and I’ve got a few of these incidents too, although I don’t think I can honestly state that I have seen a ghost in any traditionally recognised sense. Most of all, I think, as I get older, I am more and more fascinated – happy to get totally lost in – history, and I think if you’re fascinated by that, it’s hard not to be fascinated by ghosts in some form.’
Personally I do believe in ghosts. I believe that we each carry an energy and that events and situations leave an imprint on the places we have been. I too have never knowingly seen a ghost but I often sense something that has been left behind. This is one of the things I found interesting about the stories in Help the Witch, they aren’t simply your traditional creaking doorways and things seen out of the corner of your eye. The stories are almost subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
I enjoyed the sheer variety of stories that fill the book. No two where the same and I found each and every one enticing. It feels like a collection of tales developed over time, handed down through generations. I can imagine them being read aloud around a camp fire as the sounds of nature surround you, along with the deep, silent dark.
My favourite story is from where the title of the collection is taken, ‘Help the Witch‘. It was to my mind the spookiest, or perhaps just a little more obviously spooky than the others. It’s tone and style of narration put me in mind of Emily Brontë as I read. Tom creates atmosphere and a sense of place wonderfully. He entwines history through the tale, gradually bringing the ghosts alive. I have recently read an article by Tom called ‘the ghosts of the mountain house’ which talks about his (rather brave) plan of method-writing when working on the book, ‘to retreat to a spooky place to put it together.’ I must say it certainly worked, and reading about his stay at a desolate farmhouse in the Peak District makes the story even more spine-tingling.
Each writer is as unique as their stories and I always find the writing process fascinating. I asked Tom to tell me a little of his methods such as if he keeps a writer’s notebook or journal.
‘I wish I’d kept journals when I was younger. I try not to have regrets in life, but that might be one. I started keeping them in earnest about a decade ago, when I was already 32. It would be interesting, just for my own entertainment, to look back on an earlier period in my life in print. Far more interesting than reading record reviews I wrote for newspapers in my early 20s, I’m sure. I had my bag stolen in August, containing a year’s worth of thoughts towards future books. It still hurts, although I don’t think it was my best or fullest journal. I write down weird things that have happened to me or people I’ve met: sometimes incredibly mundane, but weird. Sometimes the very act of writing them helps you remember them and you don’t even need to refer back to them.’
So what happens when the time comes to sit down and write? How does your first draft come? Handwritten or typed?
‘Typed. I’ve becoming better at pushing through and writing a load of text in longhand but ultimately I’m part of the first generation of people whose customary way to write is using a computer: I’m accustomed to the luxury it gives you of fiddling with text as you go along.’
Do you have a writing routine or do you just write as and when?
‘My ideal routine is to start between six and seven am, and write all the way through
to late lunchtime. Then maybe go for a walk in the afternoon, or do some editing or
admin. These best laid plans happen too seldom though, and in reality my schedule
is far more chaotic. One thing that stays a stone fact is that I never write anything
very great between 1pm and 4pm. If someone tells you they wrote something great
between 1pm and 4pm, they’re lying.’
One of the things that initially drew me to Tom was his love for cats and his ability to look at the world through their eyes with humour, love and compassion. My own cat, Mr Perry, features heavily on my personal instagram account and I am always fascinated how these creatures who share our lives become such an important part of them. There is a feline presence in the title story ‘Help The Witch’ and so I was curious how much of an influence Tom’s cats had on his fictional stories too.
‘I was writing non-fiction and journalism for years without cats being a known theme of my writing life, but they bullied their way into my writing quite often. So I relented and
gave them the floor for four books, while also using that as a way to write about lots
of other themes. They were like Trojan cats. People saw them on book covers, and
didn’t realise they were a way to smuggle in stories about family, the countryside,
landscape, other animals, plus a bit of light DIY philosophy. I think they’ll always be
popping in, whatever I write, although they’re probably not as dominant as people
who haven’t read my books often assume. I’m a creatively stubborn person, but
hopefully not needlessly stubborn, and this book has a strong witchy undercurrent.
Not letting a few cats have cameo roles to add to that undercurrent would have been
Help the Witch is a great collection of stories and one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading and writing about. It’s also visually stunning and the illustrations sit perfectly alongside the stories. Even those have left a ghostly shadow on the opposite page, something that only adds to the overall ethereal feeling that accompanies the book. It is only right that I hand the last few words of this piece over to Tom to answer the question, will you be writing more fictional tales?
‘Absolutely. That has always been part of the plan. I’d always assumed that when I finally published some fiction I’d do nothing but that forever. But I don’t quite feel like that now. I get a lot of pleasure out of fiction and non-fiction. I hope to write much more of both. That said, since finishing Help The Witch, so many more eerie stories have been knocking on the door – often in the early hours – and I can only oblige and let them in.’
Tom has a completely fabulous and fascinating website so do pop along for a look here.
Thank you to Anne Carter of Random Things Tours and Tom for sending me this wonderful book.