Paths Best Left Untrodden
Robert Welbourn reviews Paths Best Left Untrodden, a ‘brilliant’ and varied collection of short stories from Kev Harrison.
If you’re a regular reader of my book reviews, you’ll know I have a lot of thoughts when it comes to short story collections. One of the advantages of a single-author collection is that the author gets to play around when it comes to genre. Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, for example, are both prolific short story writers (although Shirley Jackson less so these days). However, they don’t limit themselves; their short stories fall into all genres, as well as plenty which transcend genre altogether. My point is that a short story collection by a sole author gives that author plenty of room to explore, to be creative, to try something different. In Paths Best Left Untrodden, Kev Harrison does just this. And he does it brilliantly.
As with King and Jackson, Harrison is mainly a horror writer, and it shows. However, he’s also not afraid to get out of his comfort zone and try something different. This collection spans horror, historical fiction, and sci-fi, as well as commenting on social issues. Harrison approaches each topic carefully; he writes about some difficult subjects, but he does it respectfully, and with style and grace. It’s a pleasure to read his writing.
While he does play with genre, in some of these stories Harrison sticks to good old-fashioned horror. In ‘Snap’, for example, we have a nice little story about a child whose toy drawer is haunted. It’s a simple concept, and only a very short short story, but the way Harrison writes it – it just works. He’s incredibly adept at writing atmosphere, not just in this story, but the whole collection too. In ‘Contaminated’, a story about infectious mould that can’t be tamed, as well as in ‘Suppression’, a Minority Report-style story about predicting future crimes, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Harrison has a way of drip-feeding information that makes you not just want, but need to know more. The pages kept turning, and for the most part I couldn’t put this book down.
‘Left Behind’ is a story about a future Venice which has been reclaimed by the ocean – something which isn’t far from happening in real life. It’s horror mixed with adventure, and Harrison gets the tone just right. ‘Reasons For My Abscondence’ is a letter from a Victorian governess to the head of the household she’s just fled, for reasons I won’t spoil in this review. ‘The Fourth Wall’ is about a cam girl whose work and personal lives begin to intertwine in scary ways.
I mentioned King and Jackson earlier, not just because they’re the masters at what Harrison does here, but also because a couple of these stories reminded me of them. ‘The Solstice’ is about a small village and an annual event that takes place there to decide its fate. It reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, perhaps the most famous short story ever written. And ‘The Solstice’ holds up next to it: comparing Harrison to the masters is not unflattering. ‘The Waiting Game’ is about person vs creature in a battle not just of flesh, but also of wills. It reminded me greatly of King’s novel Cujo: again, the comparison is incredibly complimentary.
As with a lot of short story collections, not every story is a hit. The collection’s opening, ‘Big Game’, tackles a familiar concept from horror and sci-fi without really adding much. And ‘Special Order’ is just a bit too strange, a bit too weird, to be overly enjoyable.
However, these few misses don’t detract from the book as a whole. Paths Best Left Untrodden is wonderful – really a fantastic read. It isn’t 100% perfection, but you can always appreciate the stories for what Harrison has attempted. Overall, I very much enjoyed this collection, and (as you’re reading this review on a horror website!) I think you will too.
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