"Paths Best Left Untrodden" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Northern Republic
Written by Kev Harrison
2021, 179 pages, Fiction
Released on 5 June 2021
I first came across Kev Harrison last year when I read his impressive novella The Balance, a modern reimagining of the Slavic folk tale of Baba Yaga, set in Cold War Poland. Following that I dug deeper into his short fiction, some of which had been published by Demain via their Short Sharp Shock series and was taken by both Cinders Of A Blind Man Who Could See (book 13) and Curfew (book 55). When an author catches my eye, I enjoy exploring their back catalogue, and was equally impressed by the very cool Warding, first published in 2019. The reason I mention these stories is because none of them feature in Harrison’s debut collection Paths Best Left Untrodden and that should be seen as a major plus. The author did not have to scratch around mining these other stories to pad out this collection, as he had plenty of others in the tank to highlight his talents.
The endnotes give a fascinating insight into how the stories came about, many of which were written for open submission anthologies. You might say Kev Harrison wrote many of the stories ‘to order’ and nothing builds the confidence of an inspiring writer better than being accepted into another anthology! Harrison comes across as a very likable guy and I could feel his delight when he mentions appears in the same book as big hitters such as Josh Malerman, Jeff Strand and Richard Chizmar! An impressive number of the stories had been published previously in anthologies as wide ranging as the Other Stories podcast, Aphotic Realms, We Shall Be Monsters, Terror Politico, In Darkness Delight, Lost Film, Creeping Corruption and others.
As a rule, I usually read collections slowly, however, after finishing the opening entry "Big Game", I was caught up in the momentum and sped through the rest in no time. If you’ve ever watched the trashy 1990s Jean Claude Van-Damme action movie Hard Target, this story is an entertaining variation on that plot in which a hunting trip which does not exactly go as planned. The main character might not be JCVD, he is still full of his own surprises and is no shrinking violet. This is a great way of opening the collection and sets the bar high.
Some of my personal favourites are the longer tales, with "The Fourth Wall" being a sleazy little beauty. A Romanian sex cam worker rejects the opportunity of meeting one of her most reliable clients face to face, but before long he begins to invade her dreams, and like A Nightmare on Elm Street, the bruises inflicted are real. This is a tight little story, and although nothing is explained and the ending does feel a slightly abrupt, it still caught my attention and reeled me in. "Contaminated" is equally eye catching; a guy notices mould on his flat wall which spreads incredibly quickly and before long it has moved from above his bed, and overnight, onto his body. Make sure you stay tuned for the eye-watering ending which might have you checking for similar mould under your own bed.
Coincidentally the excellent "Suppression" has an incredibly similar storyline to Lisa M Stasse’s YA Forsaken Trilogy, where teenagers are tested to see whether they have the genes to potentially commit violence in the future. In Harrison’s spin on the story, the question is similar: Is propensity towards criminality is genetic? Harry comes home from school and mentions in passing that they did the ‘potential test early’ and immediately his mother twitches with fear when there is a knock at the door shortly after. This story is cleverly built around these early family moments of realisation, going from making a cheese toastie to being on the run in a few moments, and could quite easily be reworked into something more substantial.
Harrison’s endnotes comment that "Special Order" was rejected for an anthology called Tales for the Crust, but all the same, I enjoyed taking a juicy bite out of it. The action is set in the author’s hometown of Woking, which is where the Martians landed in War of the Worlds in the HG Wells classic, and is used as inspiration in an invasion story which opens in a pizza parlour. It is a light-hearted take(away) on the invasion story, and I chuckled a few times with the pizza brothers who put cash before humanity.
Elsewhere, a teenager dons a traditional mask in "The Solstice" to make a stand again dark spirits and finds himself with his work cut out until an unlikely ally comes to his aid. In "Snap", a little boy is troubled by a toy which scratches inside his cupboard after he has gone to bed, however, his mother is another potential threat. Watch out for the abrupt and painful ending! In the endnotes Harrison mentions this was a ‘marmite’ (love or hate it) story and I can see why. I thought the ending is a slightly cheap shot and this was another story which might have been reworked.
The remaining entries are also impressive; "Left Behind" is set in a future version of Venice which is under water due to Global Warming, but tourists still snoop around and get more than they bargained for. "No Such Thing as a Free Lunch" is a tad obvious but is still a pitch-black look at how we might deal with the problem with homelessness. "Muscle Memory" is themed around medical science and transplants whilst "The Waiting Game" features an unfaithful boyfriend stalked by a Komodo dragon, and in "Communion", a dying gangster uses cannibalism as a way of cheating death.
The number of horror collections on the market is huge and Kev Harrison’s Paths Best Left Untrodden is worthy of your attention. Its strength is its sheer variety of content, convincing settings and endings which differ in style encouraging the reader to make a quick start on the next story. Coupled with The Balance and his other published works, this author is developing an impressive reputation in the horror scene, and I look forward to Below, his novella published by Silver Shamrock later in the year.
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