Short story collections can be a risky affair at the best of times. Is the author presenting to us a disparate collection of oddities for which they could find no home anywhere else? Does the collection smear itself across the spectrum of quality so widely that the potential held by each story proves inconsistent and erratic? Will we find any cohesion or consistency therein?
From the first entry to the last, Off the Beaten Path makes its intention clear: quality shall not be compromised for a single sentence throughout this masterfully-constructed collection.
Oh, and it plans on unsettling the crap out of you, too.
Wofford Lee Jones explains in the back page summary that each story focusses on some dark discovery, and what better a premise for horror? What the summary resists in revealing is the variety with which these discoveries will be unveiled. From the sinister intentions held by those closest to us, to the Cronenbergian truth behind that drink that didn’t go down quite so well earlier, to the turning of the tables by those most vulnerable and subjugated, to the unfolding of revenge-sewn plans designed to torture and torment: the scope of this mad array of wicked tales is staggering, and truly leaves you both begging for mercy, and praying for more.
The age-old adage warning us not to judge a book by its cover has been repeatedly proven empty; in my own exploration of indie horror these past few years, I have indeed found titles as lovingly packaged and designed as this to contain the very best on offer. Wofford’s collection holds true to this pattern, where you will find the staggeringly gorgeous cover art and flawless presentation a perfect preface to the tight and streamlined writing within, edited to perfection and composed with total mastery.
In keeping with its name, Off the Beaten Path truly strays from the tried and tested roads of mediocrity, carving out its own channels of originality and vision through the underbrush of modern horror fiction. There are few collections, let alone titles, that I’d recommend with greater vigour this year.
Wofford’s assortment of nightmares is going to stay with me forever. Give it the chance, and it’ll stay with you, too.