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The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin

As I was getting into The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin, I vaguely began wondering whether this was an example of what we might properly call luminous prose. Not, you understand, that the words literally give off light, although that might be useful if ever you wanted to read in the dark. But that the experience of reading it was enlightening (pun intended). As the mild rumination persisted through the page turnings, I reached the conclusion that I’ve read work that was more brilliant — not always something I enjoy unless the consumption of ageing brain cells is actually justified by the story being told. Sadly, too many intellectual books are self-absorbed and intended merely to impress the readers impressed by brilliance for its own sake, or something. But, returning to the original sentence, this book strikes me as a good balance between some excellent prose and a story about ghosts, inklings and the kind of runic stuff we associate with druid tree-hugging types.

On the jacket, I notice another reviewer compares this first novel to the work of that King fellow. I suppose I should admit a prejudice at this point. Although Stephen of that ilk has a good ear for telling a story, he lacks discipline and writes at excessive length. I love his short stories. Some of the ideas are very elegant. But, when he sets his face to writing a novel, he comes from the spirit of the old pulp tradition when authors were paid by the word. I always wait for the Digest version or read the Wikipedia summaries. Whereas Stephen Irwin tells his story very economically and, to my mind, is all the better for it.

Starting off in London, we then switch hemispheres and, in an Australian suburb still retaining its green lung of trees, play the hero-as-boy-and-returning-widower backstory game as the plot thickens. Put simply there seems to be something killing off children over time and it may not be too pleased our hero avoided being one of these victims as a boy. Why did our boy survive? Well, he and some of the more fortunate in his family have some mild supernatural talents. This enables them to see ghosts and, perhaps more importantly, sense when they might be in danger — a useful digital pricking when something wicked their way comes.

Stephen M. Irwin taking a moment to commune with nature

I suppose if I wanted to be cruel I could list all the plot ideas that have been well-worked through the pages of horror and supernatural writing like spiders which I first remember encountering back in the 1950s when studying classical mythology including the story of Arachne, and then in novels like The Haunting of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley. In this story, we are back with the idea of the Goblin Spiders who help witches steal children away, this time with the primary familiar being a large shapeshifter called Garnock. The name sometimes refers to those who live by a river flanked by alder trees, much loved in Celtic mythology — one of these happy coincidences much beloved by authors. Yet such explanations in a listing are unhelpful. All they do is allow me to show off a certain encyclopaedic knowledge without advancing us very far in reviewing this book. So let’s content ourselves with a general assertion that, although we may have seen some or most of these ideas elsewhere, The Dead Path ends up being a strikingly original work.

From an early stage it’s fairly clear who’s “responsible” for all the bad stuff, although the why is less obvious until basic research delves into the past and we get the more definitive explanation at the end — villains must always taunt their helpless victims with confessions of their clever wickedness. As a piece of writing, I cannot remember a recent work that has managed to create and sustain such a sense of menace. It’s beautifully done by deft touches in the descriptive language and then, as the person finally breaks into view, we see malevolent effectiveness as opponents are attacked and casually laid low.

So who should hunt this killer? The answer comes when two share the same feature. That they have both escaped the lure? Well, that’s not quite right but, when people have been so close to death, it gives them a bond. They find the way, the path that leads to the cottage. No one says the gingerbread house has to rely on an oven. It can have a grove just outside where the children can sit waiting for their death. A place where the trees can watch. Perhaps even the Green Man could put in an appearance.

Overall, The Dead Path is one of the best supernatural horror novels I’ve read for quite some time and it’s well worth you tracking down a copy.

For those of you who might be tempted to think this man has sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus or some other god better associated with fiction. Stephen Irwin has been writing for some years both as a “conventional” author of fiction and as screenwriter, currently writing for the Australian television drama series, Crosswires. He has paid his dues and, hopefully, seeing the general reaction to this novel, he can be persuaded to write at least one more.

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