Sunday, 27 February 2011

Review: Stephen M. Irwin, The Dead Path (Doubleday, 2009)

Published in 2010 by Doubleday, The Dead Path is Stephen M. Irwin's first novel. It tells the story of Nicholas Close, a man troubled by visions of ghosts, who returns to his Australian home following the death of his wife. His return sparks a resurgence of childhood memories and coincidences with the murder of a child. Nicholas finds himself re-evaluating his formative years in Tallong, putting together pieces of a chilling secret, and being drawn further and further into the woods near Carmichael Road.

I was first introduced to The Dead Path as a 'horror' novel. Indeed, the backcover of the US hardback edition makes much of this generic classification, including a quote from The Guardian likening Irwin to Stephen King. I'm not completely convinced that this is the most apt categorization of The Dead Path; instead, I'm inclined to agree with Jeff Lindsay's description: "a truly creepy thrill-ride". This is a novel of suspense and creeps, rather than out-and-out horror - more shivers down your spine than lurches in your stomach.

That is not to say that the novel does not contain some pretty horrible set pieces (particularly if you have any aversion to arachnids), but Irwin's writing tends more towards the 'haunting' than the 'horrific'. For me, this was a real strong point. Gore and shocks do little for me, unless they are truly integral to plot. On the other hand, Irwin's style of low-key creepiness, which escalates into terror and fear, has more of a cumulative effect.

I refer to 'set pieces' and 'episodes' deliberately, as The Dead Path contains several of these. The pacing is careful, and the plotting considered. The story is told through a series of crescendos, before reaching its final climax. Each time, the reader feels they have learned more about what is happening in Tallong - but the last few pieces of the jigsaw are held back until the gripping conclusion. While other critics have praised Irwin's "electric use of language", I feel that the real strength lies in Irwin's intelligent and skillful storytelling. Clues, hints, implications are fed to the reader slowly, and the author demonstrates a real ability to control suspense. The ending is satisfying - and does justice to Irwin's overall technique.

Another aspect of The Dead Path that I found particularly strong was Irwin's construction of character. Nicholas Close is a believable and, on the whole, sympathetic character. His ability to see ghosts is utterly plausible within the consistently created world of the novel. Nicholas is a Samhain child - the implications of which he (and we) do not truly understand until later in the novel. Moreover, Irwin's ghosts, while not unique per se, are certainly well-drawn examples of their type.

However, it is Irwin's cast of supporting characters that really makes this novel for me. Unusually, these supporting roles are almost exclusively female. Nicholas's sister Suzette and mother Katharine, his late wife Cate and new-found acquaintance Laine Boye are fully-rounded and explored. Each of these women, and their relationship to Nicholas, is nuanced and different. Irwin does not rely on the hackneyed good girl/bad girl divide so favoured by some horror writers. I will say very little about my favourite character, as to do so would be to give away far too much of the plot. Suffice to say, Irwin's third-act heroine is a delightful creation (and I'm not just saying that because she shares my name!).

As the references here to ghosts, woodlands and Samhain may have suggested, the plotline of the novel is steeped in Celtic paganism. This surprised me a little, as it was not what I was expecting from an Australian novel. There are also elements of the plot that can be divined by a reader well-versed in this mythology. Nevertheless, Irwin adds enough of his own take on these legends to keep the suspense going. Certain revelations ground the novel very firmly in Australian history, and the suburbs of Tallong is convincing. Irwin's weaving together of Celtic myth and Australian 'reality' gives the story a fresh and vibrant feel, despite the fact that many other stories have trodden similar ground.

The Dead Path is a compelling read. Though it is not the most shocking or horrific 'horror' novel around, it has enough tension and creepiness to give you a shiver on a dark night. Well-plotted, and with well-drawn characters: I definitely recommend this book.

1 comment:

  1. Just ordered it can't WAIT to read it!!