The Dead Path
Stephen M. Irwin
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Buy *The Dead Path* by Stephen M. Irwin

The Dead Path
Stephen M. Irwin
384 pages
October 2010
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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I was initially enthusiastic about Irwinís The Dead Path, with its dark horror and twisted descriptions of giant spiders which inhabit a haunted wood that seems to dissolve into terrifying darkness before our very eyes. Here the ghosts of dead people and an evil ancient seamstress somehow connect to Australiaís turbulent and violent convict ancestry. In a world painted in a palette of grays, terrifying visions threaten to swamp Nicholas Close as he returns to Australia from England under tragic circumstances.

Back in the quiet Brisbane suburb of Tallong, the beloved home of his childhood, Nicolasís life has been neither casual nor arbitrary. The woods just off Carmichael Road are still there, standing like an ďendlessly huge row of black teeth,Ē and they still make Nicholas suck in his breath at the memory of a hot November day a quarter-century ago when he and his best friend, Tristam, ran terrified from a killer.

The cold dawn of realization finally hits, and Nicolas remembers that summer of 1982 as he begins to have visions of the invisible dead curled up in broken spaces, screaming silently, their dead eyes rolling. Katharine, Nicholasís mother, is pleased to see him, but she has an urge to avoid her son because of the bad luck he might bring - just as her drunken husband, Donald, did in the years before he disappeared.

Nicholas, Katharine, and Nicolasís sister, Suzette - just up from Sydney - must come to terms with the undertow of quiet blame that has dragged on for years. What really jumpstarts Nicholasís decent into hell is the arrival of a local detective with a laminated color copy of a blond seven-year-old. The boy looks eerily similar to Tristam. Neither Nicholas or Katharine need to remark on how unnervingly like 1982 this is - especially when, three days later, the police find the boyís body under a pile of demolished timber with his throat slit wide open.

Caught in his own death loop, images constantly appear and haunt Nicholasís fractured mind as surely as the ghosts haunt his life. Reaching out for help, he tells Suzette of the place where he lost Tristam, the shotgun tunnels under the tall, rusted waterpipe, and how heís positive that other boys were murdered in the woods where their ghosts still dwell.

Spider's silk deceptively wrapping tightly around him, the sentient trees seething in the dark woods, Nicholas listens to the voices of the murdered. Clues and portents abound: a deadly tunnel cloaked with spiders; a dead bird with its head removed and a sharpened stick put in its place; a shop on a quiet suburban street where a mysterious old woman with dark eyes set in a pale wrinkled face appears like the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel, albeit with far deadlier intentions.

Blending ancient black magic rituals with elements of gothic mystery, Irwin packages everything into an overly stuffed, heavy-handed and sometimes leaden plot. Conversely, his luxuriant and embellished prose transforms an innocent Australian neighborhood into an unsuspecting vehicle for a collection of sinister events, including murder.

Although not my literary milieu, I found The Dead Path rich in atmosphere. Irwinís version of evil is certainly as persistent as the mysterious Green Man whose face appears throughout, wrapped in leaves as he looks over events with a spectral eye as a witch plots death in her secretive cottage. With only a nightmarish fox-sized spider for company, she spins her murderous threads, waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting child. Nicholas, the unlikely savior, also becomes a reluctant slayer in this strange journey, where this woman - sinner, murderer, and dancer with demons - morphs into something chillingly supernatural before Nicholas's eyes.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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