The Dead Path
Stephen M. Irwin

Hardcover, 384 pages, $25.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

The fairy tale fear of the haunted woods is superbly invoked in The Dead Path, Stephen M. Irwin’s debut novel. The author takes the dark road to terror, creating a chiaroscuro ambiance that melds magic (black and white) with the mundane; and augury with angst. He puts the intriguing protagonist through paces that thrill and chill, all the while doing an outstanding job of characterization.

Tragedy propels Nicholas Close to return to his native Australia. While living in London, his wife dies in a bizarre accident. Soon Nicholas, always a bit psychic, is having visions. Spectres flood his consciousness: “Now, in those silent attics, garages, basements, and back rooms, behind boarded windows or under musty eaves or paused on damp cellar stairs, he watched empty-eyed men throw ropes over rafters, thin farmers ease their yellow teeth over phantom shotgun barrels, tight-jawed mothers stir rat poison into tea, young men slip hosing over invisible exhaust pipes … over and over and over.”

Once back in his hometown, however, Close’s torment escalates. The foreboding forest, the setting of the abduction and murder of a childhood friend, is claiming new victims. Nicholas starts seeing other children from the past who were killed in the surroundings. Runic symbols; mutilated animals; and a multitude of oversized phobia-inducing spiders, weave their way through the spooky narrative. As he unravels the mystery that concerns sorcery and a pagan entity, Close must embrace his own place in it. In a sense, he’s never quite out of the woods, which are ominously described: “Vines and trees wound around themselves like snakes carved of something at once frozen and moving, living and dead. Everything was green with growth or green with moss or green with rot; even the blackest shadow was a dark jade. Fallen trunks covered with dark vine lay like scuttled and rotting submarines at the bottom of a dim, glaucous sea.” The verdant, lush growth is depicted as threatening; rather than being inviting and delightful in its profuseness.

Author Irwin is unsparing in conveying despair. He cuts to the core of forlornness. For the apparitions: “Fear and confusion. That was all Nicholas ever saw in their eyes. Terror, bafflement a glum desire to be done with. Never enlightenment. Never portents of heaven or signs of the divine. And they were everywhere. There was no escape, no refuge, no place without ghosts.” For Nicholas and the others who feel emotionally impotent and manipulated, a psychological toll is taken. There is a pervasive sense of disheartenment; a profound inadequacy, stemming from squaring off with the supernatural. This is reflected in a poignant passage, in which Nicholas regards his image in a mirror, and sees: “A pale man with straw-blond hair, bleary eyes, and a distracted expression. The look you saw on shoeless men in tube stations and on sparrow-fingered street-corner preachers – a face you’d give wide berth to because it seemed one ill-aimed word away from crazy.”

Stephen M. Irwin’s The Dead Path is a brilliantly bewitching book that beguiles with finesse. Its atmosphere stirs the senses, while the colorful characters are spellbinding. Some are, literally, spellbinders.

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