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The Dead Path: Great Halloween Read

October 23, 2010

The Dead Path
Stephen M. Irwin
Doubleday October 2010 $26.00

Many thanks to Kristin Gastler at Random House for sending this my way.

Don’t read The Dead Path if you are already scared of spiders. Really.

Irwin’s prose combines exacting physical detail and a certain musicality of language. If you’re already scared of spiders, that combination of immediacy and phantasm will make certain passages unbearable to read. You have been warned.

But spiders are only one scary tool in Irwin’s arsenal. It seems that he’s drawing on a legacy of every ghost story that ever made a breathless reader decide to sleep with the lights on, to create a tale of modern menace with mythic heft. In other words, an excellent Halloween read.

Mourning the accidental death of his wife, Nicholas Close returns to his boyhood home a haunted man. In all senses of the word. Everywhere he goes, he has begun to see ghosts, anchored to their place and moment of death in an endless, macabre, feedback loop. The ordinary things Nicholas tries to do, work, take an airplane flight, even move back into his boyhood home, make these intrusions of ghosts even scarier. Especially with the keenness of Irwin’s details- the deaths are at once grisly and ephemeral.  Nicholas sees his wife Cate in their flat, falling from a ladder over and over again, even the marking the detail of plaster dust falling on her frozen-open sightless eyes. Brrr!

But homecoming is no refuge. The ordinary, sunny suburban town fairly thrums with menace. Impenetrably dark woods lurk alongside Carmichael road. Mothers caution their children not to walk that road. Young children have been kidnapped and murdered along that road. Among them, Nicholas’s boyhood friend, Tristram.

Author Stephen M. Irwin does an excellent job crafting a menacing atmosphere. His impenetrable and spooky woods have a particularly ravenous scariness. Reports of kidnapping and murder send a small town into outraged uproar, quieting as the murderer is named, caught, and takes his own life. Because of the physicality of Irwin’s writing, readers have no trouble feeling what Nicholas does, every cold sweat, every dread-induced twist of the stomach.

Irwin also adapts mythic elements into signposts to guide his particular story. Runes, dream imagery, even the legend of the Green Man, retain the heft of their mythic legacy, while being placed in the dark mystery surrounding Nicholas and stretching into his past and his hometown’s.

If I had to quibble about anything in this well balanced, frightening tale, it would be the instances where other members of the Close family point to Nicholas as having been somewhat fey all his life, with hunches and ESP-like pronouncements.

Because the pacing and description work so scarily well to position scary moments against ordinary ones, I would have liked to have Nicholas be perfectly, randomly, ordinary, not chosen because he was somehow born special. The best and most vivid scares in this story came from the idea that tragedy, and deeply chilling haunting, could happen to anyone, anywhere, ripping them right out of any kind of commonplace life. Brrr! There’s enough in the flashbacks of Nicholas’s childhood, and the book’s overall symbolism, to have pointed the way, without Nicholas being somehow keyed for it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ani' Stewart permalink
    October 28, 2010 10:55 am

    I hope I get this book for Christmas….. it is going to be so awesome….

  2. October 29, 2010 3:20 pm

    this book looks like it is a great read i havent seen it out yet but hope to next visit to the store thank you most sincerely M.F.

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