28 March 2010

Book Review: The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin

The Dead Path When he was ten years old, Nicholas Close found a strange and sinister object on the path running beside the woods. He didn’t touch it, but his best friend Tristram did - and the next day Tristram was dead.

Twenty-five years later, Nicholas returns to his childhood home with a newfound ability to see the dead in their final moments. Much to his surprise, the woods - unlike so much else in Brisbane - have failed to fall victim to the developers’ bulldozers. They’re as menacing as ever - and haunted. On the night of his arrival, another child disappears, and a few days later is found dead in the same manner as Tristram. Both were apparently killed elsewhere, but their ghosts show otherwise. The evil lurking among the trees is still there, and the woods aren’t the only part of the suburb of Tallong to be tainted. This time, though, the entity wants more than children - it wants Nicholas.

I was thrillled to see this in the library without a seven-day loan sticker on the front. The publicity - not to say hype - in the arts pages of the Courier-Mail proclaimed it to be scarier than Stephen King; I’ve never read King but did want to see whether it was creepier than Dracula (which had me looking over my shoulder after dark for days).

And one-third of the way through, I was creeped out. (I really should have known that the neat little redback on the cover presaged more and larger arachnids to come....) The subtropics may not sound like a good setting for gothic terrors, but here they are (in midwinter, admittedly). For me, it was all the more eerie because of the familiarity. I know the city, the shape of the trees, the sound of the trains, the fictional Tallong’s precise location. That, plus the spiders and a chilling new take on the “I see dead people” routine, left me feeling distinctly uneasy.

Until the supernatural element took an unfortunate turn for the absurd. Ever watched a horror movie where the special effects were so obvious you wanted to laugh? I felt kind of like that.

As a long-time ghost story fan, of necessity at least part of my brain has the ability to believe temporarily in things which I know could never be real. Nothing is truly spooky unless you can imagine that it might, just possibly, happen; unless you want to ignore your rational thoughts and check that everything’s normal, just to make sure. Something to which your first reaction is “No way!” is unlikely to end up being more than a bit of mildly chilling fun. And so it was with The Dead Path.

Another drawback was the way it hit upon two of my pet peeves. First and most significant, a main character who does Dumb Things. Like heading into the sinister forest without telling anyone where he’s going and with insufficient precautions ... and Nicholas does this more than once. He takes more equipment with him each time, but never food or water. You’d think anyone who grew up in Australia would have heard enough tales of ill-fated bushwalkers to know better than that. He also seems to get a kick out of baiting the police, while under suspicion. Mostly, though, I liked Nicholas in spite of his obvious flaws ... well, except for peeve number two, that dig at Canberra. (My hometown has a reputation for being eye-glazingly dull and gets disparaged accordingly.)

I extended the author a measure of forgiveness for sending me to the dictionary so often, and a supporting cast of female characters ready and willing to kick some evil butt - despite, in the case of one, being only a child. She was smarter and gutsier than most adults, and I wish there were more characters like her. And I loved the ending ... even though I still can’t quite work out how it happened.

Rating: B-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776