The Dead Path was Australian author Stephen M. Irwin‘s debut novel, and as debuts go, it isn’t half bad. The book follows antiques expert and guy-who-can-see-ghosts Nicholas Close (whose physical description put me in the mind of Neil Gaiman circa Good Omens for some reason), an Australian living abroad in England when his beautiful young wife meets an accidental end and sends Nicholas into a downward spiral that leads him back to his old home town of Tallong in Southern Australia to lick his wounds. But something is very much amiss in the otherwise peaceful and languid community where Nicholas grew up, and it’s connected to both the murder of his childhood buddy Tristram and the premature death of his own father. With all this tragedy in Nicholas’s life, it’s exceedingly obvious that something horrible is residing in Tallong, and he must take it upon himself to find out exactly what.
When he begins to investigate the town’s history, Nicholas discovers that children have a history of disappearing in Tallong as far back as the town’s founding. And so, with the help of an assortment of oddball characters—his slightly clairvoyant sister, an Indian priest, the widow of Tristram’s brother, a spunky 10-year-old girl—Nicholas delves into the beating heart of Tallong’s evil: an ancient patch of woods off Carmichael Road inhabited by an evil older than the town itself.
I would love to say that the novel was a real page-turner from beginning to end. Unfortunately, I can’t quite make that claim. Despite a pretty solid (if not particularly original) premise, the story takes a bit of time to build, and the big reveal of who’s behind the child murders isn’t terribly shocking. Think Hansel and Gretel and you won’t be far off the mark. In fact, there is something quite reminiscent of the darker Grimm’s fairy tales here, updated for a modern audience. The villain is not entirely unsympathetic, but she is fairly cookie-cutter and a bit too cartoonish to be fully effective at inducing chills. That said, the final confrontation between Nicholas and the Big Bad is pretty tense. The final act of the book is when it really shifts into high gear, and it’s a nail-biter for sure.
In terms of flaws, there are some plot issues that need work, such as the fact that one of the key characters doesn’t make an appearance until late in the book and could’ve used some fleshing out so that the reader would’ve had more emotional investment in her when she winds up in peril near the end of the story. Likewise, perhaps an early scene or two of the villain in action would’ve been nice. It’s not like the mystery of her identity was all that compelling anyway, and it would’ve been better storytelling to flesh out her history over the course of the book rather than have the big info dump at the end where she explains to Nicholas where she came from and why she does what she does, a technique so cliched at this point it’s almost parody. Oh, and if you’re terrified of spiders, you may want to avoid this one as there are a lot of spiders in it. Then again, you’re reading a horror novel. Why wouldn’t you want to be frightened by an army of arachnids?
On the positive side, the writing is crisp and Irwin displays a real knack for poetic turns of phrase, especially in his descriptions of nature. Most of his central characters are pretty well delineated too. I especially liked Nicholas’s sister Suzette and wish she’d played a bigger role in the book’s final act, but at least she wasn’t killed off. She and Nicholas could even team up for a sequel. With her psychic impressions and knowledge of witchcraft and Nicholas’s ability to see ghosts (“I see dead people . . .”), they would make a kick-ass paranormal investigation team. I was also quite fond of the Indian priest Reverend Anand, though the older priest was a bit much. I think he was supposed to be likably cantankerous, but instead he just came off as racist and unpleasant. The appearance of a certain famous nature spirit at the end was a nice touch—I could see Guillermo del Toro’s influence in its description. Overall, a solid if imperfect opener for a promising writer.