Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Dead Path

The most over-used cover blurb in horror fiction is some version of “The next Stephen King!” There’s good reason for this, as King is the all-time horror sales reader, and is still hitting the best-seller lists 35 years after his debut, but the only Stephen King is still the original. Horror readers have learned to wince and ignore the hyperbole, which has to have been used with half the published horror writers over the years, and it has become pretty much of a joke, and most reviewers who want to be taken seriously have learned to avoid the comparison. I bring this up because I’m about to do it myself, as far as I can remember for the first time, with the debut novel of Australian author Stephen M. Irwin, The Dead Path.

Nicholas Close is an Australian expatriate living a good life in London. He’s got a good job, buying antiques to use in design for restaurants, and is in love with his wife, Cate. A tragic combination of accidents ends his dream, as Cate is killed, and he is left with an unwanted ability: to see the dead. His is not a hip, useful ability to converse with the spirits of the dead and gone, but a debilitating one. If he is where a death has occurred, he sees the person’s demise, repeated over and over again, including that of his wife. This destroys whatever chance he had of living a decent life in London (in such an old city, there probably aren’t too many locations where someone didn’t die at one time or another) and send him back to Australia, to his home town of Tallong and his distant mother.

Tallong presents more problems to Nicholas, as there is a patch of sinister woods near his old house mostly shunned by locals. When Nicholas was a boy, he and his best friend were chased through those woods by a killer. Nicholas escaped; his friend was found days later with his throat cut. This event is brought to the forefront of his mind upon his return when he learns another boy has died in similar fashion in the same woods. Haunted and with time on his hands, Nicholas learns children have been killed in a similar fashion for over a hundred years. Something ancient and evil lurks in those dark woods, and it has long had plans for him. He learns his past is more intertwined with those dark experiences than he could have imagined, and he may very well be the only one who can stop them.

I was riveted by this novel. It is the best horror novel I have read this year, and time will tell how high it ranks with me overall. Irwin has a smooth assured style, very much so for a first time novelist, and the book has a narrative flow that has become somewhat rare these days. I hate to make the comparison, but The Dead Path reminds me of nothing so much as early-to-mid period Stephen King, and in all the right ways. Transplant the location from Australia to King’s Maine, and it would fit in well with the better part of his body of work. If you like Stephen King, and if you read horror you probably do, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like The Dead Path. I loved it, and I will be eager to see what Mr. Irwin writes next. A hat tip to my friend Matt Staggs for this one.

A lot has been made in recent months about the future of horror being found in the small press, but I have to say that most of the enjoyable new horror novels I’ve read in the past few months have come from mainstream publishers, with The Passage and The Fall joining The Dead Path on my tentative best of 2010 list.

If you live in the UK, The Dead Path was published there last year under the Bentley Little-ish title The Darkening. Normally, I think U.S. titles are somewhat dumbed down, but I think here The Dead Path is a superior title.

{Addition} As The Doctor points out in the comments, The Dead Path was the original title in Australia, it was changed to the more generic one in the UK. For no good reason, I think.


John Hornor said...

This book looks great, Joe. I'll have to pick up a copy. And if YOU say he reminds you of Stephen King, that's saying something.

Jim Mcleod said...

SFX Magazine, when reviewing, made a big jibe about the title, saying just by adding "ing" to the end of a word doesn't make it sinister

KentAllard said...

Somebody did a parody of a horror novel some years ago, and titled it The Gerunding. No doubt an English major.

Peter said...

You sold me, Joe.
I'll be ordering it just as soon as the wife gets home and gives me the passwords.

The Doctor said...

I'll be getting this one, it's been on my radar for a while.
Re: the title, "The Dead Path" is the original title. It's what is used on the Australian (Hatchett Australia) version that was published in July 2009. The UK version with the crap title came out in December 2009.
I'm pretty used to US versions changing titles, but a local version (well, local to me!) getting a title change in the UK is a little less common.

KentAllard said...

Thanks for the clarification, Doctor. That just makes the UK title change more perplexing. You would think there would be some at the UK publisher to say "that's terrible and generic."