Nov 28, 2010

Monkey droppings - The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin

The monkey is not a fan of arachnids.

The monkey is definitively not a spider monkey. Look at that face. No spider there.

The monkey appreciates what they do, please don't misinterpret the monkey.

But spiders give the monkey the willies.

The Dead Path
by Stephen Irwin
Knopf Doubleday, 2010

It may be trite to note Stephen King in any review of a horror novel not written by Stephen King, but such is the world we live in. King changed the face of horror, and such mentions are almost mandatory at this point, so no apologies will be forthcoming, nor necessary.

Anyway, remember IT? That lovely, epic tome of childhood travails and adult nostalgia, all wrapped up with a monster so hideous and vile and genius in execution that King has, to this day, never topped it? There was a scene late in the 1000+ pages that has always stayed with me, haunting my subconscious with promises of terrors so delicious that Hell itself seems a summer day camp by comparison. No, not Pennywise, but good guess, clowns are always a safe bet for unspeakable evil (see also: The Pilo Family Circus).

In this small tableau (SPOILER ALERT), the villain has been unveiled as being a giant spider (or something so akin in form that our tiny human minds fill in the blanks lest they be overwhelmed by the unnameable horror that confronts them). It turns out that the beast is pregnant, and has laid eggs throughout its subterranean lair. One of our heroes takes it upon himself to smash every egg, which unleashes a slightly squashed (but still abnormally large) baby spider which the hero is obliged to finish off with the heel of his shoe. There are many, many eggs, and soon the hero has run out of matches to light his way with, and he continues his unholy and gruesome task in the dark, feeling out and squishing giant spiders with his gore-soaked feet.

Yeah, I got shivers just writing that sentence. Me and spiders go way back, and while I have matured to the point where I can watch Arachnophobia without screaming, where I can truly giggle at Shatner combating the Kingdom of the Spiders through sheer force of ham, where I can scoop up small ones in my hand and deposit them outside, any arachnid bigger than 5 or 6 millimetres in diameter gets me reaching for the tissues. And once, outside when I was burning weeds on my driveway, a flamethrower. Trust me, it was that freaking big.

So, in a nutshell; Stephen M. Irwin's new novel The Dead Path made me squirm. A lot.

And it starts so innocently, spider-wise. Nicholas Close is a haunted man, quite literally. After an accident which inadvertently takes the life of his wife, Nicholas can see the dead; or rather, the last moments of the dead, the last few minutes of the lives of persons taken too soon, repeating their final acts:
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...[The] ghosts, in return, took no notice of their living landlords, spouses, children, enemies . . . yet their dead eyes rolled to stare at Nicholas. They knew he could see them.
Distraught, bewildered, he returns to his hometown where, as a child, his best friend was abducted and murdered. Upon his return, new disappearances begin, and Nicholas begins to suspect that there might be something far more sinister than child abductions at play. Something old and evil lives in the woods, something that preys on the weak, something that, as hinted above, controls spiders as we would control puppies. Something that, in Dark Path's more horrific moments, had me scratching at invisible insects crawling over my skin. And something that, after one of the more grisly encounters, Nicholas knows cannot be stopped, or even be told.
The old woman knew there was no room in a sane world for stories about huge spiders and Brothers Grimm strawberries. A retelling of what happened would sound like the babblings of a madman. No, she knew there would be no police.
Like King at his best, The Dead Path excels at presenting realistic figures caught up in supernatural occurrences. The theme of a town beset by an ancient evil is not exactly new (see, again, IT, or Dan Simmons' similarly spectacular Summer of Night), nor are the concepts of ghosts, Pagan rituals, and fate, but Irwin treads these well worn paths with verve. As the plot motors from daytime normalcy to unsuspected witchcraft, heading toward the final, unavoidable showdown, Irwin expertly balances the smaller character moments and the larger moments of unadulterated horror, keeping the creep factor constant throughout.

The Dead Path does not break new ground, and it does lose some steam in its final pages, a dilemma it shares with most novels I've read of a supernatural bent, how to actually end the carnage effectively when dealing with a well-nigh unstoppable force. Yet Irwin proves his mettle through a canny mixture of believable personalities and some truly dark and disturbing vision. The Dead Path is a solid, spooky read, perfect for a few nights worth of shiverings.

And also; spiders. So gawd-damned many of them.


1 comment:

Lori L said...

oh, oh, oh... shivering and scratching... I'm so wretchedly freaked out by most spiders that I have to avoid this one. It's difficult enough to handle some large spiders or a few spider encounters in stories, but if they play a prominent role in the narrative I'll have nightmares.

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