Let's Talk About Darren Shan

But first, real quick, let’s talk about Goosebumps. A couple months ago, I reviewed all 62 original Goosebumps books based entirely on my memories of reading them over a decade ago (you can read that here, if you’d like). I probably could write an entire book just about how weird and lovable those Goosebumps books were, with their jokey premises and spooky cover art and candy-colored collectability, but the important thing about Goosebumps vis-a-vis Darren Shan is that Goosebumps was, apparently, the impetus for the most famous of Shan’s works, The Saga of Darren Shan (known over here in the States as the Cirque du Freak series). As Shan tells it:

“I was looking after one of my aunt’s children. She was shopping, the kid was asleep in the back seat of her car, and I was sitting up front with nothing to read, having forgotten to bring a book with me. Out of boredom I looked around the car and found one of the Goosebumps books. I’d never read Goosebumps, since they weren’t on sale when I was growing up. I flicked through the book, reading little bits here and there. My two observations were: (1) It wasn’t a very good book, very formulaic and easy to predict. (2) Regardless of that, I’d have probably liked the book when I was younger, since it was so full of cliffhangers and easy to read.

Then I started thinking that what the world really needed was a book that was as fun and easy to read as
Goosebumps, but which had some of the darkness and depth of Stephen King. That led me to think about one of my favourite King books, Salem’s Lot, and how I used to try to scare myself when I was younger by imagining what would happen if a vampire attacked me and turned me into one of them. That set me thinking about writing a story about a boy who meets a vampire and reluctantly becomes his assistant – and a few days later I was writing the first book of The Saga of Darren Shan!”

This rings extremely appropriately to me, as, like I noted at the end of my last newsletter, Darren Shan’s YA horror books were the bridge I needed in my middle school years to move beyond Goosebumps and into the realm of Stephen King and Clive Barker, Edgar Poe and H.P. Lovecraft; and then, as my taste got more twisted, increasingly more uncomfortable works like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Let the Right One In by that Swedish person with the really long name, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, the work of Junji Ito (in particular Uzumaki), Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door and Off-Season, the work of Poppy Z. Brite (especially the deliriously demented Exquisite Corpse), Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and more recently stuff like Paul G. Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts— you get the picture.

I like scaring the shit out of myself, although I do generally prefer it to be done artfully (quite a lot of splatterpunk-influenced stuff like Eric Enck & Adam Huber’s Snuff does nothing for me since it’s not done with any real care). My limit is probably stuff like Hogg— which is one of the more extreme things I’ve read in any genre and actually made me gag a few times while reading, but its upsetting nature comes from a place of genuine social commentary— or Cows, which I think might be the most provocatively nihilistic and nauseating piece of literature ever made publicly available. Then you have people like Peter Sotos— I go back and forth on whether or not his writing is worth a fuck, but ultimately, it achieves its goal of making the reader feel physically uncomfortable, so I can’t deny that it is accomplishing something.

My point here is that I like to challenge myself with the material that I read, and that the work of Darren Shan provided me with that opportunity at a younger age than most. Although I started with his The Saga of Darren Shan books, it was really the first time that I read the opening salvo of his Demonata series, Lord Loss, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen or so, that I realized I genuinely enjoyed being pushed to the far limits of my comfort zone as a reader. If you’ve read Lord Loss, you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t this isn’t much of a spoiler, since it happens within the first two or three chapters: the protagonist of the novel, Grubbs Grady, arrives home to discover that his mother, father, and sister have all been brutally murdered by demons. Shan doesn’t spare the reader with a lack of descriptiveness, either; not much is left to the imagination. Shan of course follows up this scene of graphic emotional devastation with an adrenalized race for the Grubbs’s life, and then leaves him hollowed-out and insane for the next chapter or so of the book just to emphasize the toll that something like that would take on a teenager. You know— for kids!

Shan has written many books, but the ones I’d like to focus on today are his two most popular YA horror series— The Saga of Darren Shan (I unfortunately have not yet read the prequel series, The Saga of Larten Crepsley, yet, but I recently picked it up and might update this post with thoughts on it soon), and the Demonata series. By no means do I wish to imply that Shan’s other work isn’t great— I recommend The Thin Executioner greatly if you’re looking to transition your kid from lighter fare into deeply-developed high fantasy a la Tolkien et al. I also want to emphasize that Shan is still doing good work in the YA field, and you should support him by checking out his more light-hearted Archibald Lox fantasy series, the first of which is free on Kindle. But I would like to focus on these two series primarily, because they are the books of his that I would most closely link to horror (I read the Zom-B series over a few days in preparation for this newsletter, but it ended up being less horrific and more of a sci-fi/action-adventure tale with occasional body horror elements), and because they’re the ones that I actually read when I was a child.

The interesting thing about these two series is that, although the stories they tell are very, very different— TSODS is a bildungsroman disguised as a fantastical war narrative (with vampires!), while the Demonata series is a more pulpy and graphic take on eldritch cosmic horror— they share many themes in common, most notably an existentialist streak that fights against essentialism and the concept of fate and predestination. Both series feature prophecies that are ostensibly impossible not to fulfill, but the protagonists manage to twist the rules in their favor anyway; both series are also interested in historical revisionism, loops and symmetry, and feature hard-nosed, deeply pragmatic characters.

If I had to pick a personal favorite between the two, I would choose the Demonata series— it’s a perfect horror series for the 12-15 set, with a tightly-constructed plot, a clever structure (TSODS is also structured in a circular manner, but the level of symmetry and attention to detail in Demonata feels more considered and deliberate to me), and an extremely addictive fast-paced writing style with all three narrators (yes, there are three narrators, and for the first half of the series, the books bounce around in time with little in the way of explanation) speaking in the present-tense as they describe excessively gory battles with extremely imaginative hellions and attempt to cope with many layers of existential angst and personal trauma.

That’s not to knock The Saga of Darren Shan, whose only flaw is that it’s less sophisticated, but that’s to be expected as it’s pitched to the 9-13 set of readers. But the Saga books have a leg up in that field as they’re meant to read a little bit amateurishly at the start— the protagonist, a heavily fictionalized version of Shan himself, starts the book as a preteen and the writing style and quality slowly matures over the course of the books, as does the world-building, which gradually becomes more and more deep and intense.

The Saga of Darren Shan is also structured in a more straightforward and easily digestible way— it’s a twelve-book series made up of four cycles of trilogies. The first trilogy, which is composed of Cirque du Freak (known over here as A Living Nightmare), The Vampire’s Assistant, and Tunnels of Blood, charts young Darren’s childhood from a spider-obsessed youth to a half-vampire who has to come to grips with the fact that he can never return to his old life. The second, which consists of Vampire Mountain, Trials of Death, and The Vampire Prince, is heavy on exposition and lays much of the groundwork for the second half of the series. The third— consisting of Hunters of the Dusk, Allies of the Night, and Killers of the Dawn— follows Darren and a small band of his close friends through a war between the vampires and a tribe of their rivals, known as the vampaneze, and is a fairly fast-paced series of high-octane action sequences, betrayals, and tragic deaths that force Darren to maturity, as it were. The final trilogy is a bit messier— the first book, The Lake of Souls, is a fantastical diversion from the main plot that nonetheless concludes with an important revelation, while the final two books, Lord of the Shadows and Sons of Destiny, feel like one really long conclusion divided neatly into two halves.

The Saga of Darren Shan were great horror books for young readers in that they explored gore in a way that was both explicit yet friendly— over-the-top enough to be engaging and yet vague enough to be accessible to kids who maybe weren’t ready for Bret Easton Ellis-esque extremity. There’s plenty of disembowelment, beheadings, blood, and dismemberment, but it’s also written in a way that makes it hard to stop reading and thus dwell a little too much on the graphic stuff you’ve just encountered, and Shan tempers a lot of it with a droll sort of gallows humor. It’s heavy stuff, but never too heavy, and importantly, the violence ramps up as the series goes along, so you’re also never too desensitized to the awful things that happen.

The Saga of Darren Shan was also a great series for young readers in that it explores the idea of overlords who tweak fate and destiny for their own purposes and devices, yet always makes the point that your choices always define who you are and that no matter what shitty circumstances life throws at you, you can forge your own destiny. Without going too much into spoiler territory, the final book of the series makes that implicit point explicit, and the sense of victory that you get when Darren essentially flips destiny the bird is immensely satisfying.

The books are also heavy on memorable characters— Darren himself is a dynamic protagonist, whose growth from reluctant child to vampire war-prince is the most compelling journey in the novels, but one of the best parts of the series is watching allies turn to enemies and enemies turn to allies. This is consistent with the books’ theme of choices being the ultimate forger of your legacy, but it also is emblematic of how maturity changes your perspective and makes previously loathsome people sympathetic and previous friends into unhinged psychopaths.

Darren starts off the series deeply loathing the man who forced him into life as a vampire, Mr. Crepsley, but by the end of the series, Crepsley hasn’t just become a valuable mentor and guide, he’s become one of the most beloved and loyal characters in the entire series. The same is true of other characters who are introduced as off-putting, and then slowly become more likable as Darren and, correlatively, the audience, gets to know and respect them better— the monstrous stitched-together Little Person Harkat Mulds is the best example (and his character only becomes more complex when we learn more of his backstory in The Lake of Souls), but it happens over and over again throughout the series. Similarly, the development of several of Darren’s friends into antagonists over the course of the novels is wonderfully done as well, and never stoops to the level of cheap plot twist or fake-out; every character is given an extremely solid motive for their behavior, which is explored and elaborated on over the course of the series. This has the result of making even the most disgusting villains (and, though Shan knows his limits and there’s nothing here that would irreparably scar a kid’s psyche, several of the villains are truly depraved and vile— there is a moment involving two children during the climax of Lord of the Shadows that left me slightly sickened by the end of the scene as a middle-schooler) into understandable and compelling creatures.

Overall, The Saga of Darren Shan is a well-put together fantasy horror series for kids. If all you know of it is the film adaptation, don’t let it deter you— not only was the film almost hilariously unfaithful to the books, it actually spoils some of the latter books’ twists, so if you haven’t seen it a while, but you’re intrigued by what I’ve outlined here, stay far away from the movie.

In my opinion, the best books in the series are: The Vampire’s Assistant, which sketches an oddly but genuinely heartwarming coming-of-age moment that’s pivotal for Darren’s character development; The Vampire Prince, which is a pitch-perfect example of what I wrote earlier about how well Shan constructs character development and face-heel turns; Killers of the Dawn, which is a gritty and taut fugitive story that climaxes with perhaps the most devastating moment in the entire series; and Lord of the Shadows, which is the most dark and mature book of the entire series and is a logical but compellingly bleak endpoint for the trials and tribulations that Darren has gone through. But of course, although you can technically pick up any one of these and read them on their own, in my opinion it’s absolutely imperative to read them as part of the whole. Again, they’re clearly written for middle-grade kids and not adults (and if you’re a first-time adult reader, keep that in mind), but they’re still rewarding reads and, again, the characters are surprisingly complex.

Again, though, in my opinion, the Demonata series is the crown jewel of Shan’s work, a spectacular series of books that starts off by upping the ante of gore and dark fantasy found in The Saga of Darren Shan tenfold, and then jacks up the horror progressively with each subsequent installment. Again, it’s for younger readers— you’re not gonna find any of the psychosexual body horror of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood or the blackly comedic, taboo-breaking queasiness of Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted— but I still wouldn’t be surprised if someone had difficulty finishing the series due to its unceasing escalation into new, ever-darker territory. Like I said at the beginning of this newsletter, the first book in the series, Lord Loss, begins with the murder of the protagonist’s entire family, and it just gets worse from there.

Like TSODS, the best part of the Demonata series are the wonderful characters. But the thing that sets Demonata just a step above are its three narrators: Grubbs Grady (arguably the “true” main character), a tall and hulking but very good-humored bruiser of a teenager, who also happens to be the most recent descendant in a long line of magicians and werewolves; Kernel Fleck, a teenager from the 1970s who can see geometric patterns of light that no one else can, and who can put them together to create windows into other dimensions; and Bec McConn, a young girl who lived in Celtic Ireland 1600 years ago and is blessed (or maybe cursed) with untapped magical potential and a picture-perfect memory that starts at the very moment of her birth.

The Demonata series is composed of ten books, and if I lay them out to you like this, it should be pretty easy to see their symmetrical quality:

Lord Loss- narrated by Grubbs
Demon Thief- narrated by Kernel
Slawter- narrated by Grubbs
Bec- narrated by Bec
Blood Beast- narrated by Grubbs
Demon Apocalypse- narrated by Grubbs
Death’s Shadow- narrated by Bec
Wolf Island- narrated by Grubbs
Dark Calling- narrated by Kernel
Hell’s Heroes- narrated by Grubbs

As I said before, the books in the first half of the series tend to jump around a lot in time and are seemingly unconnected, but by the end of Demon Apocalypse, it’s become extremely clear how tightly connected and plotted everything actually is, and the series after that is seriously just payoff after payoff amid extremely fast-paced, tense, and violent chase and fight scenes. The ending of the series seems head-smackingly obvious once you get there, but the seeds get planted so casually and carefully that if you get sucked in you’ll be completely taken aback.

I also like the subtle psychological elements at play once the three narrators are actually together— Grubbs is the id, Kernel is the ego, and Bec is the superego. All three are necessary for the series to play out the way it does, but although all three protagonists are “good” guys (there is so much moral ambiguity at play, especially once they become battle-hardened demon hunters with nothing left to lose except humanity itself), they’re not always on the same side, and the arguments and conflicts written between not just the main three, but the entire cast of colorful and wonderfully eccentric characters, create extremely compelling human drama that adds to rather than distracts from the overt dark fantasy of the battle with the demons themselves.

There’s so much I could say about this series, and I may consider doing longer recaps at a later date (when I can really have fun rooting around with spoilers because of the way that the foreshadowing and callbacks work themselves out, as well as because Death’s Shadow, Wolf Island, and Dark Calling all take place roughly around the same time and show many of the same events, just from three completely different perspectives), but all I can really say right now without giving the whole damn series away is that there are lots of great questions for younger readers about the nature of morality and to what extent ends justify the means.

But the ethical and philosophical debates, while certainly a lingering presence, are merely the backdrop to a dizzyingly addictive blend of violence, tragedy, and sweet, sweet horror of all kinds— cosmic horror (especially in Dark Calling), body horror (Blood Beast has you covered), and simple, out and out terror (Lord Loss is the best possible introduction to this series that Shan could have written). There’s so many great moments in every book that it’s difficult to choose standouts, and they truly do benefit from being woven together in such a tightly-stitched way. But, if I had to choose, my two favorites would probably be: Slawter, due to its endearing B-movie setting and wonderful balance of, one the one hand, palpable trauma and dread, and on the other, gleefully over-the-top cheap horror goodness and macabre comedy; and Wolf Island, which took heavy influence from The Dirty Dozen and almost reads like a book adaptation of one of my personal favorite werewolf movies, Dog Soldiers (which, by the way, was the directorial debut of Neil Marshall, who followed it up with The Descent— widely agreed to be one of the best horror films ever made).

And that’s it for now. Again, this probably comes off like a complete and total anomaly to my regular readers, who know me mostly for music journalism and good-natured mocking of the underground music community from a Marxist perspective. But, seeing as it’s October, I just wanted to pay tribute to the man who wrote the books that truly solidified my deep and abiding love for horror literature, and my never-ending search for more and more unnerving, disturbing, potentially traumatizing material. Darren Shan, may you never change. I, too, have always been fascinated by spiders.

-xoxo, Ellie

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