• T2 - THE DAILY TELEGRAPH | 31 December 1999 | Damian Kelleher


    There can’t be many first time authors who get a recommendation from the great J K Rowling on their book jacket. But the Harry Potter creator has called 27-year-old Darren Shan’s Cirque Du Freak "compelling". And the book that’s captioned "A living nightmare" looks like it could win just as many fans as the boy wizard from Hogwarts.

    Already a storm of controversy is brewing over Cirque Du Freak. It’s a tale of an ordinary schoolboy called – spooky coincidence – Darren Shan, who gets caught up in a macabre and creepy twilight world with his best friend Steve.

    It’s inhabited by the kind of creatures you wouldn’t normally see outside a film set: expect vampires, a bearded lady, the snake boy and a deadly performing spider called Madam Octa.

    Enid Blyton it’s not, and the plot has enough nasty surprises to make Goosebumps seem tame. But Darren is adamant the book doesn’t exploit "freaks".

    "When you think of a freak show, you think of people with disabilities being ogled and laughed at and being made into a spectacle," explains Darren. "But this book celebrates them. All the freaks in this are magical beings who can do things ordinary humans can’t."

    Darren (whose real surname is O’Shaughnessy) was born in London, although he now lives in Limerick, Ireland, where he moved when he was six. He was fascinated by horror from an early age. "When I was about five I used to have a big poster of Dracula on my bedroom wall. I remember waking up and seeing Drac leering down at me. I loved being scared as a child, loved that creepy feeling. In real life you have worries, but in fantasy you have scares. I really enjoy that."

    Darren looks like he just stepped out of the Manic Street Preachers so it’s no surprise to find that he listened to the Manics and Radiohead while he wrote his dark unpredictable tale — or that he’s a fan of horror movies. "When I was 15 or 16 I was a real horror buff. I used to watch some terrible films. Some eighties stuff like Ghoulies." He winces. "Really bad."

    The question is though: will Cirque Du Freak scare or shock its readers? "I don’t think it will shock anyone — a few parents maybe. Quite a few people told me they nearly cried at certain points because they really like Darren and Steve.

    "It’s not a book that sets out to be frightening for the sake of it. Dark things happen, but they happen for a reason, and there are definitely repercussions."

    Darren already has a fairly good idea that the story will be a big hit. When he completed his first draft, he asked his mother (who’s a teacher) to recruit some guinea pigs from her school to read what he had written and complete a questionnaire.

    "They loved it," Darren says modestly. And to questions such as "Did you think it was too scary?" the response was overwhelming. "They wrote: "Put in more blood!" "More gore!" and "Make it darker".

    "One pupil liked it so much, he’s already been nagging my mother for the next instalment."

    He won’t have long to wait. Darren has planned 24 – yes, 24 – parts to the saga.

    "I’ve just finished book eight," says the author. And like J K Rowling, who has already mapped out her seven-part Harry Potter series, he has the plot to all 24 parts worked out in his head.

    But just how did he persuade the world’s hottest author to recommend his first novel? Darren gives a sly smile that would chill any vampire’s heart.

    "I threatened to set Madam Octa on her if she didn’t like it." I look at him sideways. Something tells me Darren may not be joking…

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