• DEVON TODAY | 01 March 2006 | Kirstie Newton


    I'm not a big fan of horror, so reading the first chapters of teen author Darren Shan's Lord Loss was a hair-raising task. Chapter one: a vengeful boy chops up a dozen rotting rats and places them carefully in his sister's bath towel. Chapter two: he discovers a scene of unspeakable carnage in his parent's bedroom.

    As I walked to Plymouth College to meet Darren, I became convinced that I had stepped on the remains of a rat (it was a shiny wet leaf with a very long stalk). Darren laughs. "Chapter two is the scariest thing I have ever written," he says proudly. "Because it's the first book in a new series, The Demonata, I wanted to start it off with a real bang. Originally, it was even scarier, but I toned it down." His gore benchmark: "Anything that I don't feel comfortable reading out to kids, I adjust".

    Darren Shan is seriously hot among nine- to 16-year-olds. He has an estimated nine million readers worldwide, girls and boys, and last year one of his books sold on ebay for £320.

    Darren knew from the age of six that he wanted to write, acquired his first typewriter aged 14 and published his first novel aged 17, under his real name of O'Shaughnessy. "I had always liked children's fiction - The Secret Garden was a particular favourite, and Roald Dahl - but I was waiting for the right story to come along."

    That story was Cirque de Freak, in which a young boy meets vampires at a circus. Writing for children under the name of Shan, he decided to present the work as a "true" story - hence, Darren Shan is the hero of this, and 11 more books in the Vampire series.

    "I wanted to offer a bridge between Goosebumps and adult horror," explains Darren. "That wasn't around when I was 11, so I had to go that step up to the likes of Stephen King, James Herbert and Clive Barker.

    "People who don't like horror ask what the appeal is. It's like a roller-coaster ride - scary but fun. I wanted to provide youngsters with a different experience - draw them into this world, make them laugh, cry, feel tension."

    Cirque was written before Harry Potter, when the industry believed that "there was no money in children's fiction". So its phenomenal . success took everyone by surprise - even Darren. "By then I had resigned myself to not being a best-seller. As a teenager I wanted to be really famous and sell millions. Then you get into the industry and you realise how difficult it is. But I just wanted to support myself by writing, and would have been happy making the minimum wage."

    Cirque could soon be coming to a cinema near you; Universal owns the screen rights. But Darren remains level-headed in the face of fame. "It didn't happen overnight, and I'm glad of that. I still live in Ireland, in the little village in Limerick where I've always lived. I've been able to see the world, but I'm not interested in the jet-set lifestyle."

    There will be 10 Demonata books. The second, Demon Thief, is already released in hardback, and the third, Slawter, is due in June. Darren has all but completed the series in draft form. "That way, if I think of a plot development, I can edit backwards."

    His book talks are incredibly popular, with his readers often asking specific questions, which Darren takes fully on board. "I love meeting my readers. A lot of writers don't - it's a solitary profession, and writers aren't always good at promoting their work. But I love it when people are excited about my books. That's the best side of the job. It gives me a buzz, that's why I do so much of it."

    For World Book Day, Darren is releasing a stand-alone £1 short story called Koyasan. The story is set in Japan, where Darren regularly tops the adult and children's fiction charts. "Last year, I visited a graveyard on a mountain called Koyasan, and something happened there which inspired this book. You'll have to read it to find out!"

    Maybe I will - I'm hooked, and go straight home to devour Lord Loss to the end.

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