• THE BOOKSELLER | 26 March 2000 |


    When I was five years old I discovered a slim picture book in my grandparents' creepy house. It was about seven pirates (and their cat) who sailed the seven seas, looting and pillaging as they went, killing all who crossed them. At the end they ate poisoned food -- or touched gold which was under a magic spell: I forget which -- and died, all seven of them. And their cat. The final picture was of them lying out flat, dead to the world, tongues sticking out the sides of their mouths, little black crosses for eyes.


    That book has never been far from my thoughts. It was the first time I'd encountered death directly, and I was fascinated by it. Most children's books don't confront death. They paint a portrait of a world where nobody dies and everything is rosy, and happy endings are par for the course. I've read and enjoyed many such books over the years, but none ever made half the impression as that death-obsessed, viciously funny tale of the seven doomed pirates (and their cat).

    I think children's books should face death head-on. Death partners life, stalking us patiently and without pause, and most children are as interested in mortality as adults. I don't think we protect children by shielding them from the truth: we merely cheat them.

    I spent many long hours wondering about death as a child, and devoured with interest any book which wasn't afraid to mention the dreaded D word. There weren't many of them, and none could match the ferociously dark humour of that by-now mystical pirate book, but I treasured those I could find.

    My interest in death has never abated, and I've read many a gloomy adult book in my time. And written some! When, a couple of years ago, I decided to try my hand at a novel for younger readers, it was only natural that I turned to the divide between the living and the dead. The result was Cirque Du Freak, a scary tale about two boys who sneak out to attend a freak show one dark night. There, they lock horns with an agent of death, and their lives and futures are irrevocably altered. And not for the better!

    Cirque Du Freak may prove too powerful for some. Certain readers won't want their faces rubbed in the blood-red stains of the night, and will put the book to one side and return to the safe, comforting worlds of the average children's book. As is their right. But those like me ... who want to embrace the darkness ... who lie awake at night, wondering about the shadows outside their bedroom window ... who shiver gleefully at the thought of losing everything to a cruel stroke of fate ...

    Those readers now have a suitable horrid home -- the Cirque Du Freak!!

    I believe writers spend their lives coming back to the books they read as children. We move on and add to our repertoire, but always we look back. Thus in Book 2 of The Saga Of Darren Shan:The Vampire's Assistant,the leading character dresses up as ... a pirate! And in Book 3:Tunnels Of Blood ... we catch up with an unfortunate cat!!!

    Darren Shan -- "from within the darkness" -- 18/08/99

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