| 23 April 2010 | Taisha Turner
This has been one of the most challenging books for me to review for two reasons: First, I hate horror, especially vampire stories, and most especially stories that contain spiders. Secondly, once I made myself read it, I couldn’t put it down. It scared me, fascinated me in a dark way and made me look suspiciously at people walking down my street after dark. So did I like it? I am not sure.Although I know reviewers are supposed to base their reviews entirely on their own opinions, I gave this book to my daughter, age 15, who loves horror and who has been reading it since she was very young. Although she is older than the intended audience, I knew she could more fairly compare it to other horror books for children. She was crazy about the story. She assured me that for horror, it was pretty tame --- that was tame? She also said kids would love it and that it was extremely well-written for modern juvenile horror. Her favorite author is Edgar Allen Poe, so everything is measured to that standard. She longs to know what happens in the rest of the series, so that means it was a success, since she loves to read, but is very, very picky. (She’s even pickier than I am.)Now that you’ve heard the expert’s opinion on the subject, let’s look at my take on the book, keeping in mind that I don’t like horror. I found this to be a tremendously complicated book. It had morals... some of which I approved of, some of which I did not, and some of which I couldn’t decide. It had action, adventure and suspense. It had characters who were surprisingly complex. It wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. Unlike most horror I’ve read --- and admittedly, that is little --- there was a plot and it was a good plot, complex, and realistic --- well, realistic in a world where vampires are real. Have I confused you yet?Since I consider character to be more important than plot when I read a book, let’s start with the people...or the former people. Darren is the hero and he is a very realistically portrayed person. The author has presented the main character as the author of the book. The author’s real name is Darren O´Shaughnessy. He used the name Darren Shan to separate this book from those he has written for adults. The book claims to be a true story, and of course it isn’t. Ten-year-olds, for whom the book was written, will understand that. Younger children may need a reminder that this is really fiction.That said, Darren is a pretty typical school boy. He is good at sports, likes a bit of a con, has friends who are less than perfect --- some a lot less --- and gets along pretty well with his parents, but isn’t opposed to keeping some secrets from them. He has a little sister he cares about. The story is told in first person, and he does a bit of swearing in the book, a current trend I find unappealing and unnecessary, but which is becoming more and more common. Other than wanting to order him to clean up his language, I rather liked Darren and his family. His friends are another story, of course, but if he had nice friends, this story wouldn’t have happened.Now for the horror parts. He plays fair. He is writing for kids, and he warns them that this isn’t a pleasant story. "Real life’s nasty. It’s cruel. It doesn’t care about heroes and happy endings and the way things should be. In real life, bad things happen. People die. Fights are lost. Evil often wins. I just wanted to make that clear before I begin." ( page 3). I hate it when I’m reading merrily along and suddenly someone dies, so I was glad for the warning.In an interview on KidsRead Shan explains:There are out-and-out scary scenes ("boo! moments" as I like to call them), but also darker, less bombastic scenes, which will linger in your mind for days (and nights!) to come. That, for me, is the secret of good horror: the subtle menace between the sudden bursts of action and violence. Cirque Du Freak is designed not just to thrill you, but to set your nerves on edge. It´s sometimes shocking, but also thought-provoking. Because that´s where I believe the greatest horrors lie: not in having something leap at you out of the darkness, but in staring into the shadows of the night and brooding about what lurks within...waiting...staring back...This is a very accurate description of what Shan achieves in this book. Certainly there were bits of gruesomeness, but it was the edgy waiting-for-something-unknown that made the book so scary. It was like riding on a rollercoaster at Disneyland --- another scary thing I don’t enjoy. Every time we go around a curve, I expect something awful to happen. The fear is almost worse than the reality.I found Darren's values unsettling. The book could be used to provoke good discussion. Darren has to choose something very complicated. He can agree to become a vampire and in exchange, his friend’s life will be saved. Here’s the hard part: The vampire has discovered that Darren’s friend has evil blood and will be a killer someday. Should Darren give up his life for a future killer? To make this work, Darren’s death must be faked, so his decision causes his own family to believe he is dead --- he is, in fact, buried alive. They suffer tremendously because of this. That, more than any other aspect of the book, made me uneasy, and made me wonder at what age I would give this book to a child. I wasn’t uncomfortable with my teen-ager reading it, but I would want to read this book with a younger child to discuss the issues involved.The book is very popular with reluctant readers. There are few well-written books for boys who don’t like to read, and this will certainly motivate a child. It is the first in a series, and the series will continue to explore good and evil in ways that will challenge children to evaluate what they believe. There are currently six books out in the UK and two in the United States, and many more to come. Warner Brothers will be making the film version.I believe that children who like horror will be fascinated by this book. It is unusual in that morality is discussed --- including the morality of freak shows --- and debated. This gives the book far more depth than the ordinary horror story, and also gives the book a redeeming value I seldom find in horror, although I don’t always like the decisions the characters make. It is a thought-provoking read which can open discussions on many levels between parent and child, and is, perhaps best as a read-together book for children younger than 12.Just don’t read it in the dark during a storm --- I did!
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