feoamante.com | 24 April 2010 | Christopher Treagus
CIRQUE Du FREAK the first book in a series of dozens by Darren Shan reminded me of what it was like to be a kid again first getting interested in horror and stories of a macabre design. The pages are filled with that same sense of wonder that accompanied the discovery of these darker paths as I first was to stroll upon them. The creepiness of spiders, the frightfulness of werewolves, snakes, and all kinds of grotesque and unnatural creatures of the night. The bizarre and strange wonder of the freak show - and yes, even the vampire. Shan presents these all with a child like enthusiasm and sense of dread excitement. As well he should. For the protagonist of the novel is in fact a nine year old boy. And the books are written for children of that age.CIRQUE Du FREAK however is far more than just a kids book. It is a tour de force of horror and the macabre - the very type of things that I can remember both chilling and luring me as a boy. Things that inspired me to explore their darker depths as I grew older. Twisted, strange paths that have lead me to where I am today. Reading Shan's novel, I felt again the excitement of those days, when horror was at its most seductive. And there is no doubt that the lure of that darkness is what this story is all about.Darren Shan is most probably a pen name. What the author's real name is, I could not tell you. For his protagonist shares the same moniker. Nine year old Darren Shan is the horror equivalent to Harry Potter. He is an ordinary British boy thrust into extraordinary circumstances. And it all begins with his macabre fascination for a spider.A tarantula, to be exact. Darren and his closet friend attend a banned freak show when it comes to town. There, they witness all kinds of horrible and grotesque things. And they are as thrilled as they are frightened. Among the most fascinating of the creatures they run into there, is a performing tarantula. One simply plays a special flute, and it can do all kinds of tricks. Young Darren is lured. Eventually, when the freak show closes down for the night (or day, as the case may be) he sneaks in and steals the spider for himself. But this only leads to dire consequences, and opens the door for further darkness.For the spider's owner happens to be a vampire.Vampires are a dime a dozen these days, and there is nothing new about author Shan's vampire. But that is not what the story is about. Rather, it is about one boy's first, tentative steps into the world of horror. Isn't the vampire one of the first monsters you meet when you walk that path? Eventually, many of us move beyond and explore other aspects of this shadowy realm in which we have found ourselves. But for many, the vampire continues to hold us enraptured - and yet repulsed at the same time. Shan's younger version of himself faces all this and more, as he begins his plight into the macabre, and eventually becomes one of the undead himself. (Don't worry, this is no spoiler. The book cover says as much, and by the title of the second book in the series, THE VAMPIRE'S APPRENTICE, it is pretty obvious.)The real charm of CIRQUE Du FREAK, however, is not the story itself, but in the way it is presented. Adults will find it entertaining because it brings them back to that sense of wonder they once held for this world, and children, I would hope, will see through the eyes of the protagonist just how exciting horror can really be.This is an excellent novel to bring the young into our genre, for it captures the essence of the gruesome and the scary and presents it in a way that will not overburden the child or drive them away. Rather, it sucks them in. And surely that will benefit every other author in this field. Like R. L. Stine did so many years before him, this series could quite possibly bring the next generation of readers to our genre that can sustain it for decades to come. It would be good if we had more Darren Shan's out there among us, but with a planned twenty books for this series, we may not need anyone else. I can only wonder what other wonderfully nasty and horrible things that Darren Shan will drudge up along the way. CIRQUE Du FREAK gets my nod for a Bram Stoker Award nomination for the young audiences category, and a rating of four book wyrms.
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