I first stumbled across Shan's work after asking some advice over at Litopia. My query was simple - as a spot of research, I needed the names of authors who wrote young adult books that pushed the boundaries in how dark a story can be when written for children. If the book I'm working on at the moment holds true to how I envisage it, it's going to be dark. And bloody.
One of the titles fired my way was Lord Loss, which is the first in a series of ten, the Demonata, and it doesn't take a Mr Spock-like intellect to work out what the books are about.
The book opens with Grubbs Grady - come on, you know you're on solid ground with a name like that - enduring the teenage hell that is family. An elder sister who makes his life misery, parents who just don't get him; poor Grubbs just wants a break.
The break he gets is perhaps a little more than he asked for - his family are killed by the demon, Lord Loss, and his two demonic sidekicks. Grubbs manages to escape, but soon finds himself locked in a padded cell, trying to convince everyone that it wasn't your average Joe serial killer who wiped out his folks, but monsters from another plane.
Grubbs is saved when his Uncle Dervish visits, and seems to accept what he says, and Grubbs finds himself holed up in Dervish's large country house in the remote village of Carcery Vale. There, he befriends one of the local boys, to whom Dervish seems to give the run of the house, and the two of them start to piece together what happened, including the big question - why was Grubbs' family targeted by demons?
That's about all I want to reveal by way of plot, other than to say it's good - well worth a read, and I'll be making a date with book two, Demon Thief. What was of more interest to me was how Shan developed the characters, and just how far into depravity he took his young readers. Whether intentional or not, twenty pages in and I didn't like any of the Grubbs family. I was struggling to connect, not convinced I could tag along with the characters for another 240 pages. Then the demons attack, and literally rip Grubbs' family to shreds. And as the young lad tries to recover in his padded cell, the sympathy - and understanding - came. By the time the enigmatic Dervish appears on the scene, I was hooked.
I'm not sure if Shan set out to make Grubbs (and his family) as initially unappealing as I found him. It seemed a strange tack to take - the family I could understand, but the hero? Of course, reading is subjective, and maybe it was just me. Yet it worked, ultimately, because Grubbs changes during the course of the story, and that's what all good writing is about - developing characters, watching them grow and adapt to the challenges that are put in front of them. What helps is having strong supporting characters, and Shan has them in Grubbs' new friend, Bill-E, and in particular Dervish, who is one of the coolest characters I've met in children's fiction.
So just how dark does the book get? We're talking headless corpses, blood-splattered walls and bodies split open by page thirty. It doesn't quite reach such graphic violence again, instead changing focus and ratcheting up the tension.
And what does it tell me about my own work? That what I've got planned will (assuming it's anywhere half-decent) work, and, given the success of Shan and others of similar ilk, that there is a market for it. Kids, it seems, want to have the bejesus scared out of them, just like I did when I was a kid. Consider me inspired.
Yet this last point opens another can of cliched worms; should we really be scaring youngsters with tales of demons, vampires, murder and blood-letting? Over at the Manx Litfest Facebook page, there's been a discussion on this very topic, sparked by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which claimed that YA fiction is too dark. I don't see a problem, generally speaking. Kids have always wanted to be entertained by such stories, whether it's Dad telling a creepy story around the campfire, watching the latest teen horror on a sleepover with mates or reading about rampaging zombies eating people's brains.
Of course, there is a limit to everything, although it's hard to say what that is. There's dark, and then there's sick. Or perverse. Or both. One person on FB suggested elements of society are viewing such books as the equivalent of video nasties, with the natural progression to assuming that any kid who reads about a demon killing his sister is going to follow suit. Should we sterilise our writing for children in order to ensure they read only nice, happy stories and are falling over themselves in a bid to help the elderly across the road? There is a place for such positive, happy tales. But I sincerely hope we're not heading down such a restrictive path, where darkness is, well, confined to the shadows.