The Gothic Imagination | 13 December 2010 | Chloe Buckley

Darren Shan is a popular name in the series fiction market. His first series, Cirque du Freak – The Saga of Darren Shan is an astonishingly long 12-part vampire series, published in over 30 languages, and boasts a 2009 Universal Pictures film based on the first instalment. His second series, The Demonata, is another epic 10 part series focusing on the gory and brutal exploits of the demon underworld. This most recent novel, Birth of a Killer, sees Shan kick-start yet another long running series, this time returning to the vampire theme. The tagline ‘The Epic new Saga begins’ might tempt the wary adult reader or critic to see the novel as a cynical marketing ploy or lazy money spinner. The book, after all, returns to one of Cirque du Freak’s principal vampires, Larten Crepsley, in a rather Lucas-esque prequel, which promises to tell the story of the character’s early years, following the path which eventually leads him to becoming the scarred, moody Vampire mentor we see in Cirque du Freak.

 

Yet, Shan has undeniable power as a writer to shock, with surprisingly graphic depictions of violence and carnage perhaps explaining his enduring popularity with a pre-teen readership. The various arguments for why children seem to crave this kind of violent horror are well rehearsed in children’s literature criticism, with the mainstream media now actively promoting the aesthetic that the only ‘good’ children’s books are those which are truly and heart-stoppingly horrible. As the Guardian’s Sam Leith says, ‘Thumb amputation – that’s the stuff to throw at kids.’ From this point of view, Shan doesn’t disappoint, and Birth of a Killer begins with a particularly drawn-out and explicit description of the awful murder of Larten’s unfortunate cousin, Vur, by sadistic factory foreman Traz:

 

‘The gutter rat’s dead… I’m going to hang his body off a hook out back.’

 

The causal and savage violence displayed by Traz ignites Larten’s own vicious nature, and the young boy visits upon the foreman a fierce attack, which leaves the despicable Traz dead upon the factory floor in a scene which is truly disturbing and compulsively readable.

 

The pseudo-18th century early industrial urban nightmare created by Shan in these opening pages is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel. Potentially, Larten’s experiences as a brutalized and exploited child labourer in the huge, ugly machinery of the textile factory might allow Shan to explore the birth of violence and decay, and the disintegration of self and family, in a way that a more conventional vampire story cannot. However, the claustrophobic decay of the urban setting soon gives way to vistas more associated with traditional horror, as Larten flees the town, bedding down for the night in the cold stone crypt of a country graveyard, where he eats cobwebs for his tea. (Mmm… deliciously ‘gothic’…) This is where he meets reclusive ancient vampire, Seba Nile, who sees in the boy great potential for success in vampire society, and takes him on as an assistant. The two travel through the wild forests of Europe, refuge in crumbling medieval castles, encounter vicious vampaneze killers in deserted mansions, and, eventually, Larten ends up at the legendary Council of Vampires, deep in the dismal tunnels and cavernous halls of Vampire Mountain.

 

Despite the evocative locations, and the complex history of vampire society hinted at throughout the novel, and even Larten’s own brief rebellious attempts to seek out his lost family back in the grimy town where it started out, the book is seemingly more interested in quick paced action than in the psychological origins of the vampire. For the reader eager to explore the darker recesses of human nature and discover just why flame-haired Crepsley is the way he is, there’s little insight into inner motivations, turmoil and transformation. Instead, we get lots of fight scenes. Of course, for the adult reader to second guess the child reader is a fruitless exercise, and one hesitates to pass judgement on Shan’s latest offering on the basis that it simply isn’t ‘deep’ enough… I remember taking a group of 11 year olds to a Darren Shan reading. Their excitement as he read from the Demonata novel, Lord Loss, was palpable. This brief extract from the book might explain why:

 

‘Blood everywhere. Nightmarish splashes and gory pools. Wild streaks across the floor and walls… The dripping sound – a body hanging upside down. No head. Blood drops to the floor from the gaping red O of the neck. “Dad!” I scream…’

 

Now, before the psychoanalytically inclined readers among you point out the ‘Oedipus complex’ that leaps to our attention here, decked in neon lights and dripping with blood, I’m convinced my group of year sevens were just into it for the gore.

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