The Vampire Source | 13 August 2013 | Kelly M Smith

When you look up Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak book series, you will find it categorized in either the "children" or "young adult" sections online and in stores. I will admit, I was twelve when I first picked up Book 1 in the 12 part series, A Living Nightmare, and I kept reading, finishing the series when I was seventeen, but I can say that this series crossed over from being a scary story for kids to something even adults would read--and shudder at.

Mr. Shan's work got me through middle and high school and I still read everything he puts out. Why do I want to talk about Cirque? Because it will thrill you, shock you, make you laugh and maybe make you sleep with the lights on.

A Living Nightmare (most Americans only know it as Cirque du Freak #1, but when it was originally published in the UK it was actually officially titled the former) starts out with a character named Darren Shan (the author's real name is O'Shaughnessy) talking about his childhood fascination with spiders (we don't know his age, but it is alluded to be between 12 and 15), and how that obsession is what brought about the story in the book.

Darren was a normal kid: he loved horror stories, comic books and was a star soccer player. he had a loving home with two doting parents and a younger sister, and he had a great group of friends.

When he and his group learn of a freak show coming to their town, they pool their money to get tickets. Again, the reader is not to know where the story is first set, but we believe it is in Ireland or London, where the author resides and vacations. But the seller only sold Steve Leonard (AKA Leopard because he is known for his erratic and sneaky behavior) two tickets. By sheer luck (or would that be fate?) Darren wins the other ticket and they go together to an abandoned movie theatre to watch a show with performing spiders, wolf-men and snake boys. One scene with the wolf-man is particularly disgusting and I loved it!

Steve is a horror junkie even more than Darren, so when the performing spider (Madam Octa) goes to perform with her handler the extremely gruesome-looking Mr. Larten Crepsley, Steve gasps aloud.

Steve knows who Crepsley really is.

Steve knows he is a vampire.

After the show, when Steve seems to have calmed down a bit, he tells Darren to leave without him. Darren does no such thing: he stays and listens in on the conversation his best friend has with the vampire and is shocked when Steve asks to be made into Crepsley's assistant: a half-vampire. But when Crepsley tastes Steve's blood, he proclaims him evil, refusing to turn him, and that scares Darren even more.

Darren knows he should leave well enough alone, but his obsession with spiders overcomes him (as most adolescents obsessions do) and he blackmails Crepsley and steals the colorful performing spider, Madam Octa. When two weeks pass and Crepsley doesn't come looking to tear his throat out for stealing his pet, Darren thinks he is home free and "introduces" Steve to the poisonous spider.

When Steve is bitten and on the brink of death, only Larten Crepsley can save him...but will it cost Darren the only thing he has to offer? Will it cost him his soul?

Cirque du FreakIn Book 2, The Vampire's Assistant (also the title of the film made that was based on the novels, starring John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek; it was okay, but can't hold a candle to the novels), we continue Darren's journey in his new life, as a vampire's assistant. He is now what he thought didn't exist: a half-vampire (also known as a dhampir [spellings include: dhampyre, dhamphir, and dhampyr], or a halfling in other forms of vampire lore). he is now travelling with Larten Crepsley and Madam Octa with the Cirque du Freak. he has a friend, the snake-boy Evra Von, and is enjoying himself as much as he can. he misses his home, his family, his friends and even school, but still, life isn't so awful.

But Darren is getting sicker and weaker. He needs to feed, but he refuses to drink anything more than animal blood. He will not even consider bottles human blood. Since he is half human he considers it cannibalism. He won't listen to Mr. Crepsley when he tells him how painful his death will be. Better to be dead than eat his own kind, right?

While the Cirque stops in a small town, Darren and Evra meet a young boy named Sam Grest and the three become fast friends, making Darren feel less lonely.

He loves seeing the world, and on the three boys' adventures exploring the wilderness, they find a hippie camp full of people protesting the demolition of the forest to build a new road. They befriend a man whom we only will know as Reggie Veggie, the leader of the camp. He is as passionate an animal rights activist as he is of environmental rights, so maybe it wasn't such a good idea to give him tickets to the Cirque's performance.

Madam Octa, the spider, kills a goat, Evra does tricks with his pet snake and of course...then you have the wolf-man, locked in his cage lest he get free and kill countless people until he is stopped with a silver bullet.

Reggie threatens to call the police on them for animal abuse, but the camp moves and their director, Mr. Tall, thinks no more of the man's threats. (Since in the novel Reggie admits to being high on mushrooms, the reader really can't blame Mr. Tall!) But of course, a vampire novel would be nothing without danger, vicious violence, death and a good feed of blood, right?

I really enjoyed these books, as I did the rest of the series. They show a new side of vampires, that they are not killers, they can see their reflections, they do not change into bats and holy water is as harmless to them as bottled water is to humankind.

Mr. Shan wrote a great series that didn't involve sparkles, love, or high school. These books are what vampire novels should be about: death, struggle, violence and blood.

I will admit that they are not for the fainthearted, but for anyone who read Goosebumps instead of books based on the Olsen Twins as a kid and even now prefers Kurt Barlow to Edward Cullen.

These so-called children's books should be read, regardless of your age.

If I had to rate them, I'd give A Living Nightmare a 4/5 and The Vampire's Assistant a 5/5.

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