Cirque du Freak
"It’s the wonderfully gothic Cirque Du Freak where weird, frightening half human/half animals appear who interact terrifyingly with the audience."
I first read this book when I was about eleven and was blown away. It was unlike any other book I had read. In my earliest of days as a reader I was fed on a diet of R.L. Stine’s horror series Goosebumps, and K.A. Applegate’s wonderful (if largely ghost-written) sci-fi series, Animorphs.
These books were good but pretty straight forward. Goosebumps especially, was horror at it’s most tame. Characters were bland and the stories, more often than not, either took weak inspiration from, or in many cases directly ripped off, much more successful horror movies.
The saga of Darren Shan wasn’t like that at all, it was original and more importantly, it was brutal. The series didn’t cut corners because it was aimed at kids, it was violent, it was bloody, characters were scarred, both emotionally and physically, and characters died. It felt like a dirty secret, like these were grown up books that we’d been allowed to read by accident and I loved them for it.
But that was then, this is now. I wasn’t sure if I’d still enjoy this book as an adult and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, I really did.
The book tells the “true story” of the author Darren Shan. In the novel he is a young boy obsessed with spiders and scary movies. He learns about a freak show coming to town and goes with his friend Steve who is just as twisted as Darren himself. During the show a man named Larten Crepsley performs tricks with a spider that Darren quickly falls in love with. When they leave the show Steve stays behind and confronts Crepsley who he recognises as a vampire. Darren eavesdrops on the conversation and decides to steal the spider, using Crepsley’s true identity as blackmail.
It’s certainly an original story and does something pretty interesting with the vampire genre. It tries to ground vampires a little more into reality, so here they’re not invincible, they just live a long time. They also can’t turn into bats or wolves. They’re basically just stronger versions of humans and though they still must drink blood to survive, they don’t kill those they drink from.
I loved this as a kid and the portrayal still holds up well today. Larten Crepsley is a great character, at first glance very stern and quite scary but there’s obviously more to him and we get glimpses at his softer side.
As an adult reading the book, I felt slightly let down by the writing in several places, mostly at the start. It’s pretty basic and Shan lingers sometimes on descriptions of certain things that don’t need them yet ignores other things that could really do with a little more exposition. This gets better as the book leaves the normal school boy stuff and gets into the darker aspects of the novel but sadly that just makes the opening chapters seem even clunkier.
It’s also clearly intended to be the opening to a series, this is part one of a twelve part story and it shows. It can’t be read as a standalone story as too much of what we’re given, clearly isn’t intended to be wrapped up until several books down the line.
It’s still a great read however, it’s inventive, it’s funny and there are even a few touching moments in there too. I don’t know if it held me enough as an adult to make me want to tackle the whole series again, but when I was the age for which the novel was intended for I couldn’t get enough of this and I look forward to one day handing these books down to my own children. Give it a read, it’s got some flaws, but it’s a good one.