SCREAMS IN THE DARK
AN INTERVIEW WITH DARREN SHAN
In 1999, no-one had heard of Darren Shan. Children’s horror fiction was somewhat in the doldrums after the Goosebumps explosion of the mid-1990s and the following surge of interest in Point Horror. But then in January 2000, a new book by a new author hit the bookshelves. This was Cirque Du Freak by Darren Shan. Now, six years later, Shan has just released his sixteenth full length novel for kids, and is hailed as the third bestselling horror author in the UK, behind Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
We caught up with Shan at the end of an exhausting three week tour of bookshops and schools to promote the latest title, Bec.
Shivers: Good to meet you Darren. Tell me about the new book.
Darren Shan: Bec is book four of the Demonata series which will be a ten book series in total about demons. The books come out twice a year; that’s in June and in October, and so that’s my schedule for the next three years.
S: What’s the basis of the books?
DS: Well they vary from book to book. There are actually three narrators as I like to write in the first person. The character in the first book was a kid called Grubbs Grady in Lord Loss. Then in Demon Thief it was a different boy called Kernel Fleck and that books was set thirty years before Lord Loss – the storyline in the books is non-linear as well. Grubbs returned in the third book, Slawter, and then in Bec, the latest title, the narrator is a girl called Bec and it’s set in Celtic Ireland about 1600 years ago. The first four books can stand independently from each other, but from book five, Blood Beast, that’s when the lines start coming together and we begin to see how these characters are interconnected and how their stories and lives all link up.
The very basic theme of the Demonata is that there’s another universe of demons, and some of them try to cross through into our world every so often. They can’t stay very long when they do arrive, but they try battling around the edges and as the series goes along it becomes apparent that there’s some plan for a full scale invasion of our world in a hell to leather sort of way. That’s the basic background.
Originally it wasn’t going to be a connected series. Although Bec is the fourth book published it was actually the second one I wrote, and originally it didn’t tie in with Lord Loss and there were only very slight links between the books. But as I had more and more ideas, they grew into this ten book series and it’s now all planned out. It’s been interesting to develop and put together.
S: How did you get into children’s writing.
DS: It started as a side project! I started out writing books for adults under my real name, and my first novel, Ayuamarca: Procession of the Dead, was published by Gollancz in January 1999 before any of my children’s titles came out. This was followed in February 2000 by a second adult novel, Hell’s Horizon. There is a third novel in this series called City of the Snakes but this is currently unpublished.
While I was working on the adult novels, back in 1997, I had this idea for a story in which a boy meets a vampire at a circus and reluctantly becomes his assistant. Because I wanted to tell the story from the boy’s point of view, it just made sense to me to write it for children. This was before Harry Potter and the boom in kids’ fiction. No-one wrote kids books to make money, it was purely a side project and I hoped it might get published but had no great expectations that it would do very much if it ever saw the light of day. I never saw myself as becoming a children’s author but I always wanted to try writing for children and thought that if I liked it, then I might write another two or three books over the course of my lifetime.
The idea about the circus and the vampire became my first children’s novel, Cirque Du Freak. I really enjoyed writing it, and then the series (The Saga of Darren Shan as the boy was called Darren Shan, and as it was written in the first person, I used that as the name of the author as well) took off, and I never looked back.
That initial series contained twelve books and was primarily, I suppose, about vampires. The books came out very quickly as well. I like to write fast, and don’t believe in thinking too much. I sit down to write every day and sit at my desk until the quota’s done, and then I rewrite and rewrite until I get it right. I actually spend about two years working on each book but I’ll juggle several books around at the same time. So by the time a given book is published, I’ll have written and underway another three, four, five or even six titles, so I’m always well ahead of the publication schedule.
S: What is it about the fantasy/horror genre that appeals to you?
DS: I’ve just always loved it. I’ve always used my imagination. When I was five or six years of age I had a big poster of Dracula on my wall. There were no horror books written for kids when I was growing up but I was always watching horror movies. When I was 11 or 12, I started getting into Stephen King and James Herbert, I discovered Clive Barker when I was a little bit older. I do actually mix up genres in my books, I like to read lots of different things and although my books are sold as horror, they’re a mix of a lot of genres: horror; fantasy; adventure; thrillers … I like to keep things interesting. I also think this is why people like reading them so much. I think if my books were just scare after scare after scare, then by about book five or six I would have lost most of my audience through boredom. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.
When I first started to write The Saga of Darren Shan I was thinking that maybe book one would be about a vampire, in book two we meet a zombie, book three a werewolf and so on. But I realised very quickly that although as a reader I might enjoy a series like that, as a writer I had no interest in doing it whatsoever. When I was young I loved the series books like the Famous Five and the Secret Seven and so on, but as a writer I just can’t do the same thing over and over, it doesn’t appeal to me. I have to do something new each time and that’s why there’s such a big spread of ideas, themes and genres through my series.
S: What are your influences?
DS: From the early years, my big influences would be the Hammer horror films, the old Christopher Lee ones. The poster of Dracula I mentioned was of Lee from one of those Hammer films. I remember seeing Dracula 1972 AD when I was about six and still living in London and it terrified me. Other influences were things like the Doctor Phibes films with Vincent Price. I didn’t get the humour until later on: that’s the great thing as a child with those films, they can be really scary as a kid, but as an adult you can see it all as tongue in cheek. As a child you can’t see that a man being fed his pet poodles is funny. I moved to Ireland when I was six and I used to catch horror films there on television on Saturday nights, so I saw things like Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. Then as a teenager there were films like Fright Night, Hellraiser of course which was like this bomb which went off and shook horror films right up. When I was in my teens I watched just about every horror film going, and I think I was up to 1000 films a year at one point. I just lapped them up.
S: With your influences being primarily in film rather than in fiction, do you think that this has affected the style and manner that you write in?
DS: Most definitely. The old Tod Browning movie Freaks was a big influence on Cirque Du Freak – the freak show in my novel is based on the freaks in that film, though I gave my circus folk magical abilities because that was part of what I wanted to do. I also included some characters called the Little People, who are stitched together from dead people and wear blue robes and hoods. As I was writing the book I put them in as it seemed a cool idea, and later on in the series I figured out what their background was. I was very pleased with myself and thought that this was really original and imaginative. I was up to about book nine or thereabouts and one day I was doing some rearranging of my DVD collection and came across my Phantasm DVD. It immediately hit me … that’s where my Little People have come from! That’s where the idea originated because I’d seen the Phantasm films way, way back. So there’s another big influence on my writing. As I go through the editing process, I usually try and limit or cut out the film references that I make because most of the kids won’t have that sort of background and it makes it unfair to put things in the books that they’re unfamiliar with.
I like to think that my books are very visually written, and writing in the first person allows you to get that feeling of watching a film. And the Demonata is told in the first person and in present tense so it reads as very fast moving, visual and immediate. I think in a very filmic way and like to write fast and quick paced fiction. I think that one of the main responses I get from readers is that they like the fact that the books have a lot of things happening in them. I wanted to write books with the darkness of Stephen King or Clive Barker but meant for children, because when I was growing up there was nothing like that for me to read. Goosebumps and Point Horror came along a little bit later, but during my early years there was nothing like that available to read.
What that meant for me when writing the books, in practical terms, was that no sex could be included, but pretty much anything else went. You can get away with an awful lot overall. When I wrote Cirque Du Freak and the subsequent titles, I never thought they’d be taught in schools and I believed that librarians would be up in arms about them but actually everyone’s been really supportive because the books are all quite modern. I don’t go into all the grey areas of morality that I might in adult fiction. For example in Lord Loss, Grubbs sees his family slaughtered but then the book is about how he puts his life back together. It’s about recovery and is very positive. In most cases the books are about characters facing great hurdles and finding the strength within themselves to overcome them, and these are themes which readers and adults find very enjoyable to visit.
Harry Potter has, however, changed things completely. When I wrote Cirque Du Freak, children’s books didn’t sell in huge numbers and that’s because publishers didn’t throw the same sort of money behind them as they did with adult books. It’s still the case today but it has improved a lot. What J K Rowling and Philip Pullman made publishers realise was that if you actually put money into the project, do a good advertising campaign, and a decent cover, then it’s possible to sell a huge number of copies. Initially children’s books were always a slow build. It happened with Roald Dahl. If you look back, you probably assume that he must have always been huge as an author. But James and the Giant Peach was first published in the States in 1961 but didn’t arrive in the UK until 1967. Likewise, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published first in the States in 1964 but didn’t appear in the UK until 1967. It wasn’t until the film version of Charlie in 1971 that he really started to take off, yet he had been writing since 1941! It was all word of mouth and a really slow build over a lifetime of writing. Now publishers realise that it’s possible to have that in one bang. There is still word of mouth and a degree of build – which will always be important – but it can all be done over a much shorter timescale. There was never the idea of a children’s book being an Event and that’s all changed since J K Rowling and Harry Potter made everyone realise that it was possible to create an air of excitement about the publication of a book, in the same way that a new film has a lot of excitement and anticipation attached to it.
S: Thanks for talking to us.
DS: A pleasure.
David J Howe