Darren O’Shaughnessy is one of the finest – and most visceral – horror writers of the 21st century. Whilst he may not be Stephen King, he’s released several best-selling book series under the name of Darren Shan; namely his Demonata series, Saga of Larten Crepsley, Zom-B and Saga of Darren Shan (or ‘Cirque du Freak’ in the States, which was published in over forty countries and sold in excess of twenty-five million copies worldwide). But – though Shan is perhaps most well-known for his young adult fiction – he’s also written for adults, too, under both his real name and the guise of Darren Dash. Pieces like Sunburn, The Other Place and last year’s Molls Like It Hot represent the grittier, more chilling side of his psyche. But all of Shan’s work has been received tremendously well, and for good reason. I myself remember chancing into the Abingdon Library one fateful day many moons ago, picking up a book from the YA section with a notably grisly cover and checking it out on a whim. That book happened to be Bec, the fourth instalment of Shan’s deliciously vicious Demonata series. From there my love of Shan’s book grew; both in my heart and on my bookshelf.
With the whole world in a state of chaos right now, and a brand-new trilogy of his in the middle of it all, I had the chance to sit down for an interview with the literary vampire and ask Darren Shan a few questions (through the miracle of e-mail, of course). First of all, about Archibald Lox.
Archibald Lox is the title of three ambitious new books from Shan – the first under the Shan name in four years – released on the 2nd April this year. It’s an epic tale of brilliant, distant worlds; grand in scope and packing enough thrills to sate the appetite of longtime Shansters and new fans alike.
How does it feel releasing new material, especially after so long?
‘It’s a relief to finally have them out there. I’d planned to release these two or three years ago, so it had reached a point where I was starting to tire of the never-ending editing and refining. I was beginning to doubt the books, to wonder if I was wrong about them, if they weren’t going to work the way I thought they would,’. I’m sure that’s a fear many writers experience throughout their tenure. But it’s good to hear Shan in such high spirits, chuckling, ‘Now that they’re on sale, and the response has been hugely positive, it’s nice to know I haven’t wasted the last several years of my life!’ And Shan’s not wrong there. He dropped the trilogy silently onto online booksellers overnight – forgoing the normal marketing and promotion one would expect from such an accomplished author.
You made the bold choice of releasing these books during the recent lockdown, without the usual build-up. Was this different approach fun at all?
‘Actually, it’s been a lot of fun! It was a real gut decision. As countries went into lockdown, and people were stuck at home, desperate to kill time, it just felt like the right thing to do. I know there’s hardly a global shortage of books, but I thought that a new Darren Shan series – after four years of radio silence – would put a smile on the faces of quite a few people, and I think it’s important that we’re all able to find something to smile about at the moment. I was working on my final edit of the books, so I hurried through that, then fast-tracked the release — I wasn’t sure I could do it so swiftly, given that I had to sort out covers, go through the publication process with a number of different online sellers, do some marketing to make people aware that they existed, etc. In the end I managed to get them out there faster than I’d anticipated, and since then I’ve been rushed off my feet,’ explains Shan, before teasing readers with what’s to come, ‘both promoting them and working on the next set of books in the series, which will now have to come out sooner than planned if I’m not to leave a very long gap between Volume 1 and Volume 2…’
What can longtime fans hope to expect from this series? Are there any familiar themes from previous works?
‘Well, firstly, they mark a move away from horror and the darkness that has been a constant through the vast majority of the books that I’ve released. They have their edgy moments, certainly, but there’s nothing here to challenge the gore and dread of The Demonata or Zom-B or the last few books of The Saga of Darren Shan,’ and that’s putting it lightly. One of Shan’s mainstays as a writer – especially with his Demonata series – is the grisly and gruesome, pushing the boundaries at times. But we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, Shan talked me through part of his process, ‘I didn’t want to go that way with the Archie books — rather, that’s not the way they wanted to go. I always follow where the story leads, and in this case, for once, it didn’t lead down a dark, menacing tunnel. That said, there are many familiar themes and tropes that readers of my other books have already been noting in reviews. I thought these books were radically different to my other work, but my long-time fans assure me that they’re still very much in the Darren Shan style, only minus the bloodshed and ultra-high body counts…’
How long have you been working on the series, right off the bat from the last book?
‘I actually started work on these back in late 2013, before I’d finished work on my Zom-B books. I like to give myself a lot of time to write and edit — on average I’ll spend at least two or three years on any one book, but work on several different books over that same period. The Archie books took longer than usual, because there was a lot more editing involved, given that the majority of the story takes place on worlds other than our own, and they had to first be built up from scratch, then fine-honed so that the worldbuilding never got in the way of the action.’
And worldbuilding is certainly no easy feat, as any kind of fantasy writer would attest to. Creating an original setting with its own laws, locations and lore; all interwoven without any kind of blatant plot hole or contradiction, is a tough old job. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth didn’t come about overnight. And, talking of the literary great, I asked Darren about his own favourites.
What are some of the books you go back to again and again, when chance presents itself? Are you a big Tolkien fan? I, for one, have always been keen on David Eddings’ The Belgariad; there’s just something about it that takes me way back to childhood.
‘I was a huge fan both of The Belgariad and Lord of the Rings in my teens, but I only very rarely re-read books these day — in fact, I’ve only re-read one in the last twenty or more years, and that was by accident, because I’d forgotten all about it and thought I was reading it for the first time! There are just so many books that I want to get around, that I haven’t read yet — it just seems wrong to me at the moment to re-visit old friends.’
At this point I was reminded of possibly my favourite work of Shan’s, 2010’s The Thin Executioner, a beautifully written story about Jebel – the wiry son of a renowned headsman – who goes on a quest to seek out a legendary fire god for strength and respect, in the process overcoming a charismatically villainous duo, treacherous terrain and prejudice.
I’ve heard before that your favourite book you’ve written is The Thin Executioner. Is this true?
‘I always used to say that a parent should have no favourites, or at the very least never publicly admit to having a favourite — but then The Thin Executioner came along and I broke ranks to laud it above my others! I dunno. There are no real reasons I can give for why it means so much to me. It’s just a gut thing.’
The Thin Executioner obviously seems to draw heavily from eastern culture, in terms of names and the world’s traditions. How much real-world research did you undertake?
‘Not much! I had the bones of the story clear in my head for a while, but hadn’t moved on to actually start work on the book. Then I went on a holiday to Jordan, and had some new ideas over there which impelled me to kick things on and start writing. That’s why I named most of the characters and places after Jordanian place names. But I didn’t draw directly from that culture otherwise.’
As an aspiring writer myself, I always find it fascinating to hear what others’ perspectives are when it came to the creative process. And, after all, with a veteran of the field in my grasp, there was no way I couldn’t probe Shan on his.
Do you give yourself ‘time off’ as a writer, or allow yourself breaks? Do you try and write all the time, or is it very much ‘as and when the muse strikes’?
‘Breaks are very important. I’ve always made time for fun, friends and family, even during all those years when I was publishing two or three books a year and constantly touring the globe to promote them,’ It’s here that Shan mentions family life, and how that can change a writer’s way of working, ‘I had what I felt was the perfect mix for a long time, but that changed in recent years with the arrival of my two children. I’ve pulled back on the writing front to spend more time parenting, and these days I’m not doing as much writing as I should be doing. That will change again in the near future, I hope, as my children grow and start to move through the school system, freeing me up to work more. But for now, I’m a parent first and writer second.’
I feel like every writer is posed the question, ‘What’s one bit of advice you’d give to another writer?’ at some point in their career. In light of this, I’m going to be just as creative and ask, what’s the biggest cardinal sin a writer can commit?
‘For me the biggest sin is not writing. There are lots of people out there doing the dreaming and doing the planning, but not actually doing the writing. It’s very simple — if you want to be a writer, write. ‘
I can’t argue with Shan’s succinct tone; everyone who’s tried writing in their lives – from the famed authors to budding novelists – loses themselves in the ‘planning’ stage at some point. Writer’s block can outstretch its black, veiled hand; but the best cure really is just throwing yourself into it.
As AC/DC once sang, ‘It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ‘n roll’. I don’t imagine it was an easy ride getting to where you are by any means, but how did the path to becoming a successful writer compare to your expectations? Was it a grueling slog, or an ambitious challenge you sought to strike down, much like Gandalf to the Balrog?
‘I made the breakthough at a very young age – I was 26 when my first book was published, and 27 when Cirque Du Freak came out – but that was because I threw myself into it very young. I wrote a lot in my late teens, and an awful lot in my early twenties. I pretty much cut myself off from the world and just dedicated myself to writing. Which wasn’t very good for my social life, but it did mean I made giant strides quite quickly. It’s always been a struggle though. Cirque Du Freak was rejected by every publisher in the UK and very nearly never got out of the starting blocks. When it succeeded despite the best efforts of the publishing industry, I enjoyed about a decade and a half of a wonderful roller coaster ride, where I was able to push through my work because it was clear that readers enjoyed what I was coming up with, even if a lot of “the experts” didn’t quite get it. Now we’re back where I was in the late 90s, only this time I’m being told by those in the industry that my Archibald Lox books aren’t horrific or gory enough to stand alongside my other series. Hopefully readers will rescue Archie, the same way they rescued Darren, Mr Crepsley and co back in the day — early signs are positive…’
It’s always a shame to hear when publishers just don’t ‘get it’. We’ve all heard the long-echoed example of JK Rowling and her hugely successful Harry Potter series pleading with dozens of potential publishers before being released. But it just goes to show any aspiring writer that the powers that be aren’t always right. Besides, if Shan counts 26 as a very young age to publish your first book, there’s hope for us all.
Are there any genres you’ve found yourself trying out that you haven’t before?
‘I’ve written across pretty much every type of genre going, especially with my adult books — I release those under the name of Darren Dash now, and there have been horror, thrillers, sci-fi… even a Shakespearean-inspired Comedy about fairies!’ Here, Shan mentions 2018’s Midsummer’s Bottom, an, indeed, comical look at the mischievous fey of the Bard’s work that became a Kirkus recommended read. ‘Even in my Darren Shan books, I mix up genres all the time — they get sold as horror books, because publishers and booksellers love to pigeon-hole authors, but The Saga was never really a horror series, and The Demonata was as much a sci-fi series as it was a gorefest… I like lots of different types of genres, and I bring in ideas from all across the fields when I’m writing.’
Shan raises a good point about publishers ‘pigeon-holing’ authors in terms of genre. It’s a debate writers love the world over; whether genres should really exist at all. They can serve to back a piece of work into a corner; or prove confusing when an author dares to put a foot in two literary camps at once. On the other hand, they make it easier for readers to seek out a potential treasured tome, and sort stories into practical categories.
But what every writer can agree on is that the editing process can prove a grueling period of time – often longer than writing the original story itself, as Shan experienced with his Archibald Lox trilogy. It seems, as writers, the more blood and passion we put into a piece, the more we dread proofreading it, cutting parts out and, at times, disrupting the entire flow of the story for greater fluency and continuity. It’s an area Shan gives us an insight into with relentless pragmatism.
Are there any favourite parts of books that have been left on the cutting room floor, tragically? Or do you always find a place to fit them in?
‘I’ve cut loads from books over the years, especially the bigger, other-worldly books, like The Thin Executioner and Archibald Lox. But there’s nothing I’ve cut that I regret. If it’s essential, it remains, even if in a tightened-up form. If it’s not essential… well, what was it doing there in the first place?!? You have to be ruthless in the editing process. A good story takes on a life of its own, and everything has to serve the story.’
Let’s talk about your Demonata series for a moment. I remember being enthralled with it when I was younger, and I love each and every book still today. Did you find it hard to toe the line between being adequately gory/realistic whilst also keeping in mind your audience of young adults?
‘I just had a ball with it! I hadn’t planned to write a series – Lord Loss was intended as a one-off – but the story kept dragging me further along. I really pushed the barriers with those books. Cirque Du Freak was very nearly never published, largely because publishers thought it was too dark for a children’s book. When it ended up not only being published, but enthusiastically triumphed by teachers and librarians and booksellers all across the land (and, indeed, all across the world), I don’t think they were quite sure what to make of it.
Those were crazy times — WHSmith refused to stock Cirque when it first went on sale, then nominated it for their Book Of The Year award at the end of the year! It wasn’t intentional at first, but I think my books really did redefine what you could get away with in a horror book for kids,’ Shan explains, before offering the Young Adult genre a refreshing tease, ‘By the time I got to The Demonata, I’ll admit there was a bit of conscious boundary pushing – What if did this? Could I get away with that? – but it was always in the servitude of the story. I think that’s why the books proved so popular, and why despite being off the scale on the gore level – not only compared with everything that had gone before, but with pretty much anything that’s come since – we received almost no complaints about them, bar the very occasional bit of moaning from parents who just objected to children’s books about vampire and demons in general.’
And Darren’s right in that regard. To this day, I haven’t seen a book recommended for the younger audience more violent than Lord Loss, or subsequent entries in the series. Not that I’m complaining, though. I recall being wholly gripped by the scenes of bloodshed when I was younger; incredibly vivid without crossing the line of what should be allowed. Not that Shan ever seemed to care about such age-old rules. To him, they’re no more than creaky floorboards to bend and twist; testing their strength and validity with each punctuated cry of anguish.
What’s your favourite demon you’ve spawned within the series? You seem to like dark nature and the exploration of all things grisly.
‘Spine, a scorpion-shaped demon with a human-like face, who stabs out your eyes with his stinger to begin with, then turns and spits eggs into your bloody, empty sockets. The eggs quickly hatch into demonic maggots, which chew you down to the bone while you’re blind and screaming and writhing around the place in agony. When I came up with that idea, I chuckled to myself for about five minutes straight, thinking, “I’ve taken it too far this time — I’ll never get away with this one!” Readers didn’t even blink!
In case you’re wondering where to encounter the Manticore-esque creature, Spine’s first appearance is in Blood Beast, the fifth book in the Demonata series.
The more I read of H.P. Lovecraft, the more I see certain connections with creatures of yours, particularly in thisseries. I would never claim the eldritch abomination of Cthulhu to have influenced Lord Loss, for example, but the visceral similes and physical revulsions are clearly present in both. What would you say your biggest inspirations were for such creatures?
‘You’re not the first to ask me about Lovecraft, but I honestly haven’t delved into his work in depth. It just doesn’t really appeal to me. Having said that, I’ve been inspired by plenty of writers – e.g. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker – who were heavily inspired by him, so I guess he’s filtered through to me via those.’
Given the state of the world today, it feels like we need fiction more than ever – to provide crucial escapism and a sanctuary away from all things real. Is it ever tough to draw on internal inspiration and new ideas when the world around us can be so… scary?
‘Well, my Zom-B series was inspired by the worrying rise of the far-right in the noughties, so I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to the BNP and their intolerant friends… But having warned the world what to expect if we put power in the hands of fearmongers who do their best to turn us against our fellow humans, and having failed spectacularly to halt the ascent to the top of the likes of Donald Trump, I’m settling for full-on escapsim with Archibald Lox.’
And it’s not hard to see just how different Shan’s seminal Zom-B series is from his newest volume. It may feature, well, zombies, but Zom-B also deals heavily with racism – off the bat, protagonist B’s father is hardly a progressive left-winger – a far cry from the distant horizons of Archibald Lox. They all have the trademark Shan spin, though, of course.
Apologies to go a bit existential on you, Darren, but where do you see yourself in ten years? Do you plan to write until the bitter end, or at the very least pen another series?
‘I’ll always be writing, I think, whether I’m being paid to do it or not. It’s something I love doing, and I write as a hobby first, as a job second.’
Phew, well that’s always good to hear. It was at this point in the interview that I felt some levity was needed. What proceeded were a series of irreverent – if humorous and, at times, interesting – questions.
What’s your favourite artist/band? Give us but a glimpse into the delights of Darren Shan.
‘I love music and have lots of favourite bands, many dating back to the 1980s, when I was a teenager and even more heavily into songs than I am now. Off the top of my head, in no particular order, some of my faves include — Pixies, Talking Heads, The Smiths, REM, The Go-Betweens, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Fred (an Irish band who never made the breakthrough, but they were really great), Half Man Half Biscuit, Leonard Cohen, The Who, Pink Floyd, Josh Ritter, Kasabian…’
Who would have thought Fred – a band native to Shan’s Irish homeland – would be on his playlist? All jokes aside, they’ve released some good stuff and it’s great to hear so many classics and contemporaries namechecked here. Plus, in all fairness, if I listened to a lot of The Smiths, I’d probably want to write about dark things like murder, too (‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, anyone?).
What’s your favourite movie? Would one be safe to assume a horror?
‘I have lots of favourite movies, most of which actually are not horror, but one that certainly is, and which had a huge impact on my love for the genre, is Salem’s Lot, the original 1970s version.’
Interestingly (to very few, I imagine), the poster for 1979’s ‘Salem’s Lot miniseries/moviewas the inspiration for Swedish occult rock band, Ghost’s, Opus Eponymous cover– released in 2010. It’s also just a good horror story.
If you could sum yourself up in but one word, what would it be? I’ll be mean here, ‘horrific’ is off the table. I can only apologise.
If the sheer number of zombies in Zom-B were pitted against the Demonata, which side would win?
‘The demons. Hands down.’
If you weren’t a writer, what profession do you think you’d be, or want to be?
‘Rock and roll superstar.’
Ah, an alter ego I must confess I share with Shan. That would certainly be an interesting to hear (and see), though – a band featuring our favourites, Grubbs, Kernel and Bec. Spines and Roses? A-Loss Cooper? The Kah-Gash? (like The Clash. I know, I know, it didn’t work) Or, better yet, a horrifically 80s hard rock band featuring our favourite horror writer on lead guitar. (Shanderella, anyone?)
What’s your favourite show on telly at the moment?
‘Better Call Saul.’
If you could choose between writing only for children/young adults or fully-fledged humans, which would it be?
‘I believe in having your cake and eating it.’
Is there ever a character in your books you’ve hated enough to think, ‘Yeah, good, I’ve done what I set out to achieve here. They’re a real piece of work.’?
‘Oh yes. Scores of them. Dan-Dan in Zom-B was probably the most loathsome of them all — albeit possibly the most amusing of them too. But I never actually hate my villains. We need our baddies to make our stories interesting. I love it when I come up with a character that readers will absolutely despise, but I never hate them as much as those readers do. I guess parents can never truly hate their offspring…’
And he’s right. A story is only really as good as the characters within it. Just as every tale needs a well-written hero (or suitable stand-in), a magnificently crafted villain is as important. And Shan’s work has no shortage of real bastards.
What’s your favourite character you’ve ever created? Are they a hero, or a villain?
Once again, Shan shows his love for the dark side, explaining ‘The villains are the most fun to write about — Lord Loss in The Demonata, Steve Leopard in the Saga of Darren Shan, Dan-Dan in Zom-B.
But Mr Crepsley is probably my favourite character. I didn’t know much about him when I started Cirque Du Freak, and I never tired of learning about him and his back-story.’
And, speaking of Mr. Crepsley…
Many of our audience will know you from your seminal Saga of Darren Shan, which is just excellent. What about vampires in particular drew you to writing an entire saga chiefly about them?
‘They were my favourite monsters from a very young age (five or six years old), so I think I was always going to write about them. It was just a case of waiting for the right story to come along, as I wanted to do something different to the normal type of vampire tale. Then, one day, I had the idea for a boy who meets a vampire at a circus and reluctantly becomes his assistant, and I was off.’
One must admit, it’s a fascinating story, and not least because of how original it proves, all these years later. Vampiric tales have a habit of being overdone, cliché, and plain dull at times. But I can always go back to the Cirque du Freak and find myself entranced once more, much like a young Darren…
You’ve almost certainly answered this before, so apologies, but why name the protagonist ‘Darren Shan’?
‘Well, it’s all a true story…’
And lastly, just to finish off, I went all serious again. Sorry.
A big question here, but where do you see writing in the next decade? Will we still read on the same formats? Will we transfer stories into our minds or something equally futuristic? Will genres have died out or morphed together into a kind of literary androgyny?
‘I don’t see anything major changing over the next decade. Ebooks are great, physical books are lovely, if some other way of reading books comes along, I’m sure that will be fab too. But they’re all just means to an end. They’re delivery guys. It’s that end product – the meal that you tuck into – that matters. And genres are just something that publishers and booksellers make up — they don’t really exist. As long as the stories keep flowing, all will be well.’
It’s impossible to argue with that. As long as the stories keep coming, the world will seem right. We’ll have something to sink our collective teeth into, whatever the universe throws our way. And as long as Darren keeps writing, I’ll certainly keep reading.
That comes to the end of our interview; thank you, as always, for reading. I’d also, of course, like to extend a heartfelt thank you from all of us at Splendid Fred to the master of horror himself, Darren Shan, for his time. It was truly fascinating to read your responses, and I found myself enthralled in every word you wrote.
So, readers, if you’re interested in some new Shan, I highly recommend the Archibald Lox trilogy. Fans of the physical thing will have to be patient a little longer, but in the meantime, you can download the first instalment, Archibald Lox and the Bridge Between Worlds on ebook/Kindlefor free right now. Yes, I mean that. Entirely free. You have no reason not to read it. Just go onto your chosen online bookseller and begin a journey I’m sure you’ll find yourself lost in.
And, as always of course, you can find Shan’s previous work – under his real name, or guises of Shan and Dash – on Amazon and other such booksellers. Darren tends to keep his fans up to date via social media on where you can find his series’ for an affordable price, so check those out here:
Darren Shan website: https://www.darrenshan.com/
Darren Dash website: http://www.darrendashbooks.com/ (remember, this is for the older fans)
And lastly, stay safe out there. It’s a tough old world at the moment, and I need you all
for your website views to look after yourselves. When you have a minute, sit down, relax, and pour over a good book. There’s a whole world to get yourself lost in.
And, as Shan would have it, many horrors to keep you up at night.