Hallowe’en is fast approaching, so this week for Forgotten Childhood I’ll be looking into one of my favourite childhood horror series. There was strong temptation to go for Goosebumps after Declan’s latest Geek N’ Bake, but instead I opted for something home grown; The Saga of Darren Shan.
Darren Shan by Darren Shan
The Saga of Darren Shan was written by Irish author Darren Shan, the pen name of Darren O’Shaughnessy. The cover blurb description reads as a pretty typical Young Adult series. (We say ‘Young Adult’ because ‘Children’s Fiction’ embarrasses people.) Boy meets vampire, boy tries to con vampire, boy ends up becoming vampire, et cetera, et cetera. Pretty standard fare. Were I given that description today I’d probably not give it a second thought. However, as a kid, this was exactly what I wanted from a series. Sometimes young Marcus just had much better taste than old snob Marcus. The fact that the local library was pushing books by Irish authors also helped. Pretty cover art that was similar to my beloved Goosebumps didn’t hurt either.
I was immediately sold on the series. They had fantasy and adventure, but they felt darker and more grown up than Goosebumps or Chronicles of Narnia. I could boast that someone from Ireland wrote them. I think it was around then that I also learned that the guy who wrote Dracula was Irish too. Wayhey, double vampire points! Anyway, I quickly devoured the first two books in the opening trilogy, The Vampire’s Assistant. I began with Cirque Du Freak (pronounced Cir-kay, because my understanding of how language worked could’ve used some improvement) and quickly moved on to The Vampire’s Assistant before slowing down to conserve what was left.
Dark and Full of Weirdness
When I was first reading the series, I only ever got as far as book five or six. I don’t remember why I stopped. The most likely reason is that the library never had the rest of the series in stock. Whatever happened, I never reached the end of the Saga way back then. As fortune would have it though, just a few years ago a friend of mine mentioned that he’d gotten the full series back from someone he’d loaned them to years earlier. I myself had just come off some other dense series. Some light YA was exactly what I needed and I was curious to see how things turned out. I remembered the series being fairly grizzly for a YA series, so I hoped they’d still be able to keep me entertained years later.
Ho-lee-crap these books get dark. Some scenes are so demented that they could be called “An Introduction to The McDonagh Brothers for
Children Young Adults.” Okay, the first two books were much more childishly written than I remember. Even at that though, the finale for the first book was intense. It ends with Darren, now an immortal vampire, being drugged and having his neck snapped. His unconscious body is then thrown out a window. This is all so that his family don’t discover he’s become a vampire. Much better to have them believe he killed himself. A ten year old. Jeez, these vampires don’t pull punches when it comes to holding up the Masquerade.
Growing With The Audience
A feature I love to see in a YA series is when it grows up with its audience. If a series is 8 books and 8 years long, and the first entry is intended for 8-12 year olds, I believe the last entry should be written for 16-18 year olds. The Darren Shan Saga didn’t cover that long a term in real time, but it did grow up in writing style. I mentioned that the first two books were way more childish than I remembered, but after that the tone adapted over time. This could have been because Darren Shan (the author) knew that his readership would be going through their teens as the books came out.
Another potential reason for the sharpening tone could have been that Darren Shan (the character) was growing up. The timescale of the books covers a good 30 years. One plot point tackles dealing with mentally ageing while being stuck in a young body. Darren Shan and Darren Shan were pointing out how strange it was for an adult to be acting like a child long before Edward Cullen was using his powers to sleep with underage girls.
The books continued to get darker, more violent and eventually bizarre. Plenty of points in the final arc had me wondering that the heck was going on, or if it had even been planned in advance. Eventually it did all tie together though, even going on to explain why the author and the protagonist share a name. While the plot went to some strange places, it never became boring.
“Good Morning, Master Shan”
Aside from the darkness of the storyline, The Darren Shan Saga had a great supporting cast. At times the Young Adulty naming conventions were cringe inducing, but the characters underneath were wonderful. Larten Crepsley is easily one of my favourite ‘mentor’ characters of any series. He doesn’t just sit back and let everyone else do the work like Gandalf, Dumbledore or Professor Xavier. Crepsley gets right in there. None of this phenomenal-cosmic-power-that’s-hinted-at-but-never-shown nonsense. Another of Darren’s partners later in the series, Harkat Mulds, is just about one of the creepiest little dudes you’ll encounter.
Along with the characters, Shan took a few of the regular vampire myths and threw them out the window. He got rid of the spiritual weaknesses and reduced their level of invincibility in an attempt to contemporize them. Some of you will cry ‘Sacrilege!’, but I thought it was a nice touch. It’s not something Shan shies away from, at one point having Crepsley remark “I love people who watch lots of horror movies and read horror books. They … come packing silly things like crosses and holy water, instead of weapons which could do some damage, like guns and hand grenades.”
The Darren Shan Saga was the first series I can remember reading that featured plot lines where the good guys didn’t always win. Long running characters died, rather than characters whose express raison d’être was death as a set piece. Along with Transformers: Beast Wars it was one of the few properly dark pieces of media I had access to as a child… Well, those and Watership Down… Damn, what were writers trying to do to that generation of children?
Did you read The Saga of Darren Shan ? What horror books did you enjoy reading as a child? Let us know in the comments!