Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Darren Shan

With more than twenty-five million books sold in thirty-one different languages around the globe, it’s safe to call Darren Shan one of the world’s most popular authors of young adult horror fiction. Although Shan—whose real name is Darren O’Shaughnessy, and whose fans call him “The Master of Horror”—started his fiction career with a trilogy (called The City) for adults, it wasn’t until he wrote the first volume in his Cirque du Freak series (known in the U.K. as The Saga of Darren Shan) in 2000 that he became a publishing phenomenon. Shan followed up that twelve-book vampire saga with ten books in The Demonata series, and the stand-alone middle eastern-flavored dark fantasy The Thin Executioner. In 2012, he debuted his latest series, Zom-B, a tough, frequently gore-soaked tale of a young British antihero, B Smith, battling zombies, racism, and bullying. A projected twelve-book series with new volumes to be released every three months, the seventh installment, Zom-B Mission, is released this month. Shan lives in Ireland.

You first wrote adult fiction, a dystopian trilogy that started with Ayuamarca (later re-titled Procession of the Dead). Your notes from the beginning of the writing process describe it as “a cross between Jonathan Carroll and Raymond Chandler.” Do you think it turned out differently from that?

Oh, it’s very different to anything by Jonathan Carroll or Raymond Chandler! But they were both big influences on the book, along with lots of other writers and movies. In fact, the original idea was inspired by the Coen brothers film Barton Fink—I started out wanting to write a quirky novel about an insurance agent in-training, but it quickly exploded into something else entirely. I love all sorts of books and movies, and I try to bring in ideas from out-of-the-way places, regardless of whatever the “rules” of any particular genre might be. That doesn’t always sit easily with publishers and booksellers (“It’s good, but what the hell is it?” is something I’ve heard many times over the years), but I’m a writer who never writes with an audience in mind, but rather looks for a way to at the very least put a new spin on old ideas.

That trilogy—The City—describes a cruel state ruled by a figure called “the Cardinal,” but also employs a lot of Incan language and culture. What made you choose that particular past empire?

It was pretty random, actually. I came up with the main storyline quite quickly, which had nothing to do with Incas. But then I flicked through a Fortean Times diary, which had lots of strange facts and articles. I had a vague recollection of seeing something in it that I could maybe use. What I found was a list of the ancient Incan calendar, in which November was listed as Ayuamarca, meaning procession of the dead. I thought that was the perfect title, and was going to settle for that, but then I began looking at the names for the other months, and cogs began to whirr, and I decided that what the book needed was a good healthy incorporation of Incas too! They weren’t a prominent theme in the first draft, but I kept researching and re-writing, and they became more important in later drafts, to the point where I can’t now imagine the book—and certainly the series—working without them.

After The City, you went into the first book in The Saga of Darren Shan (Cirque du Freak). Was there ever a point when you considered doing that for adults?

Very briefly. I’d never written a book for younger readers, so it was uncharted territory for me. What interested me about the story was the idea of telling a vampire tale from a child’s point of view. Since I was writing from a child’s perspective, I figured I’d make it a book for children. But it quickly became apparent that it was a very dark book for children. It wouldn’t have taken much tweaking to make it a book for adults, and that would have freed me up to take the story into even darker areas. But I was enjoying writing it as a book for children, and I’m a great believer in going with your gut instinct, so I resisted the urge to tinker with something that seemed to be working fine as it was, and given how well the books have sold over the years, I’m very relieved that I did!

Why does the protagonist in Cirque du Freak bear your name?

He doesn’t—my real name is Darren O’Shaughnessy! That was the name I used when I first released Ayuamarca. I didn’t want to use the same name on a children’s book (a decision I’ve returned to recently, as I’ll talk about later on), so I came up with the name of Darren Shan as a pseudonym—Shan is a shorter version of O’Shaughnessy, and my paternal grandfather was always referred to as Paddy Shan. Then, since that wasn’t my real name, and I knew I was going to start Cirque Du Freak by saying it was all a true story (something that isn’t actually a full-fledged gimmick, since the ending of the last book sets up the possibility that it might all be true), I decided to use Darren Shan for the name of the main character as well. I think it worked pretty well, especially for my younger readers, as it allowed them to believe that the story really could be true—as children, we’re far more inclined to immerse ourselves completely in a fictional world, so where adult readers maybe rolled their eyes a bit, children were much more ready to dive straight on in and believe. I’m not saying they really believe the story was true (children aren’t that gullible), but it’s much more fun if you can pretend that it is, and children are generally better than adults at pretending.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Cirque du Freak books is the conception of the vampire, Larten Crepsley—he’s got flaming orange hair, a somewhat morose sense of humor, and a pet lethal spider. Did you set out to deliberately veer as far away from the traditional image of the vampire as possible?

Yes, I knew from very early on that I didn’t want to do the usual type of vampire. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the stereotype—vampires were and are my favorite horror creations—but I needed to find an original angle, a way of writing about them that hadn’t been done before. I didn’t know very much about Larten Crepsley when I started the book—he grew and developed as I went along—I just knew that he wasn’t going to fit in with the normal Nosferatu-type vampire.

And speaking of Crepsley’s pet spider, I have to confess that Madam Octa is my favorite character in Cirque du Freak. Is there a little message there, perhaps, about tolerance for spiders?

Actually, I was originally going to give him a pet rat, since rats are intelligent and can be trained to perform tricks. But that would have been dramatically unspectacular, given the flamboyance of the rest of the Cirque Du Freak performers, so I started thinking about what would creep me out if I was watching the show. I’d always been a bit scared of spiders, so that’s what I went with. At the book’s launch, my publishers hired a tarantula handler to bring live tarantulas to the event, and since I was Darren Shan, I was expected to get up close and personal with them. I won’t lie—I was pretty damn nervous! But when I held one up close and spent some time with it, I began to see how incredible spiders are, and overcame the worst of my fears. Though I still vividly recall the handler leaning over me when I was posing for photos with the tarantula up near my face, and whispering seriously in my ear, “Don’t breathe too heavily . . . ”

The first big shock in the first Cirque du Freak comes when a woman in the audience during a performance has her hand bitten off by a wolf man. Did that scene cause any concern for your publishers?

I don’t think they were too concerned about that particular scene, since the hand got stitched back on a few paragraphs later! Although having said that, it’s worth mentioning that Cirque Du Freak was turned down by twenty different publishers before it was accepted, and the publisher in the UK who did eventually take a gamble on it got cold feet a bit later and tried to sell the rights back to me. I don’t think the wolf man scene by itself was a deal-breaker, but this was a book that raised concerns among pretty much everyone in the publishing industry before it was released and they realized that there wasn’t going to be a big public backlash. I’ll never forget WHSmith (one of the major high street chains in the UK) banning it for the first few months of its publication, then nominating it as their book of the year twelve months later!

At what point in the Cirque du Freak books did you realize it was going to be a very long series?

I knew when I started the first book that it would be open-ended, and I thought that I might go on to write a handful of books, assuming I enjoyed the writing process and could get a publisher interested in publishing it. I had only a very simple aim in the early days—I thought it might be a Kung Fu-type short series of books, only instead of David Carradine going around the Wild West, this would feature a young vampire having supernatural run-ins with various creatures. When I came to write the second book, I quickly realized that wasn’t where I wanted to take the story, so I just followed it where it naturally seemed to want to go. By the end of book two, I knew it was going to be far longer and more ambitious than I had originally imagined—anywhere between ten and twenty books, I figured.

Were you at all involved with the manga adaptation of The Saga of Darren Shan?

My Japanese publishers sent me sample work by several artists who had been shortlisted. They each roughed out their proposed first chapter, then all the pieces were sent to me. They were all high quality, but Takahiro Arai’s work immediately caught my eye. It wasn’t the most polished—he was very young, and had never worked on a major series before—but he had a natural story-telling rhythm that shone through, even though there were no word balloons. I nominated him as my first choice, and he was given the job. After that I had nothing more to do with it, until it was being translated into English, when I went through the translations of each volume and tweaked them slightly, to make the narrative voice mirror that of the books more closely.

For your next series, The Demonata, what made you decide to tell the story in present tense? Was that difficult to maintain over ten books?

I started it in the past tense (and in the third person, I think) but after a few pages it just didn’t feel right. The story felt to me that it needed more immediacy and intimacy. So, obeying my gut instinct, I went back and started over, in first person present tense, and I knew instantly that it was right for that book. At the time I didn’t plan to write any more books about demons. If I had, maybe I would have reconsidered, but in the end I think it worked perfectly. It presented some challenges, because of the sheer scale of the series, but at the same time I think it made it much more accessible than it might otherwise have been. The Demonata is a very complex, challenging story, featuring three narrators, and moving backwards and forwards through time. But because of the first person, present tense narrative, each book is quite straightforward to read.

The Demonata books also jump around in time—the fourth book released, for example (Bec) is set in about the fifth century A.D. How do you keep that sort of chronology straight throughout such a long series?

It was tricky, because it was never meant to be a series! I wrote Lord Loss as a one-off book, but after I’d finished it, I had ideas for a few more, so I wrote Bec next, then Blood Beast and Demon Apocalypse, which ended up being books four, five, and six in the end. After that I wrote Slawter, which became book three, then finally Demon Thief, which became the second book to be published. It wasn’t really until Demon Thief that everything clicked. I’d written five strong books, but they weren’t linking neatly, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to place Bec in the series. Demon Thief gave me my over-arching structure, and from that point onwards it was relatively plain sailing. But yeah, The Demonata is my most ambitious series, and the one that I look back at now and wonder, “How the hell did I pull that off?!?” As for keeping it all coherent inside my head, I just kept going from one book to another, re-writing and editing one after the other, until it all made sense. I spend at least two or three years on each book that I write, with long gaps in between each edit. If I didn’t write that way, I don’t think I could have made The Demonata work, as it wasn’t a series where you could write one book, publish it, then move along to the next.

You’ve mentioned that your stand-alone novel The Thin Executioner (released in 2010) is your favorite book. Can you talk more about why that is?

It’s hard, because it’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is! In the first place, you shouldn’t really have one, and in the second place, if you do, you probably can’t quite say why. But I think the change in the main character is one of the reasons I like it so much. He’s a loathsome individual when we first meet him, vain and arrogant, who believes in slavery and execution. But as the novel progresses, we start to see that he’s a product of his society, and he begins to slowly change as he’s exposed to people with differing beliefs. The key message of the book is that every single one of us has to be responsible for our actions in life, and that each of us can find hope and goodness within ourselves if we’re prepared to entertain the ways of other cultures. A simple message, I know, and maybe I hammer it home a bit too much at times in The Thin Eexecutioner, though I think I managed to make it an entertaining and frightening book too. There are other reasons why I like it so much as well, not least of which is that it’s a love song to the woman I eventually married (the character the protagonist falls in love with was named after her)—but let’s not get too schlocky!

The world and the mythology in The Thin Executioner is distinctly Middle Eastern in tone, although the novel was inspired originally by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How did you come to combine those two elements?

It was initially inspired by a drawing in a Philip Pullman book, of an executioner with a hood over his head, the sort of picture you find in cartoons everywhere. I thought it would be fun to write a short, humorous book about a young boy whose aim in life was to chop off people’s heads—a play on the many you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be stories that dominate the world of children’s books. Then my mind turned to Huck Finn and the story began to assume more gravity, as I saw that I could take it in a much more serious and dramatic direction. And then I went on holiday to Jordan in the Middle East, where the rest of the story came together. Because Jordan played such an important role in the book’s genesis, I decided to name almost all of the characters after Jordanian place names.

Many of your stories seem to center on a relationship between a young person and an adult mentor. Was there someone in your own life who inspired that?

Not really. But I think most of us would have loved to have a Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf-type figure in our early lives, to help show us the way to becoming a solid adult. I’m not sure you come across too many of those in real life, so I think stories help fill that gap.

Your newest series is Zom-B, and is projected to run twelve books, with a new book released every three months. Is it true you wrote the entire series at once? How did you manage to get through that?

Well, I didn’t quite write it at once. I wrote the first drafts one after another, but over a period of three or four years. But I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a multi-book series (the first time that I had ever known that in advance), and where I wanted to go with the storyline. I took it one book at a time for the most part. I’d do a first draft, give myself a break, then edit and do a first draft of the next book, then take another break, then edit the early books, then do another first draft, and so on. It was a difficult challenge, because it was the first time I was aware of the scale of a major project from the get-go. With the Darren Shan and Demonata books, I was halfway through before I realized I was climbing a mountain, so a lot of the hard work had already been done. With Zom-B I could see the peak from the very beginning, and that was scary. Ignorance really can be bliss!

Each book in the Zom-B series ends with a cliffhanger. Was it difficult to plot those in when writing the entire saga at once?

No, because that’s how the story presented itself to me. I always write a story the way I feel it needs to be written. If that’s as a one-off book, great. If it’s as a three or four book series, so be it. If it’s as ten or twelve books . . . well, that’s not as much fun, as I’m going to have to spend several years working on it, but fine, if it insists. I conceived of Zom-B as a series of short books, almost every one of which ends on a cliffhanger. Coming up with the cliffhangers wasn’t that hard, because the story just leant itself to them.

Here’s the opening line of Zom-B: “Brian Barry watched sickly as his mother dug through the shredded remains of her husband’s face to scoop out his brains.” What would you say about that level of intensity to a concerned parent?

It’s all about context. I get very few complaints about my books (and I’ve been going for fifteen years now) because anyone who reads one of them in its entirety can see that it’s not about violence for violence’s sake. They’re books that encourage readers to extend themselves, to pay attention to what is going on in the world, to stand up for their beliefs, to try to become better people. I use horror to give the books an edge that will draw readers in—preachers only preach to the converted, and they usually have a very black-and-white message to drive home. I’ve no interest in doing that—I always present the world as a world of grays—but I am trying to have a positive influence, to encourage young readers to think for themselves and not just follow the lines laid down for them by their elders. You’ll find a lot of gore in the average Darren Shan book, but it’s all there for the most heartfelt and inspiring of reasons.

The Zom-B books focus on a young protagonist, B Smith, who has a racist, bullying father. You’ve stated that after seeing fear of immigrants in London’s East End, “I wanted to write a book about that, and zombies seemed the best way to do it.” Why exactly were zombies the best way to deal with racism?

Because they were a way of getting the books into the hands of readers who wouldn’t necessarily read an “issues” book. There are lots of good books out there which tackle racism head-on, but I doubt that they make it into many households where racism is the norm. Zom-B is a series about breaking the trend of hate and violence. I believe that everyone can be reached, that every child has a conscience which you can appeal to—it’s just harder getting through to some than to others, when parental and societal forces are standing in the way. By writing a series where the horror and plot twists are to the fore, I hoped to attract readers who would then pick up on the underlying messages that dealt with racism, the abuse of power, and the dangers of not taking a stand against dark forces, even on the most personal and immediate of levels, i.e. in your own home.

Have you found that you have more of an adult audience for the Zom-B books than you did for the previous series?

I’m not sure. The books are certainly written for a slightly older audience, teenagers as opposed to pre-teens, but then The Demonata and most of the Darren Shan series were aimed at that sort of age reader too. (Well, aimed at isn’t the right term. I never write for a specific age group. I just try to remember what I was like as a child and teenager, the books and films I enjoyed, and I write for the youth within myself.) In theory a series written for teenagers should be of more interest to adults than one written for younger readers, but the flip side of that is that some adults enjoy reading more innocent types of stories, and actively seek out books written for pre-teens.

In the past, you’ve mentioned a new adult book called Lady of the Shades—can we expect that within the next year or so?

Lady of the Shades was actually published in the UK in 2012, and has been published in some other countries too. Unfortunately it hasn’t yet been picked up for publication in the USA, although I think it’s available as a UK import via Amazon and other online sellers, and I think you can get it as an eBook too.

In one interview you called your next adult book “the darkest thing I’ve ever written,” and noted, “we’re having some interesting debates about how we might make it acceptable!” Can you give us any clues about what might be so dark that even adults may have hard time accepting it?

It doesn’t have a fantasy angle. The new book isn’t really any darker than the four books for adults that I have already published under the Darren Shan name, but it feels darker because it’s set in the real world and there are no fantastical elements. Fantasy acts as a release valve for readers. My City books, for instance, feature a serial killer who keeps the heads of children in his fridge, but because he’s a fantastical, ghoulishly over-the-top killer, it doesn’t hit as harshly as it would have if the book had aimed for more realism. I’ve always bounced about between genres, and while the vast majority of my books fit somewhere into the realm of fantasy, I haven’t limited myself to that. The new book is one such instance, and it ultimately proved too problematic for my publishers, so I’ve taken the step of releasing it as an eBook under a different name—it will already be on sale worldwide by the time this interview is published. When I first started writing children’s books, I decided to keep the worlds of my adult and children’s books separate. I was persuaded by others to combine them later on, but I never felt easy releasing the adult books under the Darren Shan banner, so I’m relieved in many ways to have divided them up again. I won’t name the book or my new pseudonym here, as I don’t want to openly promote the new adults books via my Darren Shan channels. But it’s not a huge secret (because I want my older readers to be able to seek the new work out), and I’m sure any interested parties will be able to find out with a quick online search, or a visit to the February issue of the Shanville Monthly on my  website . . .

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.