NOTE: This is the sixteenth in a series of 31 reviews of scary short stories and novels. As part of All Hallow’s Read, I will be sharing all the scary stories that I think you should consider giving to someone for Halloween. Because this is a tradition intended for people of all ages, some of these titles will be for children and young adults, while others are meant strictly for adults. Happy Reading.
There is a moment in the first book of Irish author Darren Shan’s first Cirque Du Freak novel, A Living Nightmare, that really, really scared me. Surprising given that the book is aimed towards a Goosebumps reading age. What happened is a spoiler I shall not divulge. However I will tell you that I am shocked at its ability to slide in past my fright defenses and exhume a fear I’d forgotten I had.
My reaction to the first few chapters was: “Shan, you bastard. You wrote the book I would have written had I known I wanted to write it! Well played, sir.” I think any adult who recalls what it was like to be a child who enjoyed the freakier things in life will read this book and feel the same way. It universally represents the freak in all of us, revealing how little we’ve appreciated it lately.
An exaggeration of course. But not a great one. A Living Nightmare deals with the kind of horror I find missing in a lot of children’s, or YA – actually, I’m not sure which group this one falls into- fiction. R.L. Stine (yes, him again) has said that he doesn’t like scaring children. He makes sure to remind his little readers that what’s happening is only fantasy, and to make them laugh when he can. I won’t say that Darren Shan has no scruples about giving kids nightmares, but I do think his views are a little different.
It seems to me (and I am probably wrong) that the author feels no need to step in and make sure his readers understand that what they’re holding is fiction. This is a book which celebrates the weird and macabre the way most little boys do. At least little boys (and girls) who would read a book about a freak show anyway. I think he trusts the judgement of his audience to accept that what they’re reading isn’t real and so he doesn’t pander to them. Which can make for some scenes of startling horror.
Not much about the book is unpredictable. That’s not to say you’ll know where the protagonist (also named Darren Shan) will end up by the end of the story. You will be painfully aware of every misstep just before it happens, making this quick read feel a bit longer.
Forgetting all that, the book couldn’t be more perfect for the Halloween season. You’ve got a cavalcade of freaks, including monsters, spiders, and two kids who love the stuff, and a few moments of sincere horror. Get it for a kid in your life, or even yourself, if you’re interested in discovering the kind of book you never knew you wanted.