The man giv­ing your chil­dren night­mares

Hor­ror writer Dar­ren O’Shaugh­nessy is the grisly king of the play­ground. He talks to Sin­clair McKay

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

Just oc­ca­sion­ally, when one has wan­dered into a cer­tain sec­tion of Water­stone’s, one won­ders what it must be like to be the sort of au­thor who writes about hellish demons, throat-goug­ing were­wolves, mag­gots emerg­ing from corpses’ nos­trils and vam­pire blood­baths. Dar­ren O’Shaugh­nessy could tell you all about it.

Bet­ter known to count­less wide-eyed read­ers by the au­tho­rial ab­bre­vi­a­tion Dar­ren Shan, he is de­scribed by his pub­lisher, HarperCollins, as a “mas­ter of hor­ror”. A 12-vol­ume se­quence of vam­pire nov­els – start­ing with Cirque Du Freak and tak­ing in Vam­pire Moun­tain and Tun­nels of Blood – es­tab­lished his po­si­tion, sell­ing mil­lions of copies, and his new 10-vol­ume De­monata se­ries is prov­ing equally com­pul­sive.

What makes O’Shaugh­nessy’s sto­ries truly dis­tinc­tive, how­ever, is that the grue­some and the macabre are be­ing served up to a play­ground au­di­ence. If you have chil­dren, there is a very strong pos­si­bil­ity that, at some point, their noses will be jammed in one of Shan’s brain­squish­ing, mag­got-swarm­ing nar­ra­tives.

“When the books were first pub­lished, I ex­pected a back­lash,” says O’Shaugh­nessy dis­arm­ingly. “I ran all the ar­gu­ments for the defence through my head in case of hos­tile in­ter­view­ers – ready to ex­plain why the books aren’t a dis­grace, that they had a strong moral un­der­pin­ning. But in fact, there wasn’t any out­rage. No one, save the oc­ca­sional par­ent or teacher, was up in arms at all. In fact, teach­ers and li­brar­i­ans have very of­ten cham­pi­oned my books.”

But then O’Shaugh­nessy is aware that his young pro­ta­gan­ists – the teenage “Grubbs” Grady and “Dar­ren Shan” – are ac­tu­ally fol­low­ing in a grand lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. As long as there has been grue­some sen­sa­tion­al­ist fiction, there have been young read­ers lap­ping it up.

For Jane Austen’s gen­er­a­tion, it was Ann Rad­cliffe’s The Mys­ter­ies of Udolpho and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. Austen satirised the trap­pings of Gothic ro­mance in Northanger Abbey. In the age of the Vic­to­rian pe­ri­od­i­cal, teenage boys loved lurid Gothic se­ri­als such as Var­ney the Vampyre and The String of Pearls. In Amer­ica in the 1950s, there was a stri­dent cam­paign against EC hor­ror comics such as Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Hor­ror, which some felt to be cor­rupt­ing. And for those of us of a cer­tain age, hor­ror meant the early 1970s works of James Her­bert ( The Rats and The Fog) and Stephen King. Those who have only ever seen the re­cent pal­lid re­make of Salem’s Lot don’t know what they are miss­ing.

O’Shaugh­nessy was brought up on a diet of Ham­mer hor­ror, Shaun Hut­son, and the film Theatre of Blood, in which Vin­cent Price mur­ders Robert Mor­ley by force-feed­ing him his two beloved poo­dles. But O’Shaugh­nessy was also a fan of Roald Dahl and the Just William sto­ries, and he stud­ied chil­dren’s fiction as part of his English de­gree. He has writ­ten adult nov­els, and has plans for more. But when an idea for a chil­dren’s book – in­volv­ing a young­ster at a cir­cus who is forced into be­com­ing a vam­pire’s as­sis­tant – oc­curred to him, he de­cided to give it a whirl. By serendip­ity, he sent his man­u­script to the agent Christo­pher Lit­tle, who at the time was also at­tend­ing to the bur­geon­ing ca­reer of an un­heard-of au­thor called JK Rowl­ing. As with Rowl­ing, it was the qual­ity of the sto­ry­telling that quickly en­sured that O’Shaugh­nessy’s young au­di­ence grew.

His suc­cess has also been in­ter­na­tional. “Ja­pan went mad from day one,” says O’Shaugh­nessy, laugh­ing. “The Shan nov­els sold un­be­liev­ably, topped the adult best­seller charts. I think they tar­geted 16-year-old girls. I trav­elled over there for pub­lic­ity pur­poses. The re­cep­tion was all a bit like Beatle­ma­nia.”

Th­ese days, thanks to his fan­tas­ti­cal tales of vam­pires and, most re­cently, the chess-play­ing de­mon Lord Loss and the dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of mor­tals that have to fight him across the ages, O’Shaugh­nessy’s do­mes­tic fol­low­ing is equally en­thu­si­as­tic. For those who imag­ine that hor­ror is strictly the prov­ince of blood­thirsty ado­les­cent boys, think on and look sharp.

“Girls form about 50 per cent of the read­er­ship of my books,” he says. “At sign­ings, you some­times see more girls than boys. From the start, it was very no­tice­able that girls were read­ing the nov­els. I went to HarperCollins, told them this, even sug­gested that per­haps the cov­ers shouldn’t be so hor­rific.” This sug­ges­tion proved over­sen­si­tive. In­deed, th­ese days, the hor­rific cov­ers now glow in the dark (think how much more at­trac­tive the works of Mar­garet Drab­ble would be with such a de­vice!) They clearly have not been off-putting.

Nei­ther have the wel­ters-of­gore set-pieces that char­ac­terise each book. Even for the grownup reader, th­ese tales are best ap­proached some time af­ter break­fast has been di­gested.

But as O’Shaugh­nessy points out, if they were merely blood and guts, then the books would not have held so many read­ers, girls or boys. They have to have heart as well, and run­ning through the De­monata se­ries is a strong sense of fam­ily, of the

ties of love, al­though drawn with a marked lack of sop­pi­ness.

As has al­ways been the case with a genre with spe­cial ap­peal to teenagers, the main sub­text of the De­monata is pu­berty and grow­ing up. Young “Grubbs” Grady may come from a fam­ily af­flicted with ly­can­thropy, but it is also quite clear that out­breaks of fur and fangs have a metaphor­i­cal neat­ness.

“Yes, it’s a com­ing-of-age story,” says O’Shaugh­nessy. “But the point should be that good fan­tasy is more than just fan­tasy. Your body’s chang­ing, you’re un­cer­tain about the fu­ture, un­cer­tain about your abil­ity to face the chal­lenges you have to face – and re­ally, it trans­mutes into this fan­tasy about this kid who turns into a were­wolf.”

The writer, who is now 35, was born in Lon­don and re­tains the cap­i­tal’s dis­tinc­tive vow­els, de­spite hav­ing lived in Lim­er­ick for the last 29 years. When he writes – and his out­put, at two nov­els a year, is prodi­gious – he works in Ire­land. When he is not writ­ing, in­creas­ing amounts of his time are spent trav­el­ling around pro­mot­ing his latest works.

Next month, he will be ap­pear­ing at the Bath Fes­ti­val of Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture, along­side many other lu­mi­nar­ies. His fans gen­er­ally turn out in force for such oc­ca­sions. But while he is ob­vi­ously tick­led pink by his dual best­selling/cult sta­tus, he is also con­scious that he bears an un­usual re­spon­si­bil­ity to their read­er­ship. If young read­ers get pulled into his books – and get­ting boys in par­tic­u­lar to read is no mean feat – then the hope is that their en­joy­ment of books will be ce­mented from that point.

“I write very short sen­tences, in­ten­tion­ally easy to read,” O’Shaugh­nessy says. “I have no in­ter­est in writ­ing some­thing that only aca­demics can read and un­der­stand. I al­ways want to try to reach the un­reach­able reader, to put a book into a kid’s hands, with­out us­ing the phrase that I hate: ‘Hey kids, read­ing is good for you.’ I think that is the worst thing you can say to re­luc­tant read­ers.

“The myth that kids don’t want to read is put around by well-in­ten­tioned peo­ple, but the best teach­ers un­der­stand that you have to give chil­dren books that they have an in­ter­est in read­ing, and then the habit is picked up.”

There is no doubt that the odd par­ent will feel a flut­ter of dis­quiet about their off­spring read­ing about vo­ra­cious de­mon dogs and su­per­nat­u­ral be­ings with hol­lowed-out hearts filled with snakes. But O’Shaugh­nessy is blithe about kids’ abil­ity to cope with his brand of ghoul­ish ex­cess. “I have had hardly any feed­back from fans say­ing they have had night­mares,” he says, “I have had emails, how­ever, say­ing that the books had made them cry. The emo­tion is there. So that is why I am fine with the hor­ror-writer la­bel.”

Dar­ren O’Shaugh­nessy will be ap­pear­ing at The Daily Tele­graph Bath Fes­ti­val of Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture on Satur­day, Sept 29 (see box above).

No bleed­ing heart: Dar­renO’Shaugh­nessy (aka Dar­ren Shan) and, in­set, some of the tools of his trade

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