A Living Nightmare: Horror for children

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Darren Shan Cirque Du Freak A Living NightmareA Living Nightmare by Darren Shan

“Only the world’s dumbest person would run a risk like that again. Step forward — Darren Shan!”

Darren Shan (which is the name of the author and the protagonist of the CIRQUE DU FREAK series) was having a pretty normal life until one of his best friends finds an advertisement for the Cirque du Freak. After they “borrow” some money from their parents and sneak out at night, Darren and Steve discover a weird world that they never could have dreamed of. Darren is particularly enchanted by Mr. Crepsley and his performing spider, Madam Octa. This spider kills a goat on stage and then obeys Mr. Crepsley’s commands. When they stay after the show, Darren and Steve discover that Mr. Crepsley is a vampire!

Darren should have left well enough alone, but, unfortunately, he makes another crucial error in judgment. And another, and another. Horror is heaped upon horror and, at the end of the book, the lives of Darren and his friends and family are changed forever. In a very bad way.

A Living Nightmare is a horror novel for older children and young teens (I’d say ages 10-15 are probably the target audience) and it’s pretty effective. As an adult, I found it scary and it even gruesome in parts. Kids who don’t like horror may not appreciate it, but those who do are likely to find this to be a fast-paced, compelling, unputdownable read. The series is immensely popular around the world and a movie has been produced.

Even though Darren makes some really dumb mistakes, he’s a likeable kid who you can’t help but root for. I do wish, however, that he’d had a better grammar teacher. Sentences such as “Steve and me looked at each other and gulped” really make me cringe.

As a parent, I hated the ending of A Living Nightmare. I can’t tell you what happens or it will spoil the whole thing, but I’ll just say that it’s obvious that Darren Shan (the author) was not a parent when he wrote this. A particular conversation that Darren’s mom and dad have at the end would never happen. But, even so, the ending is completely (horrifyingly) compelling and will have most of Shan’s readers eager to pick up the next book, The Vampire’s Assistant, immediately. Which is what I did.

There are twelve books in the CIRQUE DU FREAK series and Blackstone Audio has been releasing them on audio. They’re narrated by Ralph Lister. Lister is one of the most enthusiastic narrators I’ve ever listened to and sometimes I love him and sometimes I don’t. He’s wonderful with the scary tense scenes, but he tends to overplay the quieter scenes which, I think, disrupts the tension-release that author Darren Shan does so well. I’d suggest listening to a sample to make sure you like Lister’s style.

Publisher: In the tradition of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Cirque Du Freak is the frightening saga of a young boy whose visit to a mysterious freak show leads him on a journey into a dark world of vampires. Filled with grotesque creatures, murderous vampires, and a petrifying ending, Cirque Du Freak will chill, thrill, and leave readers begging for more.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. The bad grammar was deliberate, and continues in the series until Darren returns to school and gets corrected by his new teacher. :-)

  2. I always plan these things through in careful (maybe overly obsessive!) detail. Originally his grammar was going to be even worse, reflecting the fact that he left school so young, but I felt that would be too distracting for readers.

    • You’re right about that, but it was because his grammar was otherwise perfect that I didn’t pick up on it.

      I can tell that you’ve planned much of the plot very carefully. I will mention that in one of my reviews. I look forward to finishing the series on audio when the 12th audiobook comes out in June.

      Thanks for visiting us!

  3. Brad Hawley /

    Just started listening to this first book today and think the guy reading it is awesome, Kat! Maybe not quite as good as the audio of Afterparty, but it’s up there!

    I’m not a big fan of horror, so this book was a pleasant surprise. I guess I am finding out that I like older horror (Poe and Lovecraft) or horror in comics, but not in TV/film or contemporary adult horror. And now I’m finding that I do like YA horror since I like Bradbury’s YA horror and now I like this book. It’s great fun to find yet another genre I can enjoy even if I’ll probably never watch horror on screen.

    I liked it so much that I made my 12-yr-old daughter listen to the first six minutes of the audio book this morning. I hope I can get her hooked. My 8-yr-old son is incredibly afraid of spiders, so I’m not sure he’d make it to the first chapter. Maybe when he’s older. However, I know I’ll move straight on to book two . . .

    • I’m glad you like it, Brad! As I said, sometimes I love Lister and sometimes he drives me nuts. It doesn’t help that he was the narrator of the GOR books. The essential problem is that he’s so melodramatic sometimes that his emotional range is too small.

      As a parent, what did you think of the scene I mentioned that I didn’t like? (Let’s try to avoid spoilers, though).

  4. Brad Hawley /

    Haven’t finished it yet!


  1. The Vampire’s Assistant: Tense, exciting, gross | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - […] pronoun “me” instead of “I” in several of Darren’s sentences. Inexcusable.) (Update: Mr. Shan has informed me that this…
  2. Allies of the Night: We meet old friends and enemies | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - […] In Allies of the Night, the eighth book in Darren Shan’s CIRQUE DU FREAK series, Darren, Mr. Crepsley and…

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