7th January 2000 at 00:00
CIRQUE DU FREAK. By Darren Shan. Collins Children's Books pound;3.99

This compelling page-turner depends on surprise for much of its impact, so I can't risk giving too much away. Cirque du Freak recounts the events which unfold when two schoolboys accept an invitation to a mysterious visiting freak show. The progress from slightly scary adventure to trapped-in-a-situation horror is gleefully developed. "There were so many vital moments," reflects Darren Shan on page 174, by which time the die is cast.

I dare go only so far as to classify this tale as a vampire novel - and don't spread that around. The author, a mind-bogglingly prolific young Irish author called Darren O'Shaughnessy, and his publisher would like readers to start out thinking that it is a scary spider story. A spider features prominently on the cover, and at the pre-publication launch party there were plastic spiders on guests' wineglasses and a large live spider to handle.

In an intriguingly ambiguous introduction, Shan reveals his childhood obsession with spiders. Has the author already become his alter ego as he tells us that he used to imagine a spider creeping down from the ceiling while he slept, crawling into his mouth, laying eggs in his stomach, and eating him alive from the inside; and confesses to having Hoovered up a pet tarantula given to him by his parents?

In the original draft of the novel - which he started writing "as a sort of side project" alongside his adult fantasy novels (a new adult title, Hell's Horizon, is publishedby Orion in February) - spiders did not feature prominently in the early chapters. The book's original editor at HarperCollins (O'Shaughnessy is clearly thrilled to share a publisher with Alan Garner, an author he admires) suggested a rewrite.

Cirque du Freak sets out to be the kind of scary book O'Shaughnessy would have loved to read himself at 10 years old. Growing up in pre-Goosebumps days, he had to resort to collections of horror stories written for adults by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and M R James, before he became a devotee of Stephen King. Heaps more unsettling than a Goosebumps title, Cirque du Freak stands out as a book by a writer who does not perceive himself primarily as a children's author. It is to be marketed for the 10-plus age group: "sophisticated 10" says the publisher (and O'Shaughnessy chuckles, suitably fiendishly, "All 10-year-olds like to think they're sophisticated, so that's OK.")

While the book can be given five stars for atmosphere, it is sometimes unconvincing emotionally. Darren's adoring young sister, Annie, is depicted in a way that might work in a film but is downright sickly on the page. And the increasingly dramatic interplay between Darren and his friendadversary, Steve, defies the logic of the realistic introductory chapters. Despite that, a promotional review from a young reader comments, "The worst three words in the book were 'To Be Continued'."

Currently contracted for the first three Darren Shan sagas, O'Shaughnessy is already at work on book nine.

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