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Horror books that get people thinking

Darren Shan is a hugely successful writer living in rural Limerick. He spoke to John Rainsford about his new book Zom-B Angels, the fourth in the series

Zom-B Angels
Darren Shan
Simon and Schuster, £12.99

DARREN SHAN is blunt, as blunt as a sledgehammer through a zombie’s head, you might say. However, for a global master of horror, the lush idyll he calls home — Pallaskenry, Co Limerick — may suggest a disconnect.

Never mind, the fourth instalment of his 12-book Zom-B series has summoned an apocalyptic nightmare straight from the depths of hell to re-assure his loyal army of followers.

Coincidentally, ITV recently screened the Hollywood version of his novel, Cirque du Freak (2000), which he sold to Universal Studios for a king’s ransom several years ago.

Despite all this, however, Shan is less enthusiastic about the red carpet treatment than one might imagine.

“I stayed out of the film making process for my book Cirque du Freak completely,” he explains. “I would do the same if any of my other books are ever adapted. A writer should focus on writing books, not on playing games in Hollywood.

“It is different if you are going to get involved as a scriptwriter or a director. But without that direct involvement, there is little you can do to influence what happens, so I would rather spend my time productively working on new books here in Limerick.

“While the film was very unfaithful to the book, I liked it regardless — I felt it worked pretty well on its own terms. Unfortunately, the producers gambled on it being a big success, and spent a huge amount making it. They did not make that money back, so at the moment there are no plans for any more films in that series, though I remain hopeful that some of my other work may, one day, be adapted.”

Perhaps this is why his latest series of novels represent such a dramatic change of pace for the writer who turns 41 on Tuesday. Not only did he agree to the hectic schedule involved, producing a book every three months, but he also took the traditional zombie narrative and turned it on its head. In the process he has succeeded in making heroes into villains and vice-versa.

He argues: “Zom-B is my most political and socially conscious work to date. As well as detailing the fallout of a zombie apocalypse, it explores such issues as racism, the need to stand up to your parents if you do not agree with their views, how powerful people can manipulate the rest of us, and how each of us must be responsible, self-determining and individual.

“The popularity of Zom-B is showing that horror fans do not just want to be freaked out — they want books that will make them think. The narrative revolves around a teenager called B Smith, who has grown up with a racist, bullying father.

“When zombies attack B’s school, she suddenly finds out that the biggest monsters aren’t necessarily the living dead. They sometimes include those whom you love. Unfortunately, they are, also, the ones that you should be most wary of. Indeed, if you do not stand-up to these people, you risk being tainted by them and becoming mirror images of them.

“B does something terrible near the end of the first book, and the rest of the series sees her seeking some sort of redemption, by trying to restore order to the living in a world that has become over-run by the dead.”

Surrounded by all this teenage angst it is quite easy to forget that both Shan’s parents came from peaceful Pallaskenry. They moved to London in the 1960s, where the nascent King of Horror was born with the surname O’Shaughnessy.

As if fated to do so, his parents decided to return home at the tail-end of the 1970s, when he was just six years old. Shan subsequently went to primary school in Askeaton, followed by secondary school at the local Salesian College at Copsewood.

Finally, he went to university in London, mainly, he says, because, at that time, there were no fees for European students going to English universities. He need not have worried unduly, however, as success lay only around the bombed-out corner of his increasingly quixotic mind.

He wrote his first novel at the tender age of 17, only two years after finishing runner-up in a TV script-writing competition for RTÉ.

“While many of my books feature exotic locations, some of the settings are inspired by places far closer to home,” he says. “For instance, although most of Zom-B is set in London, it begins in Pallaskenry, the town where I am living today. The action had to move on quickly though, because it was over-run by zombies within the space of a few pages. !

“I also sometimes use the names of people that I actually know for my characters. In fact, a few of the people killed by brain-hungry zombies in the Pallaskenry-set prologue of Zom-B were named after cousins and neighbours of mine.”

Shan occasionally gets ideas for his books while travelling to far-flung corners of the globe, but more often than not, the stimulus for his creativity, can be far more mundane.

The idea for Cirque du Freak, for example, came to him one day when he was sitting in a car in Limerick city, while babysitting a young cousin, who was asleep in the back seat.

He was writing books for adults at that point in his life but he always wanted to try a book for younger readers. It seemed like a good idea, so he got stuck in, writing it as a side-project for fun. However, it had a hard time getting out of the blocks publicity-wise.

Although 20 publishers rejected it before it was finally accepted, the book hit a chord with readers right from the beginning. While it was not a bestseller at the time, it has gone on to become his bestselling work, and is today the book that most of his readers start out with.

“Writers can be anything that they want to be in the worlds that they create,” he quips. “Certainly, I have no strong yearning to do anything else — although I would one day like to take on the challenge of writing and directing a movie.

“My grandfather self-published a few books of memoirs late in life, but otherwise there are no writers in my family at all. My mother was my biggest single influence, teaching me to read and write, and encouraging my love of story-telling from a very early age.

“As a writer you are largely your own boss, spending time creating worlds of your own, and doing anything and everything that your imagination conjures up for you. At the same time it is very hard work requiring that you cut yourself off from the real world for long periods of time.

“Most writers also make very little money. You do it because you are passionate about it, and because, in effect, you have to do it. Any financial success that comes along should be viewed as a bonus, not as the main goal.”

Although, Shan ‘wiped-out’ Pallaskenry in the prologue to his first Zom-B book, he loves the place really, and has found that the town where he still lives is a great place for a writer to work. Being very quiet, there are few distractions, so he tends to work more actively than he would in a large town or city.

“I remember seeing my first Dracula film when I was living in London, aged five or six years old, and became obsessed with scary films and stories. Horror stimulates the imagination in a unique and beneficial way. It also gets the brain cells burning in a manner that other stories simply cannot.

“There is an internal buzz of excitement when you are reading a good horror tome. It can do all those things that books of other genres can do — it can be thought-provoking, humorous, sad, and twisting, but horror adds heart-pumping thrills to the mix as well.”

Although, blunt force trauma continues to be a central tenet of his work, Darren Shan knows only too well, that when it comes to Zom-B aficionados, you must always get them in the head.

- Darren Shan will read from his Zom-B series on Wednesday, Jul 10, at 2.30pm in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry, Co Cork. See

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