Darren Shan: A damned good storyteller

Horror writer Darren Shan’s teen books are gory and fun, but also educational, says Colette Sheridan



REPORTS of youngsters being too engaged with social media and computer games to read books are greatly exaggerated, says mega-selling author, Darren Shan. Shan, whose book, Zom-B Family, the ninth in the 12-book series, ‘Zom-B’, was recently published, says it’s a myth that young people don’t read. The 42-year-old horror writer’s main audience is teenagers.

“Every generation mutters that children aren’t readers, not in the way they used to be. But I think there’s more children reading than ever. The internet, and gadgets like the kindle and the iPad, actually make books far more accessible than they’ve ever been in the past. Now, you can download a book instantly and it’s much cheaper than buying books. It’s a revolution. I’m delighted it’s happening. People who love books can go out and buy a physical book but, for me, the story is always what matters most. Children and teenagers are reading huge amounts,” he says from his home in in Pallaskenry, Co Limerick.

Shan (whose real name is O’Shaughnessy) has sold 25m books in 39 countries, and been translated into 31 languages. His latest zombie book deals with social issues and has a high gore quotient.

“It tackles racism; it looks at the abuse of power and the manipulation of the media. Even in this world that’s been overrun by zombies, there are still forces trying to purify mankind and trying to promote racist creeds. The series urges young readers to be more aware of what’s going on in the world and to think more about political issues. I know a lot of young people think politics are boring. I didn’t want to write a series that was just about politics.

“Instead, I’m encouraging readers, through the medium of horror, to think about what’s going on in the world, to look at what’s happening with parties like UKIP and the rise of right-wing parties across lots of Europe, and also ISIS. If we just stand by passively and let these groups come to the fore, we will all suffer the consequences.”

But violence begets violence and is not edifying for young readers. “I write horror books, so violence is par for the course. It’s over-the-top, with monsters and demons. It’s not realistic violence. In my books, most of the violence comes from humans. The books look at how the ‘living dead’ are not the most monstrous creatures.

“The humans try to manipulate the zombies and use them to their advantage. I’m looking at the darker side of humanity.”


Shan justifies the violence in his books by saying if it’s contextual, it’s acceptable. “Over the years, I’ve had virtually no complaints, given that the level of violence in my books is quite extraordinary. But it’s all there for a reason. I explore the consequences of violence. My books are urging people to seek the non-violent route to communicate. But then I explore what happens when that doesn’t happen. It’s really all a morality tale, like Grimm’s Fairytales. I use extremes to say to readers that if they don’t screw on their heads straight, this is what you could have to deal with.”

In the first book of the series, the revelation that ‘B’ is a girl surprised readers. “The character is aggressive. That’s a trait that’s associated with boys. Of course, both girls and boys can be bullies. Publishers always target the books at boys, because they’re horror books. But teenage girls read widely. I’ve always had a strong female base. When I’m on tour, at least 50% of my audience is girls.” Shan, who lived in a council flat in south-east London until he moved to Limerick at the age of six with his Irish family, speaks in a strong English accent. “It’s a bit of a pain. After all this time, I still have to explain that I’m Irish.”

Shan bought his first typewriter when he was 14. “Growing up, I read Enid Blyton. My favourite book was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As a teenager, I got into fantasy horror books and science fiction and thrillers. I always read widely and studied sociology and English at Roehampton University, in London. A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I can go from reading a children’s book to an old classic, like War and Peace. I have very wide tastes. It’s important, as a writer, to read across the different genres.”


Shan never attended creative-writing classes, saying he’s a big believer in doing it yourself. “But classes can be good, if you’re not good at organising your time and you’re struggling by yourself. I think a lot of people think creative-writing classes teach you how to be a writer. You learn to be a writer by writing and reading.”

And through hard graft: he writes at least seven drafts of each book. Shan draws on his teenage years for his stories. “Obviously, we change drastically when we grow up, but I’ve never lost sight of what it was like to be a teenager. The teenage years can be the best of times and the worst of times. You have your best highs as a teenager and also your most crushing lows. It’s a very turbulent time of life. I was very insular in my teens. I read and watched movies and listened to a lot of moody music. I was a happy and moody teenager, if that makes sense. I was very introspective, but I had a group of friends.”

Although Shan has made a lot of money writing, he was never commercially driven and says writing is not usually the path to wealth. He loves the Harry Potter books. “I never see myself as being in competition with other writers. People might view Eoin Colfer and Anthony Horowitz as my competition. But if children enjoy their books, they’re going to look for other authors to read. There has to be lots of strong authors writing, in order for all of us to maximise our readership potential. It’s not like football, where you support one team.”

Shan lives with his wife, Helen Basini, and their first child, who was born in September, and is named Dante, but not after the poet. “We just like the name,” he says.

Clearly, Shan’s reference points are wide-ranging.

Darren Shan will read at the Bualadh Bos Children’s Festival in Limerick on October 31 at 69, O’Connell Street, from 2pm-3.30pm. The festival begins today: www.limetreetheatre.ie 



Homemade ice pops are handy for many reasons, they refresh on a warm day, but also you know exactly what is in them; no strange colourings or preservatives.Michelle Darmody's home made ice pops

Sometimes travel can be more about the journey than the destination, as Caroline Hennessy and her family discovered when they took a 13-hour overnight journey from San Sebastián to Lisbon to check out the Trenhotel experienceTravelling by train in Europe - with kids

The Great Hack looks at the implications of the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, writes Laura Harding.When tech firms go bad: Netflix's new documentary on Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal

Often hailed as one of the greatest animated films ever made, The Lion King has a special place in the hearts of generations of children.New King of the jungle: The director behind The Lion King remake

More From The Irish Examiner