This first horror book in the "Cirque Du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan" series by Darren Shan is published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Goup.
A Living Nightmare is written for kids ages 10 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Darren and his friend Steve — both fascinated by the macabre — sneak out of their houses to attend an "underground" freak show, Cirque Du Freak. Steve recognizes one of the performers, Mr. Crepsley, who charms a spider using telepathy, an act performed by a vampire whom Steve has read about. Steve secretly confronts the man and asks to be his apprentice. Darren, who is obsessed with spiders, uses the conversation he's overheard to steal the spider (Madam Octa) and blackmail Mr. Crepsley, who is a vampire. Mr. Crepsley refuses Steve's request to be his apprentice, but Darren finally reveals to Steve that he's stolen the vampire's spider and has been training her. While she is uncaged, Madam Octa launches herself at Steve and bites him. He is close to death. Darren's only hope to save Steve is to get Mr. Crepsley's help. The vampire will only save Steve if Darren agrees to die and become reborn as the vampire's apprentice.
Darren begs the comatose Steve to recover, and then says (when his friend doesn't regain consciousness) that his "prayers" were not answered. Mr. Crepsley laughs at Darren when the boy tries to destroy him with a cross and holy water. Mr. Crepsley is amused that people believe what they see in movies instead of using real weapons. A priest presides over Darren's funeral.
Darren's mom and teacher, Mr. Dalton, both recoil at the idea of freak shows, saying they exploit the performers. Mr. Dalton is so upset when he learns about Cirque Du Freak that he goes to the police in an effort to get the show shut down. Darren's parents try to be involved and talk to him when they sense he's upset. They understand his emotions but have no clue about what he's up to or what sort of danger he's in. Steve lives with his mom, and the two fight regularly. Though he's a vampire, Mr. Crepsley comes across not as evil as much as someone doing what is necessary for his survival. In the end, he is rather pleasant and nurturing to Darren. Darren's friend Tommy says anything that adults hate is normally awesome. Steve shares plans to take money from his mom's money jar and sneak out to buy Cirque Du Freak tickets. Darren's parents share a bottle of wine at dinner.
Other Belief Systems
Both Mr. Crepsley and Darren control Madam Octa using mental telepathy. Darren sometimes "senses" things that lead him down a certain path. He calls it destiny. Mr. Crepsley asserts that vampires are not necessarily evil. They just have a thirst for blood now and then.
The words h--- and crap appear a few times. At the freak show, the wolf-man bites off a woman's hand, and it is sewn back on. That same evening, Madam Octa sinks her fangs into a goat and paralyzes it before killing it. Steve is envious that Darren is a vampire and he isn't. Steve tells Darren the violent ways he'll kill him when he gets a chance. Darren offers a morbid description of his death, burial and being exhumed by Mr. Crepsley. The next book in this series is previewed after A Living Nightmare ends. In it, Mr. Crepsley and Darren feed on a nice scout leader with a wife and kids.
Darren reads adult comics that he knows his parents would disapprove of.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What did you think about all of the creepy, scary images in this book (and the boys' obsession with them)?
- Do scary things like these fascinate you? Why?
- Is it dangerous to dwell too heavily on "dark" things?
- What does the Bible say about our thought life and what we should focus on? (See Philippians 4:8.)
- What did you think of Darren's choice to commit suicide to become the vampire's assistant?
- Was it worth it to save Steve's life?
Or did he hurt others, including his family, in the process?
(Parents could further discuss suicide and the value God puts on human life.)
- Darren seems like a fairly nice kid.
Is being nice enough to keep evil from infiltrating your life?
- Darren kept getting in deeper trouble. One lie led to another.
What might he have done earlier in the story to keep his circumstances from spiraling out of control?
- How would you define evil?
- Do some people have evil in their blood, as the vampire suggested about Steve?
- The vampire didn't consider himself evil.
What do you think?
- What about Darren's actions of stealing, lying and endangering his friend's life?
Was that evil?
- Darren blames the freak show for all of the problems that follow.
Do you think he's right, or did he make some bad decisions of his own along the way?
What were they?
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.