Darren Shan has been scaring young readers for over a decade—and adults for even longer. His list of children’s books began with the Cirque Du Freak series (known in the UK as The Saga of Darren Shan), followed by the popular vampire series The Demonata. His newest book, Zom-B, launches a new 12-book teen horror series that promises new installments every three months.
For much of Zom-B, the impending zombie horde is little more than hearsay. There are reports of an outbreak in Ireland, but no one knows for sure. Zom-B also introduces B, a high school bully who picks fights with Muslims, blacks, immigrants—anyone B’s dad doesn’t like. But B hasn’t totally bought into this blind hate, and when the zombie rumors prove true, there’s no time for anything but a desperate dash for survival.
Shan stretches the tension to its limit—the reader knows it’s coming, and the anticipation boils as rumors circulate and theories fester. An abrupt, gory cliffhanger will leave readers hating Shan just a little bit (but in the best possible way) and anxiously awaiting Zom-B Underground, book two in this gruesome new series. In an interview with BookPage, Shan gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the monsters in his head and tells us how he manages to stay just this side of "too scary."
These days, everyone is a zombie survival expert. It doesn’t matter if we’re dealing with old-school slow zombies or contemporary runners, the basic rules stay the same: Don’t get bit, shoot the brain, etc. How do your zombies stand apart from the rest of zombie history?
For me it was crucial to come at zombies from a different angle, like I did with vampires when I was writing Cirque Du Freak. I had no interest in just telling a normal zombie story. The first book does revolve around a classic zombie situation, with a group of characters trapped in a school and having to run from the hordes of living dead. But that’s just the starting-off point. From book two, we’re going to be in uncharted waters. I can’t say too much about how I’ve twisted things, as I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises or plot twists, but in this series, after the first book, “ordinary” zombies are more of the background scenery than the main show.
Why have zombies become such a cultural horror icon? Why is society currently obsessed with the walking dead?
I think they’re a useful way of creating a dystopian, apocalyptic society where you can explore a variety of social and political themes. Lots of us have a fascination with imagining our world gone to seed: What would it be like to live in an anarchic society where law and order have broken down? You can set up such a scene with giant plants (The Day of the Triffids), a deadly virus (The Stand) or whatever. But zombies give the scenario a bit of an extra . . . bite!
"Zom-B urges self-empowerment. We all have the power to change the world, even if only in a very small way, but we have to stand up and do it, not just let events wash over us."
You’ve said that Zom-B was inspired by the fear and paranoia that became prevalent after the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks. How did these events influence a zombie book?
Zombies by themselves don’t provide much mileage. They’re one-dimensional monsters, and if your story only features scenes of zombies attacking humans, and humans trying to evade them, you’re not going to get very far. You need to have a meatier subject matter.
Zom-B began with me wanting to write about racism and the abuse of power. We live in troubling times, where people with grudges are trying to stoke up everybody else and create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. I wanted to get young people thinking about the issues of the day, to urge them to always use their common sense, to question everything that they are told, to not just blindly follow those in positions of power or those with the loudest voices. But I wanted to do it in a fun, exciting way. Zombies gave me the means to do that, to create a dark, thrilling series of books that would also hopefully give readers food for thought, mixed in with the scares and intrigue.
Some of the humans in Zom-B are far more horrifying than the zombies, such as B’s racist, abusive father. Fighting zombies is basically kill-or-be-killed, but how do you fight someone like B’s dad?
That’s really the core message of the series. Yes, zombies are terrifying and deadly, but humans are far more dangerous than any fictional monsters we might come up with. It’s a recurring theme throughout the series—the living pose more of a threat than the undead. As for how you fight such a threat, it’s simple—you use your brain, listen to your heart and make a stand. Zom-B urges self-empowerment. We all have the power to change the world, even if only in a very small way, but we have to stand up and do it, not just let events wash over us.
The debate over children’s horror has gone back and forth for years—mostly with movies, but it’s relevant to your books for kids and teens. Obviously, you get a kick out of scaring kids. Why is it good for kids to be scared? How do you know when a horror book is just scary enough for young readers? Where is the line?
I do a lot of touring, and when I’m writing a particularly disturbing scene, I think about what it would be like to read it out loud to a group of children or teenagers. If I would feel uncomfortable doing so, then I go back and rewrite. I don’t think there’s any clear, defining line between what is acceptable and what is not. It’s a gut instinct and always should be. I don’t believe in having imposed limits in children’s literature. It should be a writer’s job to examine their conscience and use their common sense.
When you were a kid, what were you most scared of? What are you most scared of now?
I was scared of things like spiders and snakes when I was younger, and of fictional monsters. Although actually, no, I wasn’t really scared of monsters, because I knew they were fictional. They were fun. Reading horror books or watching horror movies was fun-scary. I think reality always provides the worst scares—if something nasty really happens to you, it can be horrible. When the scares are only in your head, it can be enjoyable.
Based on the books you write, readers might think you spend your free time seeking out the grisly and weird, especially by titling your vampire series The Saga of Darren Shan. How much time do you spend doing super creepy things?
Not much actually. I lead a pretty normal life most of the time. I do like visiting graveyards and creepy crypts, but I don’t seek out creepiness. I’ve done some thrill-seeking stuff in my time—bungee-jumping, sky-diving, whitewater-rafting—but that has been for the buzz rather than the scariness factor.
With each book you write, what do you hope your reader’s reaction will be?
I hope, first and foremost, that they enjoy the story. Reading should be fun. But I also like to send them away thinking. The best books provide entertainment and food for thought. It shouldn’t be an either/or situation.
What can readers expect from book two, Zom-B Underground, coming next January?
I can’t say too much about it, except it’s all set in an underground complex, and it’s where the story starts to go off in a new, disturbing direction. It also features a very, VERY freaky clown . . .