When Darren Shan and his best friend Steve find a flyer for Cirque Du Freak (a circus of freaks) they just have to go. A wolf-man, a snake-boy—what boy wouldn’t love it? But when Mr. Crepsley and his spider, Madame Octa, come on stage, both boys are overcome with desire—Darren, to own the spider, and Steve, to become a vampire! Darren manages to get his hands on the spider, but his control slips and the deadly bug bites his friend. Mr. Crepsley is the only one with an antidote, and he will only hand it over on one condition: Darren must become his assistant.
According to his website, Cirque Du Freak‘s author (confusingly also named Darren Shan) was inspired to write his vampire novels by the combined inspiration of Goosebumps, with its easy-to-read format, and the dark horror of Stephen King novels. Later, manga artist Takahiro Arai was awarded the opportunity to recreate Shan’s story in manga form after winning a contest. Even though the manga adaptation was originally published in Shonen Sunday, thanks to Yen Press’s ties with Little, Brown and Company (the original novels’ publisher) they were able to print the manga in English.
I love creepy stories. I ate up the Goosebumps series as a kid, cringing and wincing at every page and then scrambling for the next book. I’d been eying the Cirque Du Freak novels precisely because of the promise for creepiness, but unfortunately I found myself disappointed. Despite the generally excited tone of the narrator, the descriptions often read with too little emotion to invoke fear or horror, even when a woman’s hand is bitten clean off by a wolf-man. Shan also manages to ruin his tension simply by reminding us of it too much. In the prologue, his narrator reiterates the point that this is a “true story” where bad things can happen—a common enough tactic that beefs up the tension. But then, Shan keeps doing it: “Little did I know that Alan’s mysterious piece of paper was to change my life forever. For the worse!” “If only I hadn’t been so scared of looking like a coward! I could have left and everything would have been fine.” It quickly becomes repetitive, and makes it feel like Shan is trying to force anxiety on the readers.
Despite my dissatisfaction with the creepy tone, the story is still pretty compelling. A boy becomes a vampire not because he wants to or is forced to, but because that’s the price he pays to save a friend from the mistake he made. There are quite a few times where the novel drags. Shan apparently feels compelled to describe all of Darren’s actions—even unimportant ones like the chores he did while waiting to go to the circus—and the chapters set aside to describe all of the freaks take ages. The plot itself is engrossing enough to still qualify the book as a page turner, but it’s tough to ignore all the awkward bits.
Takahiro Arai’s manga adaptation is definitely creepier. This is thanks in large part to the art; particularly with the freaks, the character designs at times take on a surreal, over-exaggerated feel, and his backgrounds of oversized crescent moons and propped up coffins look like scenes out of Soul Eater. Sometimes Arai takes it a little too far with Steve. His wide eyes and sharp-toothed grins are too quick to give away that there’s something messed up about this kid, but even so he feels like more of a threat than he did in the novel. Darren does look much younger than I imagined him (though to be fair, the book never specifies his age), and unfortunately the designs for the side characters are either weak or generic-looking, like the “cute girl” assistants in the freak show.
The manga takes a couple of liberties with the story in both minor and major ways. In the manga, Darren and his friends play soccer for money rather than fun (as they do in the novel), but this streamlines their path between getting cash and buying the tickets. Arai also changes some of Mr. Crepsley’s actions. First, he gives the flyer directly to Darren (rather than someone handing a flyer to a friend’s brother), again streamlining the plot while also making it seem more deliberate than coincidental that Darren was there that night. Then Mr. Crepsley shows up immediately to take back Madam Octa after Steve is bitten—meaning that Darren’s little sister sees him. Having not read the rest of the series, I don’t know if Darren’s family ever makes it back into the narrative, so this could either be foreshadowing that Annie will eventually figure out what happened…or an unfulfilled expectation for the reader.
The sometimes emotionless writing of the book really kills the creepiness that Shan obviously wants to build, and while the pacing is quick there’s a good deal of unnecessary action that still manages to gunk the story up. Arai’s adaptation fixes a lot of these problems, rooting out unnecessary tidbits and making the story just a little scarier. But I think what I like the most about the manga version is that if I had had no awareness of the original book, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pick this out as an adaptation. The manga flows well on its own, and the straight-from-the-text narration is kept at an astonishingly low level. And even though the novel has the strange feeling of being more of a “part one” than its own stand-alone story, the full volume of set up works well in the manga format. The Cirque Du Freak manga has its own issues, but it’s still the better choice.