A Living Nightmare Summary

Darren Shan

A Living Nightmare

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A Living Nightmare Summary

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Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare is a 2000 dark fantasy novel by Darren Shan. It follows protagonist Darren Shan, a lover of spiders who attends an outlawed freak show with his friend Steve Leonard and encounters a vampire who controls his pet spider with his mind. Darren and Steve decide to abduct the spider, but find that the task of controlling it is more than they bargained for. The novel has been adapted into a 2009 Hollywood film.

The novel is narrated by Darren, who explains that he has always loved studying spiders. As a child, he would collect spiders in the garden and set them free in his home, disobeying his mother. Despite her protests, she recognized his early passion and bought him a tarantula for his ninth birthday. All of this changed after he watched a cartoon depicting a malicious spider. He proceeded to kill his tarantula by sucking it up with a vacuum cleaner. He recalls this experience as the moment when he realized that, unlike cartoons, which are merely constructions, some elements of life are incorrigibly evil.

Darren’s best friend, Steve, grew up with a similar interest in the supernatural, though he spent his time with horror comics, particularly those about Vampires and the Wolfman. Steve and Darren are approached by their friend Alan with an ad for a freak show called the “Cirque du Freak.” Steve and Darren are immediately interested, as is their friend Tommy. The ad is redeemable for only two tickets, so the boys compete for the chance to go with Steve. When it is Darren’s turn to pick straws, he is instructed by a voice in his head, and ends up winning.

Steve and Darren are amazed by the freak show. Their favorite attraction is an act performed by the mysterious Mr. Crepsley, who owns an enormous spider called Madam Octa. In one act, releasing Madam Octa from her cage, Mr. Crepsley uses his mind to rein her in, augmented by a flute, which allegedly allows him to concentrate his mental energies. He claims that a single bite from Madam Octa is fatal to humans. Darren immediately makes plans to steal Madam Octa, leveraging his knowledge that Mr. Crepsley is a vampire in hiding to keep him quiet.

The plan goes off without a hitch. Darren trains Madam Octa for several weeks, eventually, becoming comfortable with having her beside him in his bedroom. To keep his parents from questioning him, he claims that he is merely practicing his new hobby, the flute. As he becomes more obsessed with the spider, he withdraws from Steve. Meanwhile, Mr. Crepsley rejects Steve’s request to be his assistant because he has “bad blood.” Despite Darren’s disloyalty, Steve tries to stay friends with him. Unfortunately, one day when Steve visits Darren, his little sister Annie enters his room without notice and startles him into losing his grasp on the flute. Madam Octa bites Steve, introducing the fatal poison into his system.

Steve realizes that the only way for him to live is for Darren to talk to Mr. Crepsley and reach an agreement to work for him in exchange for an antidote to Madam Octa’s venom. Though Steve survives, as consequence, Darren becomes part vampire. Mr. Crepsley tries to cut Darren off from his past life by staging his death, hoping to fool everyone, including Steve. However, at the “funeral” for Darren, Steve notices several scars on Darren’s fingers, which indicate that Mr. Crepsley has turned him into a vampire. As soon as the funeral ends and Darren is interned, Mr. Crepsley exhumes his “corpse.” Steve tries to kill his friend for taking his place as Mr. Crepsley’s assistant, even though it was to save his life. He slices a cut in the shape of a cross into his hand, swearing that its scar will stand as a symbol of his betrayal by Mr. Crepsley and Darren.

Cirque du Freak’s ending mirrors its content: a plot with no clear resolution or common ground between its characters, it focuses instead on the chilling effects of the supernatural on the bonds of friendship, family, and adolescence.