Cirque du Freak
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|Series||The Saga of Darren Shan|
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|Followed by||The Vampire's Assistant|
Cirque du Freak (also known as Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare) is the first novel in The Saga of Darren Shan by Darren Shan, published in January 2000. The story begins with Darren Shan and his best friend Steve "Leopard" Leonard, who visit an illegal freak show, where an encounter with a vampire and a deadly spider forces them to make life-changing choices.
It starts with Darren Shan narrating, saying he was always fascinated by spiders. When he was young, he used to bring spiders from the garden and let them loose in his house, and at the age of 9, he received the greatest gift of his life: a small tarantula. However, the joy of that gift was crushed when he, after watching a cartoon, killed the spider with a vacuum cleaner. As the book unfolds, the reader finds out that the story is true. Darren says he doesn't expect the reader to believe, but if he hadn't lived through it, he wouldn't believe it, either. He explains, "life, unlike a cartoon, is naturally evil, doesn't care about happy endings, and is always out to kill you. You just have to be careful." He also explains that everything written is true, except for the names.
His best friend, Steve "Leopard" Leonard, has grown up reading horror comics and stories of the Wolf Man and Vampires. One day, their other friend Alan comes across a flyer (which he has stolen from his older scary brother) advertising "The Cirque Du Freak", and eagerly shows it to Darren, Steve, and Tommy (Darren's other friend). All the boys wanted to go. Each flyer could only get two tickets, however, so they play a game of chance to see who will go with Steve (because he put the most money towards it). During Darren's turn, he hears a voice inside his mind telling him to "close his eyes and grasp". He does so, and ends up winning. Darren proceeds to accompany Steve to the Cirque.
Darren and Steve are mesmerized by the fantastic and disturbing show, especially by the act of the mysterious Mr. Crepsley and his giant spider, Madam Octa. Mr. Crepsley's act consists of him letting the highly poisonous spider out of her cage and controlling her actions via telepathic communication, using a small flute to focus his thoughts. One bite from Madam Octa will kill a human being after several days.
After the show is over, Darren sneaks backstage, having been completely fascinated by Madam Octa. His plan was to steal her, leaving a note for Mr. Crepsley that told him he was stealing his spider, and if Crepsley came looking for him, he would tell everyone about Mr. Crepsley's true identity (after Steve had recognized Mr. Crepsley's face from one of his vampire books): Vur Horsten, the vampire! While hiding and waiting for Mr. Crepsley to leave Madam Octa unattended, Darren witnesses a confrontation between Mr. Crepsley and Steve, in which Steve asks to be made a vampire. Mr. Crepsley tastes Steve's blood and immediately spits it out, declaring that Steve has "bad blood" and is "pure evil". He tells Steve he will not blood him, and Steve is enraged, swearing to the vampire that when he is older he will become a vampire hunter and kill him.
Darren's plan succeeds, and after a few weeks of training Madam Octa, he is fully comfortable with having it in his bedroom, using Mr. Crepsley's flute as an excuse for privacy. During this time, he grows more and more detached from Steve due to overhearing Mr. Crepsley stating that Steve has bad blood and is not good enough to become a vampire's assistant. Steve figures out that Darren lied to him and witnessed what he did, but still chooses to be friends with him.
One day while Steve is at Darren's house playing with Madam Octa, Darren's younger sister Annie barges into his room unknowingly and shocks him, causing him to drop the flute and lose control over the spider, which bites and fatally wounds Steve.
Steve's only hope for survival is if Darren makes a deal with Mr. Crepsley to become his assistant and pay off the cost of the spider antidote. Steve lives, but Darren is turned into a half-vampire, and is forced into the dark world of the vampires. In order to successfully free Darren of all previous bonds, including family, Mr. Crepsley helps his to-be apprentice fake his own death by numbing Darren's entire body, breaking his neck, and throwing him out of his bedroom window, perfectly simulating a fatal fall (his neck heals very quickly, now that he's half-vampire). During an open-casket funeral, Steve recognizes the small hidden scars on Darren's fingertips -- the marks left behind when Mr. Crepsley transformed him into a half-vampire -- and starts cursing at Darren, telling him to stop faking and wake up. Following the events of Darren's funeral, Mr. Crepsley returns and digs Darren up. Unbeknownst to Crepsley, Steve tries to kill Darren, but fails, instead swearing revenge on Darren for stealing his rightful place of being Mr. Crepsley's vampire assistant and betraying him. Steve cuts a swastika into the palm of his own hand, and swears on it, saying that the scar left behind will always be a reminder of Darren and Mr. Crepsley's betrayal.