Zom-B is the first in a new 12-book series from the children’s author dubbed “The Master of Horror”. Darren Shan, fresh from grappling with vampires (The Saga of Darren Shan series) and demons (The Demonata series), now turns his attention to zombies.
Zombies were originally a less enticing prospect for Shan than vampires or demons: “This idea that they don’t think, they don’t plan, they don’t plot, makes them for me quite boring. I felt I had to try and bring something new to the table to make them interesting,” he says. “The classic zombie scenario of a group of people trapped somewhere, and zombies trying to get in . . . that can be fun. But I wanted to take it further than that.”
Zom-B opens with what one might term a traditional gorefest as zombies rampage through a small village in Ireland, devouring brains with bloodthirsty howls. But the action soon switches to London, where B Smith, a tough kid growing up in the inner-city, is watching a news report about the “alleged” zombie attack. B has slightly more pressing problems than the undead—a violent, racist bully of a father who makes life a misery for everyone around him.
Zom-B first grew out of a desire to engage with racism, explains Shan, over the phone from his home in Limerick, while not being “preachy” on the subject and still offering his devoted fans, known as Shansters, “a really exciting, action-packed book”. There are two major plot twists in Zom-B, both of which threw this reader completely, and also make the book quite tricky to write about.
“One of the main themes of Zom-B is that things aren’t always what they seem. That’s something that plays out through the books in various different guises; lots of people don’t tell the truth,” says Shan. “One of the things I want readers to do when they [finish] this series is to . . . question what we hold to be true. To always take everything with a pinch of salt, to always analyse everything and to not just accept things that people tell us. Even though those people are our parents or our teachers, each of us needs to take responsibility for our actions, to think about the world and the consequences of what we do.”
There will be 12 books altogether in the Zom-B series with a new one published every three months. Shan explains the story is “really one big book, one 2,500-page story” that he wanted to release as a “Charles Dickens-type serial”. He’s already written the first drafts of all 12 books and promises that each will end on a cliff-hanger: “I really want the pace to flow. This is a series that examines how people play on our fears,” says Shan. He wanted to explore how: “People in positions of power will try to make us afraid of things in order to get us doing things they want us to do.” He wants his readers to consider that perhaps “the monstrous undead aren’t the people or creatures we should necessarily be fearing the most in this world.”
Does a new series for a new publisher (he’s moved to S&S Children’s after 15 years with HarperCollins Children’s Books) mean the pressure is on? “When I sit down to write, I don’t think about the market, I don’t think about how’s this going to go down with the established fanbase . . . I can’t think about those sorts of things. If I do I’d still be sitting here playing around with the first sentence,” he says. Rather, he writes books that his teenage self “would hopefully have enjoyed reading”.
Shan has a well-established fanbase, notably the traditionally hard-to-reach audience of teenage boys and reluctant readers. Writing for younger teenagers (Zom-B has an age guidance of 12+) means that Shan does have to censor his words. Although Zom-B is satisfyingly gory, Shan did tone down some of the more aggressive language from his first draft. His measure is always whether he would be uncomfortable reading a passage aloud in front of a teenage audience and their teachers or parents.
Shan always promotes extensively and for Zom-B will undertake an 11-day tour of the UK and Ireland, including multi-school events, public signings and ticketed events. S&S estimate it will bring him into contact with 5,000 fans. A two-week national outdoor poster campaign, social media activity and, most excitingly, a zombie flash mob event should bring him to the attention of many more.
His sales are impressive—3.2 million copies through BookScan to date and demonstrate his huge popularity. But for Shan nothing beats the personal contact: “I love meeting the fans, I love getting out there. It’s when the books feel alive to me . . . and when I see that the stories have worked.”
Zom-B (Simon & Schuster Children’s, 27th September, £12.99, hb, 9780857077523)
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