Darren Shan is a boy who loves spiders and Soccer. His best friend is Steve, a fellow soccer freak who also loves classic old movies and classic old monsters. Darren and Steve are friends, despite Steve being something of a troublemaker.
One night, on his way home from Steve's House, Darren passes a strange man who passes him a flyer, telling him to take one. Darren does, and finds himself with an advertisement for the Cirque Du Freak, a strange circus-cum-freak act with some seriously weird performers. Darren shares the adveriisement with his friends, Steve and two others. They all want to go, but the cost is high, $20 a person.
The paper is taken away by their teacher, but Steve says the paper is his and he wanted to ask the teacher about it. The teacher explains what Freak shows were- malformed people exhibited in cages for the amazement and cruelty of the crowd, But, he is quick to add, that isn't allowed any more. When Steve presses him as to whether the flyer could be for a real Freak show, the teacher says he hopes not, and keeps the paper.
But Steve had already memorized the address on the paper, and afterwards, he goes to buy tickets for all his friends (with their money, of course). But the next day, he has some bad news. There were only two tickets left before the show was sold out, so he bought them anyway. Now, he has to decide who to take with him, and he decides on Darren, because without him, they would never have found out about the show.
The night of the show, they arrive, and are greeted by the same man who was handing out the papers. He seems very creepy, but takes their tickets and tells them to enjoy the show. Darren and Steve enjoy the whole show, but both are struck by Mr. Crepsley and his amazing spider, Madame Octa. Darren because he loves Spiders, but Steve can't seem to help staring at her owner all through the act. After the show is over, they go out into the fairgrounds and buy souvenirs for their friends, and in Darren's case, his sister.
Darren can't help but note that Steve seems strangely preoccupied, and finally tells Darren to go home. Darren is afraid that Steve wants to run away with the circus, because he isn't really happy with his home life, so he follows Steve, who goes back inside the building where the circus performs and confronts Mr. Crepsley. There, he tells Crepsley that he knows who Crepsley really is- a vampire named Vur Horston. And he wants Crepsley to make him into a Vampire, too!
Crepsley seems weary, but willing, until he tastes Steve's blood, whereupon he flatly refuses, telling Steve that he is evil, and he is no fit person to become a vampire.. Steve is angry and upset by this, but this pronouncement shocks Darren, and he falls down, alerting Steve and Horston/Crepsley to his presence. He runs away, but not before falling into Crepsley's room and stealing his spider, Madame Octa.
Once he brings her home, his friends and family notice a difference about him. He no longer has time to play and seems to only want to spend time in his room. In fact, he is trying to connect with Madame Octa, and realizes that she can be controlled by the mind, not the flutes that she seemed to be controlled by at the show. He is also avoiding Steve, who finally confronts him and asks if Darren even considers him a friend any more! Darren says, of course he is, but Steve wrings out of him a confession that he saw the confrontation between Steve and the Vampire. He tells Steve about stealing Madame Octa and offers to show him what his new Spider can do.
Steve accepts, but when Darren's sister walks in as he is letting the Spider crawl over Steve, Madame Octa bites him. Darren knows from the show that Steve will die, slowly, unless Steve can be injected with Anti-venin. But he's not able to tell the Doctors what happened, and his little sister can't, either. And nothing the Doctors can do seems to help. Darren, knowing he must save his friend, goes looking for the Circus, but it has moved on. Luckily, Crepsley stayed behind, and Darren confesses all to him, asking Crepsley to save his friend, saying he will do anything.
Crepsley accepts, retrieves Madam Octa, and provides Steve with a potion that neutralizes the venom. But his price for the help is steep- he wants Darren to be his assistant, and also to become a Vampire, because he senses that Darren is very different from Steve. Darren agrees, because he doesn't have any choice. So Crepsley bites Darren, telling him that soon he will be a half-vampire. He also wants Darren to come away with him, but Darren doesn't want to leave his family. He runs from Crepsley, thinking that he can just remain with his family and friends.
But he changes, becoming faster and stronger, so much that he often can't even control his own body. And then comes the thirst for blood, something apparently even half-vampires have. Even his regular food isn't immune. One day, Darren bites through a fork while eating, all without realizing it until after he's done it. And when he drinks the blood of a boy he injured in a soccer match, and is tempted by the thought of drinking his sister's blood, he knows he cannot remain in his old life.
But what will happen now, and can Steve forgive Darren obtaining the life he wanted more than anything? Is Steve willing to let Darren go, or will he resort to something drastic to punish his formerly best friend? And how can Darren just leave his family, leaving them to wonder where he is now?
I haven't actually read the Cirque du Freak books, even though they have been sitting on my bedside table along with the rest of the books I want to read, but this was an enjoyable form to discover them in. It's not clear in this story just how old Darren and his friends are. They could be anything from 11 to 15 by the art, and the story doesn't really give many clues. Except that he's in middle school.
Again, I haven't read the full tale, so I can't tell if something was cut out or is missing here, but the story is mildly scary, and the art reflects that. The Freak Show characters are entertainingly grotesque, from the world's fattest fat man to the snake boy, the wolfman, and even Mr. Tall, the man who runs the place. And Madame Octa is rather grotesque as well. The tension builds throughout the book, right up until the ending, and we are carried along by the decisions Darren is making. Some of them are definitely bad decisions, but you do understand his motivations for doing so.
This manga is in third person, and the original books, as I understand them, are in first person. But even so, this remains an effective and somewhat creepy story that young teens and tweens will enjoy. Recommended.