For the film, see Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. For the Japanese manga series, see Cirque du Freak (manga).
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 visiting an illegal freak show where an encounter with a vampire and a deadly spider forces them to make life-changing choices that neither of them could have ever thought possible.
A feature film adaptation of the novel, directed by Paul Weitz and starring Chris Massoglia, John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Josh Hutcherson and Willem Dafoe was released on October 23, 2009.
Darren Shan starts narrating the story by 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 despite what his mom said about never bringing them in, 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. 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 Wolfman 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.
Darren plans 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, being a vampire.
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 poisons Steve badly.
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 fakes Darren's death. 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. 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 cross 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.