Lady of the Shades has been a long time coming.
In a pointed postscript tacked on to the short horror novel we’re going to talk about today, bestselling young adult author Darren Shan acknowledges that he began writing Lady of the Shades in 1999. This, then, is the end result of thirteen years of blood, sweat and tears.
An ill omen, one wonders, or a flourish of metafictional foreboding?
In the grand tradition of uninspired writers everywhere, Lady of the Shades’ central character is exactly that: an uninspired writer, searching for a suitable subject for his next novel. To that end, American horror author Ed Sieveking—whose work has been a modest success—has come to London to facilitate his research into the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion.
Here, he becomes fast friends with a fan, who sets Ed up with a number of ideal interviewees—not to mention an invite to the party where he meets the love of his life, Deleena Emerson, AKA Andeanna Menderes. At this early stage in Lady of the Shades, our man has cause to ponder his good fortune:
“A book that’s shaping up nicely. A relationship with a beautiful lady who brings out the best in me. And a good friend. It’s a far cry from my usual lonely, passionless life. For years I’ve limped along, nursing grudges, bitter at the world for what it did to me, haunted by my ghosts, desperately searching for proof that the spirits are real, that I’m not insane, struggling to hold on to whatever thing slivers of sanity I can claim to be in possession of. Now I can see light for the first time in ages. Maybe love will cure me of my ills and banish the spectre of the ghosts.”
Alas, a chaste affair later, the object of Ed’s affection admits that she’s married, and to make matters worse, her abusive husband is a lord of London’s seedier side. However, our man has his secrets too, and after Ed finds it in his heart to forgive Andeanna, they put their heads and hearts together, and hatch a plan to break free, finally, from the ties—and the lies—that bind them.
Darren Shan is a household name amongst younger readers in Europe and the United Kingdom. Between them, his various series—including The Saga of Darren Shan, or Cirque Du Freak as it’s known in North America—have sold in excess of 20 million copies. But like Lady of the Shades, his dubious debut, Ayuamarca—recently revamped and retitled Procession of the Dead—was for older folks. And again like his latest, which was begun in the same year as his first novel proper saw publication, it didn’t work out terribly well.
It seems to me that Lady of the Shades’ aspirations toward an adult audience are informed by one reason and one reason only: the book alludes to some comparatively harmless hanky-panky. Otherwise this is very much in the vein of Shan’s more successful efforts, except with swears. It’s short, simplistic, yet so far from straightforward that it may as well have emerged from the M. Night Shyamalan stable. Speaking of said devil, Lady of the Shades is sure to remind readers of one of Shyamalan’s films in particular; I won’t name names, except to say Shan’s novel has not the gravitas or character of its brother from another mother.
What it has, in tumultuous abundance, is twists. Several fundamental shifts which occur over the course of Lady of the Shades, changing the novel’s core focus. At the outset it put me in mind of Adam Nevill’s Last Days, but soon it had become a romance, then a crime thriller, then a ghost story—and all this in the first 100 pages, in such quick succession that no one aspect of the entire has the opportunity to impress in itself, while cumulatively the book comes off as cobbled together.
In point of fact, Lady of the Shades is contrived, convoluted and occasionally cringe-worthy, but you know what? I don’t regret reading it. It’s a madcap melodrama with plain prose, plotting problems and poor pacing, yet every chapter comes complete with some surprise, and even if these are only slightly satisfying at the time, on the whole the ten-a-penny turns amount to a fairly hair-raising read.
As an author who cast a version of himself as the central character in the twelve book series with which he cemented his reputation, Darren Shan is not at all averse to breaking the fourth wall when the opportunity to do so arises. It often does in Lady of the Shades, but of all his self-reflexive assertions, this early example stayed with me particularly:
“I know I’m not the world’s greatest writer—not even its greatest horror writer—but I’m determined to prove that I can make it, even if my books are lacklustre, thrill-free affairs, as one critic cruelly put it.”
For all its problems—and they are many and various, I’m afraid—that last, at least, is not a complaint one may make about Lady of the Shades. It is however a guilty pleasure at best. If you’re so inclined, bear that in mind and you’ll find it... fine.