A puppet-loving mobster, men who wear makeup, facial tattoos: Such are the things that tax the imagination of Darren Shan. Originally published in 1999 under his real name, Darren O’Shaughnessy, Procession Of The Dead—originally titled Ayuamarca—is Shan’s debut novel, a warm-up for his bestselling young-adult vampire series Cirque Du Freak (inflicted on the big screen in 2009 as Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant). Like many authors, Shan started out writing adult-oriented material before switching to YA, and Procession’s re-release is being touted as a far darker and edgier take on the urban fantasy Shan has since become famous for. It isn’t. Shan’s so-called mature material reads more like a freshman fiction project, and Procession is a book that should have been left in the locker.
And it almost was. After getting a small-press release in Shan’s native UK in ’99, Procession and its sequel, Hell’s Horizon, fell quickly out of print; the third book in the series, City Of The Snakes, never came out. But now, after the success of Shan’s teen vampires, the trilogy—dubbed, in a telling lack of wit, The City—is being unearthed. It’s hard to fault any particular element of Procession, as they barely exist; the premise involves a vaguely grimy, poorly sketched metropolis overrun by corruption and clouds of green fog, and the protagonist is a swaggering yet flat gangster-on-the-rise named Capac Raimi. (His unusual name becomes a significant factor in the plot, such as it is.) After an annoyingly mad crime boss named The Cardinal—who spouts remedial philosophy about interconnectedness and the rejection of logic—takes Capac under his wing, Capac enjoys a predestined (and frustratingly unearned) rise through the underworld that haphazardly incorporates immortality, misplaced Incan mythology, and a cast of Clive Barker-lite oddities who aren’t even remotely odd.
The Incan twist is particularly jarring, and Shan himself has admitted that he originally crammed it into the story as a gimmick. But it’s endemic of a bigger problem: Shan’s setting is so vaguely defined and flimsily furnished, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s some sort of alternate-reality present, a near-future dystopia, or just a poorly conceived piece of shit. Accordingly, his characters dribble indistinguishable, faux-noir, tough-guy banter as shallow as the worst output of Guy Ritchie or Frank Miller—that is, when they aren’t disgorging chapter-length lumps of repetitive exposition in an effort to sell a mise-en-scène that’s banal enough to sum up in a paragraph. In Procession, it’s eventually explained—sort of—that members of the mystic Incan tribe Ayuamarca can be recognized by their “emptiness.” The same can be said of the book that once bore the same name.