His dark materials
Featuring ghost giraffes, sexualised toys and talking Christmas decorations, the books of Daren King inhabit odd places. A nervous Doug Johnstone peers in
Daren King lives in a strange world. Not in real life, you understand, for there he lives in Dublin because of the generous tax breaks for writers, which is perfectly normal and not at all strange. No, the strangeness of Daren King is in his head and on the page. Since the publication of his first book, Boxy An Star, in 1999, the young English novelist has delivered a string of adult and children’s books which have created weird and disturbing universes, worlds which blend characters full of innocence with darker, troubling undercurrents.
Boxy An Star told the story of two third-generation pill-poppers, Bole and Star, who are so mashed they can’t work out how to cook or fend for themselves. His follow-up, Jim Giraffe, featured a sexually advanced ghost giraffe living in a wardrobe. His books for kids (Mouse Noses on Toast, for example) are brimming with anarchic humour and freakishly imagined scenarios. And that trend continues with his fourth adult novel, Manual, featuring Michael and Patsy, a dysfunctional couple who provide sexual fetish services along with Patsy’s pet (stuffed toy) owl. When middle-aged married man Edward hires them to escort him and his 15-year-old girlfriend Baby Girl, things get considerably weirder, but not how you might expect.
‘It starts off about something sexual, but then the sex all stops abruptly,’ says King. ‘But it’s still about the same themes, about fetish and obsession. I didn’t have a moral point to make, but I thought it was an interesting theme to explore.’ Like all of King’s work, Manual is about the blurred line between fantasy and reality, the internal and external forces at work on people, and it creates its tension by pitching naïve protagonists into dangerous surroundings. ‘It’s always a good contrast, to have dark themes in tandem with innocent characters, but it’s not something I’ve thought about consciously,’ he claims.
Each of Manual’s four main characters is delusional in their own way, and full of their own idiosyncratic obsessions, but it all somehow hangs together as a whole, thanks to King’s skills at characterisation. ‘Every character in the book is projecting things onto other people,’ he says. ‘If you look at the plot, a lot of the motivations of the characters don’t make sense until you understand their psychology. They all have different fantasies which fit together.’
The naivety of King’s characters is not reflected in his own personality. When I ask if he was surprised that his debut was praised to the rooftops and nominated for the prestigious Guardian First Book Award, he says this: ‘I wasn’t surprised. I’ve always been very confident about my writing. That sounds really arrogant, and maybe it is, bu if you read any of these books on how to be successful in life, these people didn’t even think about failure. I’m like that. I never considered that I might not be successful.’
One ambition which remains unfulfilled is to have a film made of one of his books. Photographer Rankin owns the rights to Boxy An Star and a script is currently being developed. ‘Last I heard they were casting, but who knows?’ says King. ‘I hope it happens.’ Judging by his success already, it surely will.
Manual is published by Faber on Thu 5 Jun.