|Illustration by Aaron McKinney|
Revenge, murder, suicide; corpses on the playground; parents burning to death; teenage girls pursued by homicidal old men; and devil-worshipping children who bludgeon their classmates to death. This is what kids are reading about these days — no happy beginnings, no happy endings, and very few happy things in between.
In The Slippery Slope, the latest installment of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, three orphaned siblings are sent to live with an evil count who tries to kill them and steal their fortune and subjects them to the abuses of his coterie of evil henchmen. As if that’s not bad enough, writer Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Snicket) disembowels the famous, optimistic Robert Frost poem: “The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn’t hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough,” Handler quips, “that poet is now dead.”
Nicknamed “Harry Potter From Hell,” A Series of Unfortunate Events is the fairy-tale equivalent of the video game where the heroes run and run (snow gnats! leeches!), fight, occasionally score one against the bad guy and then run some more. And it has struck a deep and fruitful vein in popular consciousness. Not a week has gone by when at least one of the books wasn’t selling in the Top 10. They speak to the secret sadomasochist lurking within us, not least of all in the 8-to-12-year-old demographic. Misery loves company, and nothing makes us feel as good as when bad things happen to other people. Better yet, when bad things happen to other people over and over again.
Stories about death and disaster, rape and prostitution in children’s literature are nothing new. One children’s book from the 17th century includes a poem about Sodom and Gomorrah illustrated with woodcuts of an incestuous Lot frolicking on a couch with his two naked daughters. But this newest crop of children’s books draws on the innate twistedness of the tales of yore and flips them on their head. Foremost among these is illustrator Gris Grimly’s sick and lovely picture book Wicked Nursery Rhymes. Spiders who sat down beside her were the least of Little Miss Muffet’s problems. Grimly recasts her as an enfant terrible who cursed, vexed her classmates and tortured small mammals. Exasperated, her parents locked her in the cellar and starved her to death. His “Jack and Jill” ends in murder and suicide. As an illustrator, he is Arthur Rackham on crack. He makes the morbid beautiful, favoring sinewy, crosshatched black lines on soft background washes of sepia and gray for a populace of freakish children with bulbous heads on spindly necks, and knobby elbows and knees.
If the modern child is a worldly child who needs sophisticated survival tools, then a sense of humor and perspective are prime among them. Handler may not be great at creating emotionally engaging characters, but he is a master of the verbal pun, the word game, the clever quip. “The moral of ‘Snow White,’” he writes in The Wide Window, “is ‘Never Eat Apples.’” The moral of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is “Never live somewhere where wolves are running around loose,” though people will tell you the moral is not to lie. “This is an absurd moral,” he confides, “for you and I both know that sometimes not only is it good to lie, it is necessary to lie.”
Handler’s woeful tale of the orphaned Baudelaire children is wrapped up in an entire world involving the author himself, who sets himself up as a “researcher” tracking the kids’ movements and gathering clues. Handler refers to himself as Lemony Snicket’s “official representative.” Gris Grimly, for his part, calls himself the Mad Creator, who was born in 1775, lives in a crypt in Los Angeles and “was put in the juvenile asylum for resurrecting a fly.” At author appearances, Handler rubber-stamps books instead of signing them, and once apologized that Mr. Snicket couldn’t make it because he was eaten by a shark.
The idea of dual personalities and fractured, dueling realities runs through all of Handler’s books. The Snicket world and the real world conflate to form a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle. From the morbid epigraphs to a mysterious Beatrice (“To Beatrice — dearest, darling, dead”) to Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, released last year, art invades reality and vice versa. The world of the Baudelaires turns in on itself, swallowing the reader whole. Inside the Unauthorized Autobiography, which is packaged to resemble a case file, are newspaper clippings, a “fake” obituary, photographs, letters, diagrams, maps and telefaxes. “The book you are holding in your hands is extremely dangerous,” reads the inside flap. “If the wrong people see you with this . . . the results could be disastrous. Please make use of this book’s reversible jacket immediately.” Flip the jacket over and you find a cover for a nonexistent Snicket book titled The Luckiest Kids in the World! replete with drawings of a birthday cake, pink balloons, bunnies and blue skies, emblems of a charmed life. Try as we might, we will never know how deep the Snicket rabbit hole goes.
The Snicket books, and the Grimly rhymes for that matter, never explicitly deal with grim reality as reality. They aren’t meant to. Theirs is the realm of satire and irreverence, of Beetle Juice, the Munsters and Charles Addams, where the order of the day is to make fun of death and to make death funny. Grimly’s fly-infested Jumping Joan, for all her moaning, just wants to skip rope. Sure, she’s dead, but she’s not mean, just misunderstood. When Count Olaf holds a knife to earnest little Violet Baudelaire’s thigh under the dinner table, the effect is more frisson than freaky, and it’s a satisfyingly creepy scene. Why do we gravitate to that which scares us? What evil thing will happen next? Like shadows in a kinescope, the books flirt with violence and despair, while keeping true malevolence safely at bay.
Until June 2003, when reality intercedes. Another series of unfortunate events: Jim Carrey signs on to play Count Olaf. Little boys and girls, their hands fluttering over stacks of Snicket books and goth teen Emily’s Nightmare Journal, are driving the market for sardonic books with unhappy endings to unprecedented heights. Rising young screenwriter Jessica Kaplan, who at 15 sold her first screenplay (about a group of high school kids in danger), becomes the youngest person ever to score a six-figure script salary and is asked to write the script for another Handler non-Snicket novel, The Basic Eight (about a group of high school kids who murder their friend). A charmed life, indeed. Then, late one summer afternoon, she boards a plane that crashes into the Fairfax district, blocks away from the high school, and is killed. Her former classmate, Rachel, also an aspiring screenwriter, writes in her online diary: “Could that have been me? What was
I to think of my envy now?” A slippery slope, if ever there was one.
THE SLIPPERY SLOPE (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 10) By LEMONY SNICKET | HarperCollins | 337 pages | $11 hardcover
GRIS GRIMLY’S WICKED NURSERY RHYMES | By GRIS GRIMLY
Baby Tattoo Books | 32 pages | $16 hardcover