Creeping Out the Kids

Will the real Lemony Snicket please stand up?

Daniel Handler deals in doubles. In both of his adult novels, he explores dark and vengeful alternate selves. In The Basic Eight, it takes the form of a doppelgänger, while in Watch Your Mouth it’s a golem — a fearsome creature from Jewish mythology that is made of clay and “will rise up and do your bidding,” as Handler puts it.

Around the time The Basic Eight was published, Handler became associated with another name: Lemony Snicket, author of a line of children’s books called A Series of Unfortunate Events. These tales of terror and bad luck, told with a wickedly funny wit, have gained quite a following among youngsters and adults — and, like the Harry Potter series, they’ve caused a bit of a stir in certain circles.

Snicket isn’t quite a real person, but the term “pseudonym” doesn’t really apply either. Handler, who grew up in San Francisco and lives there today, is generally described as the mysterious Mr. Snicket’s official spokesman. He can show you an entire dossier for Snicket, whose publisher calls him “one of the most difficult children’s authors to capture and imprison.” Not only does Snicket have a signature and an official seal, he also has a way of meeting with unfortunate events on the way to scheduled book-signings — so that Handler must appear in his stead.

A Series of Unfortunate Events traces the ups and downs of the Baudelaire orphans, three youngsters being pursued by the evil Count Olaf and his band of disfigured and demented villains. Olaf and his crew seek the fortune left behind by the Baudelaire parents, while narrator Snicket assumes the voice of a researcher. The latest offering, The Carnivorous Carnival, is the ninth in a projected series of — what else? — thirteen.

With a title like The Carnivorous Carnival of course there’s a gore factor, but Snicket deals as much with the inherent unfairness of life, maintaining his darkly humorous tone throughout. Pervasive themes include mischief gone unpunished and good behavior gone unrewarded. Handler says kids can relate well to these concepts.

“The idea that one’s rewards often have little bearing on one’s behavior is a familiar one to young people,” Handler says. “[They] learn at a very young age that hypocrisy is one of the most valuable survival techniques on the schoolyard and in the home.”

Snicket’s prose doesn’t talk down to young readers, but rather lets them in on dark doings he’s sure they’ll find hilarious.

“Literature for children often teaches that one’s parents always behave rationally, that the bully can be defeated with kindness, and other such nonsense,” Handler says. Conversely, Snicket teaches, for example, that eavesdropping — while impolite — can sometimes be valuable and is almost always enjoyable.

Snicket’s subjects and plotlines are easily grasped and would obviously appeal to young readers. But some of the words — and Snicket’s interpretations of them — have a certain adult appeal. It’s easy to picture parents reading The Carnivorous Carnival to their kids and having to stop every few pages until their own laughter subsides. Handler says the Snicket books aren’t aimed at any target audience in particular.

“The vocabulary and humor elude the grasp of some adults and some children,” Handler says. The books are written simply with an eye to creating stories the author himself “would find interesting,” he says, “and I’ve been shocked at how many people agree.”

Handler has also brought Snicket into serious realms. Early this year he organized a fund-raising event in San Francisco to help the independent Denver bookstore Tattered Cover, which was under government pressure to turn over information about a customer’s purchases and needed money for the legal battle.

“The Tattered Cover is one of my favorite bookstores — although geography prohibits me from visiting it often — and I was happy to be of some service when its philosophy was threatened,” Handler says. “To me, the idea that one can walk into a bookstore or library and read anything at all, without fear of consequences, is one of the greatest joys in life, and there are enough ruined joys without adding this one to the list.”

Standing up for free expression is nothing new to either Handler or Snicket. Published around the time of the Columbine shootings, The Basic Eight — which deals with a group of San Francisco high school students killing a teacher and a fellow student — came under fire.

“I’ve known of some high school teachers who objected to The Basic Eight on the grounds that it portrays students drinking, having sex, and committing acts of violence,” Handler says. “One of them recommended The Catcher in the Rye instead. I trust this irony speaks for itself.”

Handler also reports that a school in Decatur, Georgia, banned all the Lemony Snicket books from its library, “and since then the poor town has been dragged through the mud.”

He recounts having also “heard from a number of private households who object to my books. But I object to a number of private households,” Handler says, “particularly the decorating schemes, which I can spy through the windows, so I suppose we’re even.”

A screenplay combining the first three Lemony Snicket novels is in the works; The Basic Eight hasn’t been so lucky. Studios have periodically proposed film adaptations of the novel “both with and without my participation,” Handler says. “For a while Hollywood didn’t want to make a high school movie because there weren’t any, then they didn’t want to make a high school movie because there were too many, and last I heard they didn’t want to make a high school movie because [high school movies] are over.”

Handler says he’s also finishing a collection of stories.

“Its theme,” he says, “is love — something I think more adults than children will find interesting.”

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