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Gainsville Sun

January 07. 2003 6:30AM

No happy endings

Despite their dark subject matter, these books are the rage, even more so than Harry Potter

Special to The Sun

The books are dark. They're creepy. They always begin badly and end even worse. And millions of children around the world can hardly put them down.

They're the work of Lemony Snicket.
Their titles are ominous. Among the nine Lemony Snicket books are "The Bad Beginning," "The Miserable Mill," "The Vile Village" and "The Carnivorous Carnival."

The first page of the first chapter in the first book says it best: "If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle."

Still, the books - which chronicle the misadventures of three orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Bauldelaire - have captivated quite a following in Gainesville and nationwide.

Since 1999, kids (and more than a few adults) have bought more than 4 million of Snicket's books, all titled alliteratively, and they have at times occupied five of the Top 10 spots on The New York Times children's best-seller list.

"They caught my interest," says 10-year-old Maggie DeWitt of Gainesville. "In regular books, the good guy usually wins, but in these ones, the bad ones always do."

Maggie told her friend, 9-year-old Jane Wilson, about the books and Jane ripped through all nine of them in a matter of months.

It's hard for Jane to articulate why she likes them so much, but it doesn't take her mother long.

"(The writer) would use a big word and then define it," says Della Wilson. "It enlarges their vocabulary. It's very well-written."

Wilson says that, since Jane has been reading the books, she been writing more and writing better.

In the Lemony Snicket series, the three Baudelaire youngsters are portrayed as intelligent children, charming and resourceful, but extremely unlucky. Most everything that goes on in their lives is rife with misfortune, misery and despair.

When bad things are happening to good children, why do children love them so much?

Among the unfortunate events that have plagued the orphans:

  • The villain, Count Olaf, is a distant relative, but only wants the fortune their parents left behind.

  • The orphans go to live with their kindly Uncle Monty, who is eventually murdered.

  • When they go to stay with their Aunt Josephine, she throws herself out of a window. At least that's what they think happened.

  • They're forced to work in a lumber mill, and while staying with wealthy people, they fall down an elevator shaft. Later, they're driven out of town by an angry mob with torches and barking dogs. Eventually, they get locked in Count Olaf's trunk.

    The list goes on. And the list will get longer, as four more Lemony Snicket books are due out, which will make for a total of unlucky 13.

    What about the darkness of the book? Nothing good ever happens to the orphans.

    "At first it really bugged me and I was really angry about it, but you get to admire the children because they're very resourceful and they stick together," Della Wilson said. "Nothing happens to them that they can't handle."

    All three kids use their gifts to protect one another. Violet, the eldest, is the inventor whose fanciful machines often get the group out of trouble.

    Klaus, the middle-orphan, is super-smart. He usually figures out Count Olaf's evil plots before it's too late.

    And despite the fact that she's an infant, Sunny uses her incredibly sharp teeth to cripple their adversaries.

    In the absence of a new Harry Potter book, bookstore owners are profiting from Lemony Snicket book sales. The latest book, "The Carnivorous Carnival," has been on The New York Times best-seller's list for children's fiction.

    Locally, "The Carnivorous Carnival" has been a top 10 seller at Goerings Book Store at Westgate and at Book Gallery West.

    "Whenever a new one comes out, we sell a bunch of them. That whole series has done very well for us," Book Gallery West manager Eric Vanness said. "We're anticipating the next one coming out."

    The real Lemony Snicket is Daniel Handler. Previously an adult fiction writer, Handler got into writing children's book on the suggestion on his book editor.

    In a Salon.com article, Handler said he thought children's books were stupid. His book editor suggested that Handler write the type of book he would have liked to read when her was younger.

    "I said that I really hate children's books, that I thought all books for children were crap," says Handler. To which his current editor, Susan Rich at HarperCollins, replied, "Isn't that a good reason for writing the book you wish you had when you were 10?"

    Where did the name Lemony Snicket come from?

    The name has a history as dark and creepy as any of any of Handler's nine books. Handler says he was doing research on right-wing militia groups for his first novel, "The Basic Eight."

    He wanted to get on their mailing list, but he didn't want to use his real name, so he decided to use the pseudonym Lemony Snicket.

    Now, Handler is writing a script based on the books. "The Addams Family" and "Men in Black" director Barry Sonnenfeld will direct the movie.

    Sixth-grader Evan Gardiner says he fell for the books after reading the back of the fifth book. Evan says he likes the series because of its realism.

    "There's not all that magic stuff like in Harry Potter," says Evan, 11. "I like the reality of the books."

    Reality might be the main attraction. Alex Snyder, 11, who learned about the books from friends at school, says she also has found the books more realistic than Harry Potter books. She says the problems of the Baudelaire orphans are still unrealistic and overblown, but that doesn't matter.

    "You seriously cannot put them down," Alex says.

    She rattles on and on about plot developments, like when the orphans think they find their parents, but of course they don't.

    That would be too much of a happy ending.