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The New Zealand Herald

The author, in the role of his pen name Lemony Snicket, entertains at Milford Primary School last July. Picture / Paul Estcourt

The odd world of Lemony Snicket

04.01.2003 Children's author Lemony Snicket is a publishing phenomenon. His sinister books are instant bestsellers. But if the stories are odd, the man behind them is odder still. JOHN WALSH is drawn into his mysterious world.

We're standing in the world's best toyshop, Toys'R'Us, in the heart of New York surrounded by fantastical creatures. On the first floor a black giant Lego gorilla is clambering up the north face of a giant Lego Empire State Building.

Nearby, a fearsome, 12m, animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex widens its vast jaws to snarl at the petrified tinies at floor level (and just when you're thinking how weirdly lifelike the horrible thing is, it seems to hear your thoughts and turns its feral gaze and gigantic wall-eye straight at you).

Beside the great windows that look out over the steaming, neon-lit caravanserai of Times Square, a Ferris wheel four storeys high sweeps rapturous children gracefully up, back and down the height of the store.

Toys, and the imaginations of those who service childhood, never looked more stylish.

But over here, beside planet Barbie, a crowd of children is waiting for an experience that's far from childish.

A hundred of them, mostly 8, 9 and 10-year-olds, are lolling on chairs, chattering, pulling faces. Signs of horseplay are soon quashed by their parents and the grimly efficient women from HarperCollins, the publisher sponsoring this event.

The children are facing a curtain on which there is a large framed print of what looks like an Arthur Rackham illustration of a pit of roaring lions. They seem unbothered by this alarming image, but they expect horrible things from their favourite writer.

They dote on his obsessive melancholy. They lap up his chronic depression. They bask in his repeated warnings not to read his books ("Honestly, wouldn't you rather read something about ponies?") and his endless groaning about the torments to be endured by his characters. For there is little conventional fun to be had in the world of Lemony Snicket.

Who? While we're waiting for him to arrive, here's a swift recap. Lemony Snicket is the biggest phenomenon in children's publishing since Harry Potter. Since he first appeared in 1999, the Snicket books have sold six million copies in 34 countries worldwide. A film starring Jim Carrey is in pre-production.

The volumes represent something peculiar - a return to the Victorian children's novel with its illustrated cover, no dust jacket, its gracious endpapers and its thick, uneven, rough-cut pages.

Why this self-conscious archaising should appeal to modern children is anyone's guess, but early readers have gobbled up the Dickensian gloom of the narrative.

The books form a roman-fleuve or, to be less grand, a great long, 3000-page shaggy dog story called A Series of Unfortunate Events.

There are 13 books commissioned in all, beginning with The Bad Beginning, proceeding through titles like The Miserable Mill and The Austere Academy, to the seventh, The Vile Village. In the US, the ninth volume, The Carnivorous Carnival, reaches the shops in October.

The sad story they tell concerns the Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, who learn (on page 8 of The Bad Beginning) that their parents have perished in a fire that destroyed their palatial home in an unnamed (but "dirty and busy") city.

Their guardian, Mr Poe - his name is the first in a succession of teasing literary allusions, or the second if you count "Baudelaire" - works in a bank and takes no interest in the tragic children.

Instead, he abandons them to a succession of heartless, neglectful and uncaring people in a succession of unpleasant towns and communities, where they are made to work with no prospect of escape.

To make things worse, the orphans are constantly pursued by Count Olaf, a grotesquely nasty relative with designs on their inherited fortune. He turns up in every book in ridiculous disguises, accompanied by his entourage of sinister associates, especially the skinny man with hooks instead of hands.

The children in Toys'R'Us could easily describe the central characters in the books, but have no idea about the author.

From casual remarks in the text, we know Lemony Snicket has a strange, obsessive interest in the children's sad chronicle, that he lives alone in a small one-room apartment, mourns his departed (probably deceased) lover Beatrice, and perks up his lonely evenings by playing the accordion.

But that's it. He's a sad and mournful narrator who expresses constant regret about having to bring his dismal narrative to the attention of the young: ("I know of a book, for instance, called The Littlest Elf, which tells the story of a teensy-weensy little man who scurries around Fairyland having all sorts of adorable adventures, and you can see at once that you should probably read The Littlest Elf and wriggle over all the lovely things that happened to this imaginary creature in a made-up place, instead of reading this book and moaning over the terrible things that happened to the three Baudelaire orphans in the village where I am now typing these words".)

But can this be the author now? The plump, furtive-looking bloke in funereal black who sneaks on stage with the air of a man convinced he's about to be assaulted? No, he explains to the audience, he is not Lemony Snicket.

Mr Snicket has had a tragic encounter with a crocodile, and cannot make it today. "Were he here," the plump emissary explains, "he would compliment you for your bravery in coming to this ugly, depressing experience."

Instead, the man says, he will sign books on the author's behalf, and will sing a "really terrible" song, accompanying himself on the accordion, "an instrument hated by millions of people".

The children are entranced by this relentless negativity, and by the suspicion that this grown-up is blatantly lying to them. By the end of the song, they're enthusiastically drumming their feet (to suggest 100 children running away) or lying slumped in their seats (to suggest 100 children dying) or both.

Mr Snicket's emissary leaves the stage with the same furtive shuffle that brought him on to it, his face a mask of disgust. I made inquiries and discovered something the children worked out all by themselves.

That Mr Snicket is not dead, that the man with the accordion is sort-of Lemony Snicket while simultaneously being someone else. Unlike them, you discover who the someone else is - a 32-year-old author of grown-up fictions, name of Daniel Handler.

You learn that he was born in San Francisco, his family intellectual and academic. His father was an accountant, his mother a college dean. Handler graduated in American studies and settled in New York, trying to make it as a writer.

There he met Susan Rich, an editor at HarperCollins who read his first novel, The Basic Eight, and liked its po-faced narrating voice. She asked if he'd considered writing for children, and, by way of demonstrating the sort of God-awful, unsellable book he'd probably come up with, he told her about a story he'd had in his head for a while, concerning a sinister Count. If he wrote for kids, maybe he could introduce some children for the Count to pursue?

Four books were commissioned on the strength of this modest plot outline and published cautiously in 1999. So immediate and so wild was the response, they signed up another four titles.

"Daniel and I had hoped that the series would do well enough for us to get to do 13," Rich told me. "Because 13 would be the perfect number for a series of unfortunate events, and each book has 13 chapters."

The books could be accused of being formulaic (all the recurring characters have two distinguishing attributes apiece and never seem to change), but have two selling propositions.

One is the narrative tone - elegant, elegiac, triste, hopeless, an Edward Gorey illustration come to life. The other is the author's post-Gothic imagination, a combination of Kafka and Bret Easton Ellis, in which babies are suspended in cages from high windows and children are steered towards a circular saw.

The Count is a scary and bullying figure who would happily kill the orphans if he could. Sometimes his stratagems are shocking, as when he almost traps Violet (aged 14) into marrying him so he can take over her share of the fortune.

At times it seems that Handler's grown-up fictions (his second novel Watch Your Mouth is full of operatic sex and casual incest) are in danger of invading his children's writing.

In an office at his publisher's headquarters in Fifth Ave, Handler greets you with a sweaty handshake and a guarded look. His jowly face is surmounted by a severe jet-black fringe, and his cool undertaker's jacket seems to have been stitched together from offcuts of two other jackets.

He looks suspicious and disgusted about what our conversation might reveal and, as he answers questions, he occasionally smiles with his eyes shut, as if having a private reverie or convulsion.

The name Lemony Snicket, it turns out, has nothing to do with fruit salad or snickering, nor is it a corruption of the girl's name Melanie. It arrived out of the blue.

While Handler was researching for his first novel, The Basic Eight, he contacted some right-wing political organisations and religious groups to receive their mailings but had no wish to stay on their lists.

So when the voice on the telephone asked for his name he had to invent one. "I opened my mouth and said 'Lemony Snicket' and I waited for the person on the other end to say, 'No, your real name', or 'Don't be ridiculous', but she only asked, 'Is that spelled the way it sounds?' which I thought was a terrific answer because I had no idea how it was spelled."

The name became a totem among Handler's circle of "similarly underemployed, disenchanted, unpublished and broke associates", who would use it when booking tables in restaurants, or write abusive letters to magazines, fumingly signing off with, "Yours truly, Lemony Snicket".

Married but childless, Handler admits he is a natural children's performer because, "I think I'm naturally a somewhat ridiculous person" and can empathise with the childish paranoia of young readers.

"Most children have a fear of some phantasm lurking in some dark corner of the bedroom.

"I try to think of everything that I was frightened of, and that I knew other people were frightened of."

Had he had an unusually horrible time when young? "People always expect some terrible story about my childhood, but I don't really have one. We lived in a foggy neighbourhood fairly near the ocean and we were a relatively happy family. But I always wanted to be a writer, and a natural story for me was about some disaster."

Handler's virtual obsession with work and institutions and children being sent into virtual slave labour has a touch of Dickens' blacking factory about it. Had he suffered a similar indignity?

"No, but I had to take out the garbage," he said with the utmost seriousness. "And now I dream of the day when I will have some children to take out the garbage for me, so that cycle of pain and misery can be continued."

He remembers suffering passionate feelings of injustice and tyranny from small family tiffs.

"And some injustices are never righted. You look around and see that the same bullies, who never got caught when you were at school, are now explaining to you why the train station is closed or why it's necessary to invade Iraq, and they still haven't been caught, and you can ... say what's wrong, but it still won't work."

Handler can be scathing about classic children's literature, particularly the kind which offers bogus moral lessons.

"Any book where the bully turned out to be a nice person after all, or the mean teacher softened at the end ... made me angry because I never saw that sort of thing go on in real life.

"Any evil I saw being defeated was defeated through some shrewd strategy and the occasional large prop, not because we were good children who were going to dissolve the evil emperor with the power of love".

He tells a revealing story. "My father left Germany in 1938, and scarcely made it, and I heard stories about what remained of that side of the family, terrible stories about people who didn't make it and those crucial moments when you have to figure out if now is the time to leave or not.

"Once we had a class about immigration, and I told some of the details of how my father got out. The teacher said to me, 'Your father was very brave'. I ran home to tell him, because he didn't get called 'brave' often, being a certified public accountant.

"And he said to me, 'Do you think I was braver than the ones who didn't make it?' The answer is, of course, no. You don't get out of that kind of trouble because you're brave, you get out of that kind of trouble because you're lucky. The way you behave has no bearing on the way you'll end up."

There, it seems, is the crux of his 13-volume, 3000-page, Gothic-comic-horror chronicle of bad times stoically borne.

The Lemony Snicket books aren't just an exercise in fashionably heartless black humour. They teach the blunt lesson that good will not triumph over evil simply by being good, only by being lucky, being cunning or possessing superior firepower.

It's an unsettling, amoral and slightly melancholy lesson, and one that America's children are lapping up in their millions.