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USA Today

12/06/2001 - Updated 09:23 AM ET

Children don't snicker at Snicket

By Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY

At 31, David Handler writes the kinds of novels he would have inhaled at age 10: "Something with an exciting and depressing plot."

At no age could the San Francisco novelist bear the "smiley moralism" of so much modern young-adult literature. "It's more interesting to read about what you should do if you're trapped at the bottom of an elevator shaft than {lbra}what should you do{rbra} if your teacher is being mean to you." All sorts of grisly things happen to the three Baudelaire siblings who star in Handler's A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Handler publishes under the name Lemony Snicket, a moniker he made up so that a right-wing group from which he was getting information wouldn't put his name on their mailing list.) Handler pretends at book signings that Snicket was delayed and he is his representative. "I have this official stamp," he says.

This fall, Handler published the eighth book of an expected 13: The Hostile Hospital (HarperCollins, $9.95). He warns readers on the very first page of the first book, The Bad Beginning, that the Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, are "charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes."

In the opening chapter, both parents die in a terrible fire that destroys their lavish mansion.

Then things get worse once the vile, greedy Count Olaf enters the picture.

Not surprisingly, Handler's favorite writer as a child was that master of wicked gloom and dark humor, Edward Gorey. Handler particularly loved Gorey's The Blue Aspic. The books he would read on his deathbed today would be Nabokov's Lolita and Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Growing up, Handler always wanted to be a writer. (He has published two adult novels: The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth.) Creating stories for children and for adults demand the same kind of work: "Telling a startling story in an interesting way."

He says he never expected the series to become so popular (The series has sold 3.6 million copies in hardcover). His father attracted much attention recently when young customers in a San Francisco barbershop learned he was related to the mysterious Snicket.

Illustrated by Brett Helquist, the series gives a deliberately old-fashioned impression. The books look like something you "might pick up in a dusty old book shop," he says.

Handler writes three Snicket books a year. A "very charming wife" keeps him from being lonely. (They have no children.)

The tragedies of Sept. 11 have not made Handler change his approach. "The scarier that times are, the more we need scary stories where the troubles of the world are acknowledged, not ignored," he insists.