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Keep out of children's reach

Jason Anderson
National Post

When Harry Potter made his merciless conquest of the nation's bookshelves, a lot of grown-ups rediscovered the pleasures of children's literature. But, like the often gory tales of the Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling's novels are not all sunshine and joy -- Harry's parents met a violent end and poor Harry is always having to fend off villains and rivals, most of whom wouldn't mind seeing him dead.

That morbid streak comes to the fore in the books of Lemony Snicket, a.k.a. New York novelist Daniel Handler. Phyllis Simon, the co-owner of Vancouver Kidsbooks and an early supporter of Harry Potter, thinks that Snicket's books could become a huge success, and the first three parts of A Series of Unfortunate Events (the fourth comes out this month) have already sold more than 100,000 copies. But with Snicket's unremittingly grim sense of humour and high fatality rate, A Series of Unfortunate Events falls into an underrated tradition of writing that subverts kids' lit with very grown-up concerns and a sickly sweet sense of malevolence.

Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire -- the surname being the first of many allusions to writers more sour than Dr. Seuss -- are orphaned when their parents die in a fire. Their lot does not improve. In the first book, The Bad Beginning (HarperTrophy, 162 pp., $13.50), 12-year-old Klaus is struck across the face, baby Sunny is stuck in a birdcage and hung outside a window, and 14-year-old Violet is nearly forced to marry Count Olaf, a distant relative who'll do anything to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. The author occasionally interrupts to pine for his dead paramour, Beatrice, warn readers that further misery lies ahead, and provide definitions for such big words as "revulsion" and "insipid."

The clearest antecedent for Snicket's morbid kids' lit is American Edward Gorey. Since the '50s, Gorey has been writing and illustrating nasty little poems saturated with English Edwardian imagery. Included in the 1972 compilation Amphigorey is his most famous book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabetical poem of deceased tykes -- "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/ B is for Basil assaulted by bears." Like Snicket, Gorey is no fan of children. "I use children a lot because they're so vulnerable," Gorey once said. "Children are pathetic and quite frequently not terribly likeable."

Robert is the especially unlikeable protagonist of another new book with the deliciously Gorey-esque title of The Boy Who Kicked Pigs (Faber & Faber, 124 pp., $19.99). It was illustrated by David Roberts and written by Tom Baker, the best-known actor to play Doctor Who in the English science fiction series. Robert does indeed kick pigs (even when they're in the form of bacon sandwiches) and the book is gleefully gruesome, with terrible car crashes, fires and Robert's climactic impalement.

The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories by Tim Burton has become a perennial favourite since its publication in 1997, and Burton's pictures now (dis)grace a line of greeting cards. Such stories as The Boy With Nails in His Eyes are drawn in the baroque, yet childlike, style familiar to fans of Burton's films, particularly Edward Scissorhands. Like Gorey, Burton is fond of rhymes -- "There once was a morose melonhead/ who sat there all day and wished he were dead" -- but is not nearly as skilled as the master.

This genre reached its horrible apex not with any of Gorey's books, but with Running Wild by J.G. Ballard, the author of Crash and Empire of the Sun. Published in 1988 in an oversized format, with illustrations by Janet Woolley, the book is about a detective who investigates the mass murder of the adult residents of a gated community and the disappearance of all the children. The detective realizes that the parents were murdered not by kidnappers, but by their own kids. The parents' crime: caring too much. After always being herded off to tennis lessons and helped with their homework, the kids finally had enough and offed them.

Parents who relish reading Harry Potter books aloud at bedtime are advised to keep their youngsters the hell away from that one.

-- April 1, 2000