His kids' books tap a pool of macabre wit

November 05, 2002|By Phil Kloer | Phil Kloer,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The three trembling young orphans, balanced on a plank over a pit full of hungry, angry lions, do not actually get devoured in the new book The Carnivorous Carnival.

That's not to say that the lions do not get something (or rather, someone) to eat, just that it is not the Baudelaire children, who live to undergo more ordeals in their next adventure.

You can safely expect The Carnivorous Carnival to claw its way up the best-seller list, as have the eight previous installments in the hottest series in children's publishing (at least as long as J.K. Rowling delays her next Harry Potter book) - Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Since 1999, kids (and more than a few adults) have bought more than 4 million of Snicket's books, all titled alliteratively (The Vile Village, The Hostile Hospital, etc.) and they have at times occupied five of the Top 10 spots on the New York Times children's best-seller list. Full of incipient violence that's never quite realized, macabre humor and literary name-dropping, they're narrated in a tongue-in-cheek Gothic style, like an Edward Gorey cartoon come lurching to life.

Witness the opening sentence of the first book, The Bad Beginning: "In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in between."

Daniel Handler never intended to hide behind the pseudonym Lemony Snicket; when he appears for public readings or book signings, he announces that Snicket has been detained, due to some terrible accident, and that he is Snicket's stand-in.

"We're a lot alike, so it's not that hard," he says, chuckling. He chuckles a lot, so often that it's almost a verbal tic, the way some teen-agers insert "like" in their conversations.

Handler, 32, is married, childless and lives in San Francisco.

Handler invented the Snicket pseudonym as a joke years ago while researching right-wing militia groups for his first (grown-up) novel, The Basic Eight. He was struggling to make it as an author when an editor suggested he try kid lit, and he came up with the ongoing perils of the Baudelaire orphans and the woeful, hand-wringing narrator who relates their saga.

"I have the sort of imagination where spooky and dismal things happening to me is just more interesting," he says. "So it's not as if I brainstorm about terrible things happening to small children. But if you go to a carnival and might get eaten by a lion, that's far more interesting to me than if you go to a carnival and end up purchasing cotton candy," he says.

"I've never thought, `Oh gosh, is this too grisly?' I'm not sure where the line is. Children, like adults, are different kinds of people and some of them are up for stories where nothing terrible happens, and some of them are up for stories where only terrible things happen."

Not many terrible things have been happening to Handler professionally since the series took off. Director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) has signed on to turn the books into a movie, possibly a franchise, with the first one due Christmas 2003. Handler is finishing the screenplay.

He's told, he says, that Jim Carrey is close to being signed to play Count Olaf, the despicable (but fortunatetely, rather inept) villain of the series who hatches multiple plots to dispose of the Baudelaire oprhans and/or steal their fortune.

"I don't believe [Carrey] has signed a piece of paper," Handler says, "but as we speak, the phalanxes of lawyers are doing whatever they do behind closed doors." He chuckles. "My first choice to play Count Olaf was Boris Karloff. But you know," chuckle, "he's dead. They said either suggest living people or don't suggest anyone."

When Handler began the series in 1999, he was cranking out three books a year. Now he's slowed to one a year, which he says is due to his own busier schedule rather than a fiendish marketing plot to string young readers along.

He still plans, as announced, to end the series at 13 books, in what may or may not be a happy ending, happiness being a very elusive concept in Snicket World. He has thrown a lot of puzzles into the books as to the relationship of Snicket to the Baudelaires, which has led to a lot of speculation.

"It's a little like publishing one long novel as the chapters are completed," he says of the way the saga fits together. But in the end, "There's not a wise, bald man living in a cave who is going to explain everything. To me it's always more interesting to have an interesting question in your head than to have a satisfying answer."

And when the lucky 13th novel is done, and the Series of Unfortunate Events as well?

"I hope to continue writing books for children and adults," he says, "until the pen is dragged out of my cold dead fingers."

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