There’s something oddly comforting about A Series of Unfortunate Events, despite the inherently depressing narrative. The series follows three orphans who are constantly on the run from a corrupt, scheming grasshopper of a man named Count Olaf, who intends to steal their inherited fortune after the death of their parents in a mysterious house fire.
The first three books in the 13 part series were made into a film with Jim Carey as Olaf. It was a grim movie, with only the occasional outburst of humour, yet I watched it several times as a child and teenager, somehow transfixed by the melancholy.
Daniel Handler wrote the series under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, lending the series all the more mystery. Reading each book in chronological order becomes cyclic and almost hypnotic.
Snicket always begins with an ode to his late wife, Beatrice. The first chapter opens with some reverse psychology, where Snicket warns the reader about the horrible story ahead. Following this is a scene with the three Baudelaire orphans as they’re on the road to their next foster home/boarding school/carnival, where they then inevitably come across quirky characters, and Count Olaf emerges into the scene in an elaborate disguise. The Baudelaires are then again plunged into a world of disbelieving adults, poorly appointed authority figures who are easily swayed by Olaf, and are left to scramble for their safety themselves.
Gradually, the Baudelaires see connections between a cagey organisation called the V.F.D, mysterious fires, and the fate of their parents. The V.F.D is basically another stressor to pick up along the freak-show ride; one that lays dormant in the Baudelaires’ minds.
Each Baudelaire comes together with a special talent in order to escape near death situations. Violet, the eldest, is an inventor. Klaus is a voracious reader and Sunny, the infant, is a biter. In ‘The Ersatz Elevator’, Sunny uses her industrial strength teeth to bite her way up and out of an elevator shaft. If that’s not kick arse, then I don’t know what is.
So why has such a grim series garnered so much success? Why do children read this fuckery? There are so many loose ends, and there are so many clever allusions to literature, history and language itself. Readers can only appreciate references to 1984 and Oliver Twist when they’re older.
But children learn new words without needing a dictionary by their side, and teenagers can empathise with the Baudelaires’ angst. Snicket ultimately presents young readers with dangerous adventures that can be learnt about from the safety of their own home.
The odd comfort lies in the fact that these three orphans are somehow able to hang on by a thread, no matter how many times they are hunted down by a megalomaniac. It shows the reader that life is fundamentally chaotic, and that the only thing holding them in place is, essentially, a baby with tiger teeth.