***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
I’m not exactly sure why, but when it comes to fiction, I often gravitate towards the severely dark and twisted novels of the world. Some of the best writing I have ever encountered was found in such stories as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Steig Larson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. My inclination towards these imperfect, sometimes sadistic and manipulative, literary characters perhaps stems from an absence of these sorts of toxic personalities in my personal life (for which I am grateful). It’s easy to predict what a classic “good guy” will do at all times, but I’ve found that what makes for a good literary character is at least a smidge of basic human selfishness and a hint of curiosity for what it’s like to be bad.
As I re-read Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of Daniel Handler)’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, I began to think that this series really started it all for me. When I first picked it up back in the third grade, I became enthralled with its melancholia and snark. Every time Snicket urges the reader to put the book down immediately and find a different story instead, I only kept turning the pages. It was as if he was playing with the idea that we as humans gravitate towards the horrifying (it’s why the news gets higher ratings when they headline stories of death and destruction, and why people love horror movies). I didn’t really understand any of this as a child. I just thought it was hilarious that he kept telling me to put the book down. It even made me feel a bit scandalous every time I turned another page – as if I was reading something I shouldn’t have been reading. Apparently that was how third-grade Teri acted out. Not much has changed. Fast forward to 2016, 23-year-old Teri remembered nothing of the plot but she recalled its bite. After hearing a rumor about a new Netflix show based on the series (that has now been confirmed by the way), I was determined to pick these stories up again (because as we all know, the Jim Carrey version from so long ago just didn’t cut it – and besides, I despise Jim Carrey).
The books are written for kids, obviously, but it’s absolutely drenched in obscure historical and literary references. The Baudelaire orphans, for example, share the name of the troubled 19th century poet, Charles Baudelaire, known for his “The Flowers of Evil,” a particularly morbid collection of poetry dealing with such subjects as death, loss, sadness, etc. Sylvia Plath, Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, J.D. Salinger, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Albert Camus, Haruki Murakami, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Richard Wright, Homer, and Shakespeare are just some of the writers/authors that have wormed their way into this series, whether Snicket named a character after them (Mr. Poe, Dr. Orwell), made reference to one of their works (Sunny says, “Godot,” when the Baudelaires find themselves yet again in a situation where they “don’t where to go, and . . . don’t know how to get there;” Snicket quotes King Lear after a tragic accident involving a lion’s pit), or borrowed a little something from their plots (the orphans find themselves at boarding school, in an unfortunate situation not unlike Oliver Twist; Frank and Ernest Denouement are twins in The Penultimate Peril, which causes as much confusion as it did in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest). Seriously the references are endless.
The Baudelaire orphans are pure and good – just as the heroes in such stories as this should be. They also all happen to be prodigies – Violet is an outstanding inventor, Klaus is a skilled reader and researcher, and Sunny has an incredible knack for cooking, especially considering she is only 2-years old. And, of course, the villain, Count Olaf, is the very opposite – pure evil, and not even very good at acting, his chosen profession (as a former theater major, I appreciated this). The first three quarters of the series follows this strictly black and white mold.
It isn’t until the final books that we experience some gray area. The Baudelaires find themselves committing serious crimes (mostly arson – this series loves arson) as their situation becomes more desperate. They learn that Count Olaf was once a part of a noble group of volunteer firefighters – the same group their parents were involved with – and that even their parents committed horrible crimes against Olaf (something involving poisonous darts). In his final moments, too, they learn that all along Count Olaf was experiencing the heartbreak that comes with unrequited love. We learn that Lemony Snicket, although he mostly dwells in the background of the story as narrator, he is by no means distant from the plot. While it takes Snicket a while to answer the questions he raises, it is worth the wait. Just don’t plan on being completely satisfied with the ending. Perhaps there were a few more strings he could have tied up for me, but I’ll cut him some slack.
Because regardless, it’s a must-read. Simple as that. This was the first book series I ever fell in love with, and I didn’t even know how much of a gateway book it was. Looking back, I believe it sparked my love of literature, especially the dark and twisty. And only now can I fully appreciate everything that it is. There is truly nothing else like it.
My overall rating: ★★★★★