THE BAD BEGINNING
AND THE REPTILE ROOM
By Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
HarperTrophy, $8.95 each
"Dear Reader, I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant . . . "
This blurb on the jacket of "The Bad Beginning" proves an irresistible introduction to an entertaining and intelligent new children's book series that follows in the grand tradition of Roald Dahl or Edward Gorey (or even J.K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter books) but stretches beyond them in its dark humor and grimly morbid subjects.
The "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books follow the adventures of the Baudelaire children (named for the morbid French poet) whose wealthy parents die in a fire, leaving Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny in the guardianship of a clueless Mr. Poe, who is always coughing and wheezing into a handkerchief. (The children's names would appear to be a Von Bulow reference, another sinister touch that will likely be lost on younger readers in the target audience of 10 and over -- as may the Baudelaire and Poe.)
In "The Bad Beginning," the children are turned over to the care of a dreadful relative, Count Olaf, who has an eye tattooed on his ankle and schemes, with the help of his horrible theater friends, to actually marry 14-year-old Violet during a marriage scene in a play and win control over her fortune.
In "The Reptile Room," the children are turned over to the care of their Uncle Montgomery Montgomery, an eccentric herpetologist who plans to take them on a snake-gathering expedition to Peru until disaster intervenes. And more misfortune no doubt lies ahead in the third book, "The Wide Window," due out this winter.
The author almost tenderly piles on the miseries; the children respond heroically in their individual ways. Violet comes up with inventions, Klaus finds answers in books, Sunny bites people.
And although a delicious sense of menace lurks on every page, the author's humorous style modifies the impact. (At one point in the second book, Uncle Montgomery describes the cutthroat competition among herpetologists in academia: "My roommate was so envious of a new toad I had discovered that he stole and ate my only specimen. I had to X-ray his stomach and use the X-rays rather than the toad in my presentation.")
It helps that any unpleasantness is usually discovered after the fact. The fire is over, a body is cold, a kidnapped toddler is already swinging in a bird cage on a tower. The use of a narrator's voice also adds a benign adult presence to the proceedings.
Author Lemony Snicket, described as a "man of mystery" by a HarperTrophy publicist, appears with his back to the camera in the author photo, but is "represented" in "all literary, legal and social matters" by one Daniel Handler, who has published two adult novels, "The Basic Eight" and "Watch Your Mouth," and is working on a third about pirates.
Meanwhile, Mr. Snicket dedicates his books to his beloved Beatrice: "To Beatrice -- darling, dearest, dead" and "For Beatrice -- My love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not."