By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- He is finished with his voluminous fantastic drama.
Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler, has concluded "A Series of Unfortunate Events," his dreadful (a word that here literally means "full of dread" ) 13-volume series about the adventures of the orphaned Baudelaire children.
Throughout the books, the children have met a compendium of kindly, clueless, clever and conniving characters who generally lead them into misery; have been pursued by the maleficent Count Olaf, and have grappled with a string of puzzles: What really happened to the Baudelaires' parents? Who are the Snickets? And what is the secret of the mysterious V.F.D., the initials the Baudelaires seem to meet at every turn?
The final volume is called, naturally, "The End" (HarperCollins). It's due out on Friday, October 13, although Snicket fans have been able to slake their thirst for all things "Unfortunate" with "The Beatrice Letters," an adjunct volume of correspondence between Mr. Snicket and his tragically beloved companion, to whom the 13 books have been dedicated, that came out in September.
The series, all told, has sold more than 50 million copies, according to Newsweek.
Mr. Handler -- who is "all for the escalation of formality" -- and his illustrator, Brett Helquist, finished "The End" earlier this year, though "finished" is not a word he uses casually.
"If you've ever written a book, it's not really finished but abandoned," he said in a phone interview from his home in San Francisco.
Reaching the end of "The End" "was a bittersweet feeling," he observed.
"A few weeks after I was done with the 13th volume, I was traveling with a friend of mine and I used the phrase 'called on the carpet,' and she didn't know what that phrase meant," he said.
"And I made an immediate mental note to put that in a future volume of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events,' and then I had the realization that I would just have to leave readers to find out about that expression all on their own. That was a little distressing."
Defining the books
"A Series of Unfortunate Events" may have been aimed at children -- its volumes have regularly filled slots on The New York Times' children's book best-seller list -- but Mr. Handler has cleverly filled them with enough in-jokes and literary references that older readers can also read the books with pleasure.
"I've autographed a lot of books by Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire," he laughed, "that many people thought were extraordinary coincidences until I had to gently tell them that there was some intelligent design, so to speak, at work."
His style is engaging, elegant and more than a little sly: "If you have ever peeled an onion, then you know that the first thin papery layer reveals another thin, papery layer, and that layer reveals another, and another, and before you know it you have hundreds of layers all over the kitchen table and thousands of tears in your eyes, sorry that you ever started peeling in the first place," begins "The End."
Mr. Handler has found, however, that the references don't always reach their intended party.
"There is a line between people who don't know them and people who do know them, and it's not necessarily governed by age," he said.
Even vocabulary words -- of which "A Series of Unfortunate Events" is a veritable reference -- miss their mark, despite Mr. Handler's best intentions.
"It was actually pretty fascinating last year to tour with 'The Penultimate Peril' [the 12th book] and to meet a lot of adults who had no idea what 'penultimate' meant and wouldn't look it up -- unlike children, who have just been taught to look it up if they don't know what it means," he said.
"So it was pretty hilarious to, for instance, to go on a morning radio show with a third grader and have the host say, 'Penultimate. Well, this means it's the last one.' And the third-grader would say, 'No, it's the second-to-last.' And I would think, this is an interesting time I'm having."
Is 'The End' the end?
"The End," which takes place in that classic literary setting, a desert island, has its share of literary references. There are characters named Friday, Ishmael, Ariel, Dr. Kurtz (and Ms. Marlow), Rabbi Bligh and Erewhon, all of which -- if you're unsure of their provenance -- can be found in works of castaway fiction.
But the book also has a deeper level of biblical reference. Without giving too much away, the Baudelaires have to deal with the taste of sin. The way they find it may provoke some religious fundamentalists, who haven't always appreciated the books' themes.
"The books have drawn the ire and praise of fundamentalist Christians, some of whom believe the books to be Christian allegories and some of whom believe them to be long insults against Christianity," said Mr. Handler, who describes himself as a "secular humanist." "The thing is, the books are really neither."
("The Beatrice Letters" has its own forebodings of the end: One of Snicket's letters to Beatrice, for example, is dated "Scriabin's Anniversary," after the eccentric Russian composer who attempted to write a work that would bring about the apocalypse.)
Interestingly, one of Mr. Handler's planned projects, still in the discussion stage, is a book co-written with a religious fundamentalist in which the two authors ask each other questions about faith. "It's fascinating to me," he said.
A generation of readers, meanwhile, has placed its faith in "Unfortunate Events." The work's official Web site overflows with material, and it has spawned several unofficial Web sites and a number of detailed entries on Wikipedia. It's a sign that, though Mr. Handler may have reached "The End," his readers may want to continue in Snicket's world.
Which is just fine with him.
"To me, that's one of the glorious parts of a book," he said. "You send it out into the world and you don't know what people will think of it. It's true that I've seen many, many interpretations of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' that weren't dreamed of by me, but that doesn't really upset me. ... I like the idea of a story continuing in the mind of a reader."
Daniel Handler describes reaching the end of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" as "bittersweet."
"A Series of Unfortunate Events":
- "The Bad Beginning"
- "The Reptile Room"
- "The Wide Window"
- "The Miserable Mill"
- "The Austere Academy"
- "The Ersatz Elevator"
- "The Vile Village"
- "The Hostile Hospital"
- "The Carnivorous Carnival"
- "The Slippery Slope"
- "The Grim Grotto"
- "The Penultimate Peril"
- "The End"
- "Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography"
- "The Beatrice Letters"
- "Volunteer Training: The Puzzling Puzzles"
- Movie: "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004)
- Music: Songs for each audiobook of "A Series of Unfortunate Events," with Stephen Merritt (a CD is due out soon)
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