Deadpan Humor And Childhood Fears Collide In 'The Dark'
If there's one thing kids are scared of, it's the dark. In his latest children's book, The Dark, Daniel Handler — who writes under the pen name Lemony Snicket — takes on darkness itself, with the story of a young boy who confronts his biggest fear. Handler is known for his dry wit and matter-of-fact take on the mysterious and macabre. In his A Series of Unfortunate Events books and Who Could That Be at This Hour?, the protagonists confront twisted characters and dastardly villains.
"I can't think of a story that doesn't have something terrible in it," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "Otherwise, it's dull. So when I embarked into the world of picture books, my first thought was to do something about the dark.
"I think the book is probably a little bit scary. I also hope it's interesting."
Handler talks about his own childhood fears and the process of writing his latest book.
On his own childhood fears
"I have a distinct memory of explaining to the adults who were in charge of me that it wasn't the dark I was afraid of. It was things that may be lurking in the dark. ...
"I was afraid of just about everything in small doses. I was not a particularly brave child, I think, because I had a narrative mind, because my mind automatically went to any terrible thing that could happen. Indeed, there's nothing like sitting ... alone in a small room called a recording studio that can bring out even my anxieties then."
On the virtues of bedtime stories
"I think books that are meant to be read in the nighttime ought to confront the very fears that we're trying to think about. And I think that a young reader of The Dark will encounter a story about a boy who makes new peace with a fear, rather than a story that ignores whatever troubles are lurking in the corners of our minds when we go to sleep."
On the process of writing this book
"When you start writing a picture book, you have to write a manuscript that has enough language to prompt the illustrator to get his or her gears running, but then you end up having to cut it out because you don't want any of the language to be redundant to the pictures that are being drawn.
"In this case, I saw an image that Mr. Klassen, the illustrator, Jon Klassen, did. I just saw a random image he had done of a little boy standing at the top of stairs that led into a dark basement, and he had a few words there, and I immediately could see the entire book. But still I wrote a manuscript that I thought was plenty short enough. And then as Mr. Klassen began to do the artwork I realized that more and more sentences had to be jettisoned.
"I liken it to being on a life raft. You know, you take some people with you, and you decide they're the people who most deserve to survive the shipwreck. But as things get more and more desperate, you really have to throw some of them overboard."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Joining us now is the writer Lemony Snicket. Lemony Snicket, of course, is best known for a series of books that he wrote for older children. He writes under the pen name Lemony Snicket. His real name, of course, is Daniel Handler. Picture books of little children are often filled with doey-eyed puppies and good nights to various things. If you're familiar with Lemony Snicket's work, you might expect he might take a different approach. The mysterious author best known for tales of dastardly villains, clever orphans and low-ranking members of secret organizations, books for older kids and not a few adults. In his new picture book, he tells the tale of Laszlo who is visited, one night, by his biggest fear, the dark.
Was there a book that spoke to your childhood fears or maybe created one? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, or send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Daniel Handler is the author who writes under the pen name Lemony Snicket. "The Dark" is illustrated by Jon Klassen. Handler also wrote "A Series of Unfortunate Events." He joins us now from member station WCAI in Woods Hole on Cape Cod. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
DANIEL HANDLER: A pleasure to be here, sir.
CONAN: And when we have the example of not just your work but the great Maurice Sendak, why are so many picture books for very young children so vanilla?
HANDLER: Are you putting Mr. Sendak in the vanilla category? Dear me.
CONAN: No, no, no, no, no. I'm putting you in his category...
HANDLER: Oh, I see. Oh, thank you. I'm honored to be in his category, whatever it may be. I think that when you're a parent and you have a small child, you're nervous about it. And so you're just to read at literature that is comforting and saccharine rather than literature that might actually be interesting.
CONAN: And in this book and your others, you do not?
HANDLER: No. I'm - I can't think of a story that doesn't have something terrible in it. Otherwise, it's dull. So when I embarked into the world of picture books, my first thought was to do something about the dark.
CONAN: Well, can you read us a little bit from this book?
HANDLER: It would be my pleasure. I happen to have a copy right here. What a strange coincidence.
CONAN: How nice of you to bring one in.
HANDLER: (Reading) Laszlo was afraid of the dark. The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo - a big place with a creaky roof, smooth, cold windows, and several sets of stairs. Sometimes the dark hid in the closet. Sometimes it sat behind the shower curtain. But mostly, it spent its time in the basement. All day long, the dark would wait in a distant corner, far from the squeaks and rattles of the washing machine, pressed up against some old, damp boxes and a chest of drawers nobody ever opened. At night, of course, the dark went out and spread itself against the windows and doors of Laszlo's house. But in the morning, the dark would be back in the basement where it belonged. Laszlo would peek at the dark every morning. Hi, he would say. Hi, dark. Laszlo thought that if he visited the dark in the dark's room maybe the dark wouldn't come visit him in his room. But one night it did.
CONAN: And did you ever consider that by anthropomorphizing this fundamental fear of the dark, are you going to scare people?
HANDLER: Well, I think the book is probably a little bit scary. It - I mean, it tells a journey of a boy going and meeting the dark with whom he previously had a truce where the dark stayed in the basement. And now the dark has suddenly appeared in his bedroom and has a brief conversation with him and kind of lures him down to the house. I think that's fairly scary. I also hope it's interesting. Certainly children I've seen who have read it seem quite interested.
CONAN: Was the dark something as a child you were scared of?
HANDLER: Well, I have a distinct memory of explaining to the adults who were in charge of me that it wasn't the dark I was afraid of. It was things that may be lurking in the dark.
HANDLER: I don't know if that's a distinction that NPR listeners will share with me. But I think it's a fear that I hold to this day if I have to, for some reason, go into a dark room suddenly. I'm, of course, not afraid of the dark. I'm merely afraid that, I don't know, several British character actors from recent Hammer horror movies I've seen will be waiting in there to do something terrible to me.
CONAN: Somebody with a hockey mask on, yeah.
HANDLER: They wouldn't have to have a hockey mask, actually, if it were in the dark. They could have anything.
CONAN: Was that the only thing that you were scared of? In other words, can we expect more books?
HANDLER: Those are two different questions. I was afraid of just about everything in small doses. I was not a particularly brave child, I think, because I had a narrative mind because my mind automatically went to any terrible thing that could happen. Indeed, there's nothing like sitting in a - well, alone in a small room called a recording studio that can bring out even my anxieties then.
CONAN: Yes. It's amazing how the terrors can be brought out by just explaining - you see all those little cross hatches on the microphone, just think of those as eyes.
HANDLER: Oh, dear. I've heard that they're even frightening some of our beloved hosts into retirement.
CONAN: Yes, indeed. The eyes somehow cowed us into leaving the studio finally. As you look at people's fears, this is very elemental. This is talking to people at levels of communication that everybody can understand.
HANDLER: Well, I think books that are meant to be read in the nighttime ought to confront the very fears that we're trying to think about. And I think that a young reader of the dark will encounter a story about a boy who makes new peace with a fear rather than a story that ignores whatever troubles are lurking in the corners of our minds when we go to sleep.
CONAN: Was there a book you read or was read to you that addressed your fears as a child?
Oh, my goodness. Well, just about every fear - just about every book addressed my fears. I was afraid of the chaos created by the cat in "The Cat in the Hat." And then my parents also, for reasons I still wonder about, introduced me to the work of Edward Gorey at a very young age, and disturbing things happen in Edward Gorey books just about at every turn of the page. My parents were also big opera fans, and so when my father couldn't think of a story to read to me or couldn't reach a book, he would just tell me the plot of "Carmen" or "La Boheme," which, of course, is full of disturbing things.
Indeed. Did he make the mistake of using voices to tell these stories? Because I had the experience of using voices to read "The Cat in the Hat," for no other reason, for an example, and then, of course, the child always demands the voices next time.
HANDLER: Oh, yeah. That's very - it's very troublesome. As I've learned as a father, whatever you do at night once you're going to have to do for a million times. So you have to choose your lullabies very carefully.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Which lullabies do you sing?
HANDLER: Well, sadly, in a moment of desperation, when my son was very young, I sang a few lines from "Let's Go to Bed" by The Cure, which is...
HANDLER: ...not very lullaby-ee(ph).
CONAN: No, it's not.
HANDLER: And then if you're forced to sing it every night and then eventually you have to go and look up the lyrics and try to sing it at a phony new wave British accent, the whole thing really can snowball.
CONAN: We'll not ask you to repeat the performance. Let's see if we can get a caller in: 800-989-8255. And Ian is on the line with is us from Bayport in New York.
IAN: How are you guys doing? Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: What was the...
HANDLER: That's very sweet of you to come.
IAN: Actually, I love your work that you've done, sir. It's very good. I'm actually currently a freelance writer. I do mainly horror fiction for zombie role-playing games, is what I'm currently writing.
HANDLER: My dear, you must have trouble sleeping.
IAN: Yeah. I'd actually say that it all started 'cause when I was a little kid I read these books called "Real Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," and there was a trilogy of them, like "Real Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," "More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark." And they were always accompanied with these horrifying, gruesome pictures. They were basically childrenified(ph) urban legends, and that sparked me into horror. And I've loved horror my whole life since then.
CONAN: So urban legends like putting the cat in the microwave kind of deal?
IAN: Or like the cactus that's moving and it's actually full of baby spiders that hatch out and burst or the person that bought a dog in Mexico and it turned out to actually not be a Chihuahua but a giant rat, stuff like that.
CONAN: Stuff like that. I could see that might be a problem.
IAN: Oh, absolutely.
CONAN: And therefore...
HANDLER: This is a very sad biography that I'm hearing from Ian.
HANDLER: It starts with disturbing...
IAN: It inspired a love of...
HANDLER: It starts with disturbing literature, and now he's creating disturbing literature for the next generation and so on and so on and so on.
IAN: Absolutely. But I feel like disturbing literature helps us fight our fears. I feel like reading something about somebody else being scared or something that somebody else put down that was scary, it made me know that the author was also scared of these things. So that means that if I'm afraid of these things and that means I'm not alone. Other people are afraid of them, and it's good to talk about that sort of thing.
CONAN: Well, Ian...
HANDLER: Well, you keep telling yourself that, Ian. But personally I think that you're only going to lead further and further down the spiral that you've started for yourself.
IAN: That might be the case. We'll have to find out in a few years.
CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Ian.
IAN: Thank you very much for having me.
HANDLER: Do call in in a few years so we can see how you've turned out.
CONAN: That would be interesting. Michael's on the line, and Michael is with us from Pleasant Grove in Utah.
MICHAEL: Hey. The book that really scared me as a kid was Roald Dahl, "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator." That scene...
CONAN: Roald. Go ahead.
MICHAEL: That scene with the Vermicious Knids where they spell out the word scram.
HANDLER: Oh, yes. That's very scary.
MICHAEL: I stay up for nights from that thing.
CONAN: It's interesting 'cause you think of - yes, we mentioned Maurice Sendak, but Roald Dahl also wrote some pretty scary stuff.
MICHAEL: Oh, yeah.
CONAN: So it's - on the other hand, you remember it and books you remember are, well, they're few and far between. The vivid ones are the good ones.
MICHAEL: Oh, yeah.
HANDLER: Hmm. I wonder if that follows. I'm tempted to agree with you. But then, of course, there are many experiences that you never forget that aren't necessarily positive ones just because they're vivid.
CONAN: Well, yeah, but the, you know, you read so many books and the passages that stick out are certainly the vivid ones.
HANDLER: Oh, I quite agree. I mean Roald Dahl is a fantastic writer and I've admired him my entire life, but also have been kept up awake at nights by him.
CONAN: Thank you very much for the call.
CONAN: And as you think about your work, what is it - compressing your language into the, well, very few words that are in this book? That's an interesting exercise.
HANDLER: Well, it really is. When you start writing a picture book, you have to write a manuscript that has enough language to prompt the illustrator to get his or her gears running but then you end up having to cut it out because you don't want any of the language to be redundant to the pictures that are being drawn.
In this case, I saw an image that Mr. Klassen, the illustrator, Jon Klassen, did. I just saw a random image he had done of a little boy standing at the top of a stairs that led into a dark basement, and he had a few words there, and I immediately could see the entire book. But still I wrote a manuscript that I thought was plenty short enough and then as Mr. Klassen began to do the artwork I realized that more and more sentences had to be jettisoned.
I liken it to being on a life raft. You know, you take some people with you and you decide they're the people who most deserve to survive the shipwreck. But as things get more and more desperate, you really have to throw some of them overboard.
CONAN: Another disturbing image; we're going to have to live with that one.
HANDLER: Well, if you'll remember it always, then it would follow that it's one of the most incredible things ever said on TALK OF THE NATION.
CONAN: Lemony Snicket - Daniel Handler, thank you very much. Good luck with the book.
HANDLER: Thank you very much, pleasure.
CONAN: Daniel Handler's latest picture book, "The Dark," is published under the name Lemony Snicket. It's illustrated by Jon Klassen. He's also the author of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "All the Wrong Questions" series. If you like, you can visit npr.org to take the Snicket quiz. What kind of reader are you? Daniel Handler joined us from member station WCAI in Woods Hole, Cape Cod. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.