As a kid, A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorite series, and I’ve been rereading all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing my favorite book of the series, book the eleventh, The Grim Grotto.
In The Grim Grotto, the Baudelaire orphans join the crew of the Queequeg, a VFD submarine run by Captain Widdershins and his stepdaughter Fiona. The Baudelaires join the Queequeg in its mission to find the Sugar Bowl before Count Olaf does, eventually identifying its location as the Gorgonian Grotto, an underwater cave that contains a lethal, parasitic species of fungus.
Having at this point reread the whole series, I can say that this book is my favorite. The mood and atmosphere is deeply unsettling, there’s lots of great character revelations and development, and the plot is as good as they come—with the Baudelaires actually being proactive instead of reactive, for the first time in the whole series. So, in this post I’m just going to explain exactly why I love this book so much.
First off, the mood. I won’t reiterate everything I said about mood in my post on The Ersatz Elevator, but I will retread some of that ground, because The Grim Grotto is doing the same sort of thing. The mood in book 11 is similar to that in book 6, and both are achieved through similar means—they inspire dread by keeping the reader in the dark on the dangers surrounding the characters. In Ersatz Elevator there’s the darkness of the empty elevator shaft, and in Grim Grotto there’s the darkness of the ocean, and the narrow passage leading into the Gorgonian Grotto. While The Ersatz Elevator still outdoes this book in the omnipresent atmosphere of dread, Grim Grotto is a near second, with the oppressive feeling of a cold, dark, unknown world surrounding the Queequeg at all times. The most prominent example of this is what is referred to in a later book as “The Great Unknown”—a gargantuan serpentine shape, larger than the Queequeg and even Count Olaf’s own enormous submarine, which shows up on the Queequeg’s sonar as a question mark. Whatever it is, it’s something that terrifies volunteers and villains alike, and the best view the Baudelaires ever get of it is after nightfall, and “They could not even tell, just as I will not tell, if it was some horrifying mechanical device, such as a submarine, or some ghastly creature of the sea.” (311)
And there’s the Medusoid Mycelium, the deadly parasitic mushrooms in the Gorgonian Grotto. They too have the unsettling property of being invisible when they are waning, so that a person could be surrounded by them and only realize it when they begin to wax, springing up out of the ground en masse. While there isn’t much left up to the imagination of the reader about the Medusoid Mycelium, that’s because Handler uses some of the most unsettling descriptions of the series to describe them, like when they arise and “at first just a handful were visible … and then more and more, like a silent, deadly crowd that had gathered on the beach and was staring blindly at the terrified children.” (137) Or later, when the mushrooms have infected someone and they opens their mouth to reveal “several gray stalks and caps of this horrible mushroom, splotched with black as if someone had poured ink into [their] mouth.” (250-251) The Medusoid Mycelium continues to be an unsettling presence in the next two books, but the reader gets the biggest dose of it in Grim Grotto.
Turning the Tables
A big part of why this book is such a great read is that the Baudelaires are finally active. In every single book until this one, the Baudelaires have been running from Count Olaf, or trying to thwart his plans—not making their own plans, not trying to capture Count Olaf themselves. While the Baudelaires begin to take a more active role starting in The Hostile Hospital, as they investigate VFD, this is mixed with them trying to survive and stay hidden from Count Olaf. In The Grim Grotto, the balance is flipped. While the Baudelaires eventually encounter Olaf and have to react to him, most of the book is them trying to gain an advantage themselves by finding the Sugar Bowl.
This is incredibly satisfying, seeing the Baudelaires put their skills to use pursuing their own goals rather than just trying to save themselves from the goals of Count Olaf. There’s a reason there are so many stories about a person trying to accomplish something and someone else trying to stop them—where the person trying to accomplish something is the hero. It’s wish fulfillment. It’s fun to root for a team to win the championships, but less fun to root for a team to just scrape by with a winning season. I suppose, to extend the metaphor, A Series of Unfortunate Events would be a game between your mediocre team and your obnoxious, talented rivals who will go on to the play-offs if they win this game. It would be a game in which the rival is almost always ahead, though your team is never really far enough behind to be blown out of the game. The Grim Grotto would be a moment where your team is tied in score, and trying to take the lead.
There’s a reason for this—A Series of Unfortunate Events is not a series about super kids. It’s not about child detectives uncovering something big. It’s not about an epic battle between the Baudelaires and Count Olaf—at least, not fundamentally. Fundamentally, it’s about survival, and that’s why the books stand out so much among other YA works. Sometimes life is just about surviving things, about getting through the bad parts. That said, I’m glad that at least one book in the series really has the Baudelaires taking the initiative. While the Baudelaires are still pursuing their own goals in Penultimate Peril, there methods are more passive, just observing and researching rather than acting.
The fact that they have this active role, and the fact that they all have a place and a purpose within the crew of the Queequeg recalls the perfectness of Uncle Monty’s home in The Reptile Room, and at the beginning of The Grim Grotto it seems as if, after being on the run for the past three books, the Baudelaires may have found a suitable home. Just like Reptile Room, the coziness of the set-up makes the ending especially tragic, giving it one of the most dramatic story arcs of the whole series.
Crossing the Line
Grim Grotto gives us the most complicated character in the series, Fiona. There are a lot of ways to parse “the most complicated character,” but what I mean, and what inspired this realization in me, is how many different directions Fiona is being pulled in. I’ve mentioned before how children’s literature, ASOUE included, simplifies psychology by having the characters only focused on one thing at a time, with a single accompanying emotion. In a similar way, most characters have a singular goal—or, if they have multiple goals, they are all aligned and do not conflict with one another. The Baudelaires’ goals are to survive, to keep each other safe, to uncover the mystery of VFD, to thwart Count Olaf, and to be noble. The Baudelaires become more complicated as their desire to be noble conflicts with their other desires, and one of the most compelling decisions the Baudelaires have to make comes when their desire to survive and keep each other safe conflicts with their desire to thwart Count Olaf.
Fiona has all kinds of desires which don’t seem to align at all. She’s committed to mycology, the study of mushrooms. She’s wants to protect her family. She wants to serve VFD. She wants to help the Baudelaires. She has a romantic attraction to Klaus. And of course she wants to survive, herself. And while all these things are at first aligned, very quickly they start to diverge, pulling Fiona in different directions. Her desire to protect her family conflicts with her desire to serve VFD. Her desire to survive conflicts with her desire to be a mycologist. She also develops a newfound desire to be captain of the Queequeg, which conflicts with everything else in a completely new way.
In addition to giving us the most complicated character in the series, Grim Grotto also has some of the best psychological realism in the series, with the scene in the cave. Throughout the Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaires have very few moments to rest and just talk about how they’re feeling—they’re constantly going from one crisis to the next, trying to plan how to deal with it and discover the plans of others. But in The Grim Grotto, there is a moment where the Baudelaires and Fiona are in the Gorgonian Grotto, and as they wait for the Medusoid Mycelium to wane, they have a conversation about their parents. This is the moment that the reader really gets to see what’s going on with Fiona, but they also get a better sense of the Baudelaires, as they talk about how “it felt almost as if they had drawn a line after their parents died—a secret line in their memories, separating all the wonderful things about the Baudelaire parents from the things that perhaps were not quite so wonderful.” (148) This sequence is solid all the way through, and it alone would make Grim Grotto a singular book in the series.
This book is just all around fantastic. The plot is riveting, the mood is spot on, the cast of characters runs the gambit from hilarious to charming to horrible, with plenty of fascinating blended characters in between. It has some of the best exploration of morality in the series. While later books delve into the Baudelaires’ own conflicted morality, this one does the best job of delving into the morality of the Baudelaires’ enemies, and the reason there was a schism in the VFD organization to begin with. It’s the kind of book I might go back and reread just by itself, without rereading other parts of the series. It also has one of my favorite scenes in the series, the one at the very end—if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about. So yeah, it’s number one.
“People aren’t either wicked or noble … They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.” (223)
—The Grim Grotto, by Lemony Snicket
If you enjoy these posts, consider purchasing The Only Series that Matters to support posts like these, and the blog in general! The collection holds all the posts that have appeared on the site so far, polished up and consolidated for the book. It also contains “Chapter Fourteen,” an essay that won’t be published on this blog, discussing my relationship with the series through different parts of my life, and The Appalling Appendix—an index of selected notes, quotes, and observations from the file I kept while rereading the series. The collection is available on Smashwords and Amazon.