A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. In today’s post I review the sixth, The Ersatz Elevator, and talk about mood, darkness, and architecture.
In the sixth installment of Unfortunate Events the Baudelaires return to the city to stay with their new guardians Jerome and Esmé Squalor. The Squalors are obscenely wealthy, and they live in a penthouse on the 66th floor of an apartment building. Esmé is a financial advisor obsessed with fashion, and she constantly discusses which items are “in” and which are “out,” while her husband Jerome is exceedingly kind, but also exceedingly non-confrontational. While the book follows similar plot beats to the previous five, it also alters the formula in a significant way. In this book, not only are the Baudelaires trying to outsmart Count Olaf, who is back to steal their inheritance, they’re also delving into the secret surrounding their parents, the fire that destroyed their home, and Count Olaf himself.
What this book does better than any other ASOUE book I’ve reread so far (and at this point I’ve reread through book nine) is mood. Of course, all the books have a very distinct style, and Snicket has a distinctly macabre, dry tone—but, at least the way I’m using it here, that’s different than mood. When I say mood, I mean the overall feeling that a book evokes in its reader. Some books evoke wonder, some evoke excitement, and some evoke dread. A Series of Unfortunate Events is the kind of series that has a mood of dread about it, and The Ersatz Elevator has it in spades. In no other book is this feeling that something is terribly wrong so all-encompassing, so pervasive throughout the whole novel. Of course, there are sources of dread in all the books, because the reader knows even before they begin that, whatever the circumstances, this is not going to be the happy home where Violet, Klaus, and Sunny will spend the rest of their childhoods. In The Reptile Room, the narrator mentions early on that Uncle Monty will die later in the book. In The Wide Window, the precarious location of Aunt Josephine’s house on the edge of a cliff instantly inspires anxiety.
The key with dread is to strike a balance between what the reader knows and what they don’t know. If the reader knows too much, then they can anticipate what horrible events are going to happen. If they know too little, then they won’t even realize that there’s any threat of danger. It’s the difference between knowing that your ex is going to come over to get their things at 1:00 pm (some dread), knowing your ex is going to come over some time during the day (maximum dread), and not knowing your ex is going to come over (no dread.) In most of the books, Handler errs on the side of letting the reader know more, displaying the awful machinations which will eventually be set into motion. This has its own benefits (it helps with world-building and character development and is just generally intriguing) but it does cut down on the feeling that something bad could arise from any corner at any time.Read More »