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SAN FRANCISCO -- Under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, I write books for children. The books chronicle the troubles of the three Baudelaire siblings, who lose their parents in a terrible fire and are constantly on the run from the villainous Count Olaf. "If you are looking for happy endings," I warn in the first volume, "you would be better off reading some other book."
Since Sept. 11, interviewers have asked me if it is appropriate to tell such stories, when there are plenty of real orphans and villains to worry about. The answer, judging from the hundreds of e-mail messages and letters I have received, is that it is more than appropriate; it is necessary.
My young readers are not only finding a diversion in the melodrama of the Baudelaires' lives, but they are also finding ways of contemplating our current troubles through stories. The secret passageways, sinister reptiles and nefarious disguises in my books may seem a far cry from the real world, but when children write to me asking if Count Olaf is a terrorist, if the Baudelaires were anywhere near the World Trade Center, if the unnamed country where the books are set is in danger of being bombed, it is clear they are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us.
It is natural now to wonder how some people can do terrible things, how we can stay strong when something terrible could happen to us at any moment, whether it is right to inflict horror on other people because it has been inflicted on us. The answers are unlikely to be found in stories that ignore rather than acknowledge these questions. I have found myself reading the work of Raymond Chandler. There's comfort, I find, in the methods employed in the world of Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe — careful observation, an incisive way with words, quiet restraint in the face of deceitful and irredeemable acts.
Stories like these aren't cheerful, but they offer a truth — that real trouble cannot be erased, only endured — that is more soothing to me than any determinedly cheerful grin. Certainly there are times when we want to escape to a trouble-free, imaginary world. But when the real world is so searing that it cannot be glossed over, we can find value in stories that admit the world is tumultuous, instead of reassuring us that it is not.
The darker aspects of American culture have been getting a bad rap lately. Dark humor has been deemed unfunny. There are even a handful of towns that have canceled Halloween, because children shouldn't explore scary things in such scary times.
It is unlikely, however, that the story that began Sept. 11 will have a tidy resolution, one longed for by the more smiley-faced aspects of our culture. Although it is understandable that some would like to turn away from this difficult fact, there is a kind of solace offered by stories that show us how endangered orphans or weary detectives go on living. Halloween is here, and it would be a shame to banish all the ghosts and goblins just when we need them most.
Daniel Handler, as Lemony Snicket, is the author of books for children titled "A Series of Unfortunate Events."
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