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.
In The Ersatz Elevator, the balance is tipped in the other direction. The Baudelaires (and, consequently, the readers) know nothing about Count Olaf’s plan to steal their fortune, and there are no snakes or leeches or saw blades that hint to the reader a threat of violence. So, how does this book inspire dread without giving anything away up front?
Two Pages of Utter Blackness
This book utilizes location to greater effect than any of the previous books. While all the homes and institutions in which the Baudelaires find themselves are wonderfully crafted milieus of unpleasant strangeness and strange unpleasantness, none of them reflect and enhance the themes and atmosphere of the story as well as 667 Dark Avenue. It’s certainly creepy that all the buildings in The Austere Academy are tomb-shaped, but the book isn’t about death, so this setting detail doesn’t bolster any mood or central motif. The closest any other book comes is book four, with the Lucky Smells Lumbermill. That book portrays the misery of endless repetition, so the fact that they are working not in just any kind of factory, but a mill—a mechanism that goes round and round, grinding away forever—accentuates and emphasizes this. In The Ersatz Elevator, the Baudelaires are always in the dark, figuratively, so they are always in the dark, literally.
The darkness isn’t a plot beat, or something important to the mystery of VFD, it’s just a touch of ambience which makes the reader, and the Baudelaires themselves, uncomfortable. Although some of the darkness is explained by the fact that “dark is in” (12), this motif persists throughout the book, even after dark is out. The street on which the apartment building is located is dark. The long winding staircase up to the penthouse looks “like nothing more than curves of flickering lights” (14). And the locus of the action of the book, the book’s namesake, the elevator shaft is described as “darker than any night had ever been, even on nights when there was no moon.” (130) The darkness is so pervasive, so omnipresent throughout the novel, that it casts a pall of apprehension over the whole book. Darkness signals to the reader that there is something unseen—that with each step the Baudelaires take, climbing down the elevator shaft, or later walking through the underground passageway, they are stepping into the unknown.
This quote sums it up well: “The darkness closed in on them again, and the children began to feel as if their whole lives had been spent in this deep and shadowy pit …” (167)
A Deep Hole at the Bottom of a Deep Pit on the Bottom Floor of a Dungeon
In addition to darkness, the physicality of the apartment, and the elevator shaft, enhances the mood. The first great example of this is when the Baudelaires are climbing the stairs up to the penthouse for the first time. When Mr. Poe asks how many stories the building is, the doorman tells him, “I think it’s forty-eight, but it might be eighty-four.” (14) Of course, both possibilities would be a long way to climb, but the fact that the number is uncertain adds to this disturbing impression that, as the Baudelaires ascend, they have no idea how far they’ve come, or how far they have to go.
Then, when they arrive at the penthouse, the physicality of their new home is even more disorienting. The penthouse is enormous, a sprawling labyrinth of “living rooms, dining rooms, breakfast rooms, snack rooms, sitting rooms, standing rooms, ballrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and an assortment of rooms that seemed to have no purpose at all.” (39) The Baudelaires frequently get lost in the maze of rooms, which mirrors the overwhelming feeling of being lost in the conspiracy and secrets surrounding Olaf, and the Quagmires, and VFD, and their parents.
The most obvious use of physicality as a manifestation of emotion and anxiety is the descent. The Baudelaire orphans descend into the darkness of the elevator shaft three times in the book, each time another long, frightening, gloomy ordeal. This action of traveling down, far away from the light, conjures up impressions of isolation, of reaching a low point, and of course, in a book filled with references to the number of the beast (667 Dark Avenue, 66 stories of the building, 612 clocks in the Squalor residence), a descent into hell. Any way you slice it, it’s a discomforting thing, and the fact that the Baudelaires have to do it three times, and each time they are farther from achieving their goals, makes each time feel like they are sinking even lower in misfortune.
It should be clear by now that I love this book. Although the plotting isn’t as fast with its twists and turns as all the others, it is just as riveting as the best of them. The atmosphere is marvelous, the twists are both exciting and intriguing, and it continues with all the stylistic flair and wit that these books are known for. The book is so cohesive in mood and presentation, it would probably make a great entry point for the series. Of course, I’d recommend reading all the books, but if you’re in a rush, The Ersatz Elevator is a terrific place to start.
“Sometimes words are not enough. There are some circumstances so utterly wretched that I cannot describe them in sentences or paragraphs or even a whole series of books.” (184)
—The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket