When I was a kid, I adored A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now I’m rereading through all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing book 8, The Hostile Hospital. This post will contain spoilers for book 8 and some of the books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, in the words of Lemony Snicket, “this [review] is something best left on the ground, where you undoubtedly found it.”
In this eighth installment of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans find themselves at Heimlich Hospital, a half-constructed hospital in the middle of nowhere, which inexplicably contains a massive library of records. The Baudelaires manage to get jobs filing paperwork in the library of records, all the while hoping to find some information on the mysterious organization VFD, or the murky circumstances surrounding the destruction of their home and the death of their parents. The treacherous Count Olaf has also arrived at the hospital, though for what purpose the Baudelaires do not know.
Reading to the Rescue!
One of the greatest aspects of Unfortunate Events, which is especially great to find in children’s literature, is the dramatization of reading. Throughout the series, literature and language is used to thwart villains, crack secret codes, and gain an advantage against the Baudelaires’ antagonists. Certainly, plenty of fiction involves characters reading or studying things—Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer immediately jump to mind—but in those cases, reading is just a means to deliver knowledge upon which to take some other action (magic, fighting, confronting another character.) In ASOUE, reading is presented in a much more dynamic way, and it often is the action itself. There’s no scene in Harry Potter where the reader feels tension wondering whether or not the characters will fail to read, but there are multiple such scenes in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The reason I bring this up with this book is that The Hostile Hospital contains more Reading to the Rescue!TM than any other book—it is consistently the way the Baudelaires pursue their goals, and attempt to save themselves from the schemes of others. Not only does the book prominently feature reading and language, it also presents multiple facets of these activities, instead of just the typical studying that every book in the series contains.
In the first scene of the book, the Baudelaires come to the Last Chance General Store, and send a telegram to Mr. Poe explaining their dire circumstances—they have been wrongfully accused of murder, and they are on the run. They have to translate this information into Morse code, and further phrase it with the awkward “STOP”-ended sentences of telegrams. The tension of the scene comes from the fact that the general store owner is waiting to get the newspaper, which he loves to read, and which contains an inaccurate story about the Baudelaires being murderers. The siblings are fighting misinformation, trying to have their own version of events heard, and transmitting it through an awkward coded language in order to properly communicate with the executor of their parents’ will. It’s a dramatization of the transmission of information, of people trying to communicate their own stories rather than having others dictate them.
Verse Fluctuation Declaration
The next scene of Reading to the Rescue! TM portrays the facet of language that is most often used in these books—just straight up reading. Of course, “just straight up reading” isn’t really just straight up—within this subcategory, the Baudelaires face many different types of challenges. Sometimes it’s just an overwhelming slog, as with Klaus reading through legal books in The Bad Beginning or studying rule books in The Vile Village. Other times, the difficulty of reading isn’t about pulling information out of a large quantity, but about pulling a hidden meaning out a very small, very opaque piece of writing. In The Wide Window, Klaus has to decode a fake suicide note from Aunt Josephine by finding intentional grammatical mistakes in it, and parsing these into a message. Later on, in The Slippery Slope, Violet and Klaus learn about a type of code based on replacing words in poems. What I find so interesting about this is that the Baudelaires are utilizing a type of literary analysis.
Very often, the way writers create mood or characterize settings or explore themes is by breaking the rules of grammar, by doing things that at first glance seem to be bad writing. For example, a long run-on sentence might be used to create a sense of unrelenting force, of being overwhelmed—or sentence fragments could be used to mimic the distracted, frenetic state of a character’s mind. Focusing on what seem like mistakes is a way to unlock an author’s intentions. So Klaus is doing a high-stakes version of this type of analysis when he compiles all the spelling and grammar mistakes in Aunt Josephine’s letter to spell out “Curdled Cave.”
And if you think that I’m stretching here to say that Handler is turning literary analysis into action scenes in his books—well, perhaps I’m stretching with these examples, but I’m inclined to think that this kind of thing was on Handler’s mind when, in The Vile Village, the Baudelaires have to find a secret message hidden in a series of rhyming couplets. In that case, what they are doing is literally literary analysis, STOP. The only distinction is that most real world poems contain secret messages about death or sex, rather than secret messages about being hidden in a giant crow-shaped fountain.
Sludge to Smoke
Now, we come to the type of reading that the Baudelaires have to do around the middle of book 8. The library of records is more overwhelmingly large, with a smaller amount of relevant information, than they’ve ever faced before. It won’t do them any good to just read through every file in every filing cabinet, so they have to sift through the cabinets alphabetically, and also guess at how a file about “the snicket fires” would be categorized—F for “fires”? S for “Snicket”? V for “VFD”? Their efforts are rendered on the page by having them read off the labels of the cabinets:
“Shipwreck to Shrimp.”
“Sicily to Sideways.”
“Skylight to Slob.”
“Sludge to Smoke.”
“Snack to Snifter.”
“Snowball to Sober.”
“Sonnet to Spackle.”
“Wait!” Klaus cried. “Back up! Snicket is between Snack and Snifter.” (99)
Funnily enough, when I was reading it my eyes slid right over “Snack and Snifter,” not realizing that that’s where Snicket would be. This kind of scene, portrayed in this way, puts the reader in the place of the Baudelaires, trying to keep a sharp eye out and see through all these meaningless words for the pertinent information. There are similar scenes in other books—in The Wide Window the siblings use the index of an atlas to find Curdled Cave, and in The Miserable Mill Violet uses the table of contents of Advanced Ocular Science to find the specific information she needs about hypnosis. However, none of these scenes are rendered so grandly and suspensefully as this one, in which the Baudelaires are running down aisles of filing cabinets, reading off the contents and frantically searching for this file while Count Olaf’s girlfriend, Ésmé Squalor, is trying to break into the library, the door weakening all the while. Handler takes this scenario to comic heights once Ésmé does break in and begins to topple the filing cabinets, and the Baudelaires try to escape, orienting themselves by letter: “The Baudelaires ran down E as in Exit, but when they reached the last cabinet, the row was becoming F as in Falling File Cabinets, G as in Go the Other Way! and H as in How in the World Are We Going to Escape?” (122)
Solve Any Problem
After this scene, there’s another instance of decoding as a means of progressing the story, and then in one of the climactic scenes (there are multiple climactic scenes because the last few chapters are just one crisis after another) Klaus utilizes reading the way he does throughout all of the books—recalling knowledge gained from previous reading.
In every book, Klaus frequently mentions things he’s learned from books, or explains words or concepts to his siblings when they are unfamiliar with them, but this action rarely takes center-stage. More often, this kind of information is just used to grease the wheels of whatever else the Baudelaires are doing—but in Chapter 11, Klaus has to stall before a crowd for awhile, and he does so by lecturing them on facts he’s learned about knives and rust. In this case, Handler is dramatizing the long-term benefits of reading—the phenomena that, “When you read as many books as Klaus Baudelaire, you are going to learn a great deal of information that might not become useful for a long time.” (196)
The reason I’ve spent this entire post discussing Reading to the Rescue! is because it was one of the things I most identified with in Unfortunate Events as a kid. I loved the idea that reading could be this courageous, powerful thing—I thought it was so cool to see the heroes of the story looking through these filing cabinets alphabetically, just like I would’ve looked through the headers of dictionary pages when looking up a word. While I certainly wasn’t thinking about literary analysis when I was a kid, I still felt very connected with the books, trying to figure out the meaning of the couplets just as the Baudelaires were—and, as well, trying to figure out the meanings of the books as a whole, to find the clues in the Letter to the Editor at the end of each book, in the illustrations, or in the dedications. These books featured reading and writing as a crucial method of action, of attaining goals or protecting yourself—so they were fun for bookish kids, but they also encouraged readers of any level to engage with them and scrutinize them the way the Baudelaires engage with and scrutinize texts throughout the series. With the constant hints, hidden references, and clues throughout Unfortunate Events, the books are both a description of the thing and the thing itself.
Now, over a decade later, I’ve only grown to identify with them more, and find more ways in which the books celebrate reading. I’ve found the fact that, as Snicket puts it in that final(ish) scene with Klaus stalling, “You might read a book about how to perform tricks on ice skates, and then not be forced to perform these tricks for a few weeks,” (196) to be one of my favorite things about reading, and 19-year-old me was excited to see Klaus putting this to use, just as 7-year-old me was excited to see Klaus staying up late with a flashlight, and continuing to read even as he grows tired. As Handler writes in The Bad Beginning, “All his life, Klaus had believed that if you read enough books, you could solve any problem, but now he wasn’t so sure.” (88) This is one of the themes that Handler returns to again and again—whether or not reading enough books can solve any problem—and it’s part of what makes this series so special, and why I loved it so much as a kid.
“As I sit in this very tiny room, printing these words with this very large pencil, I feel as if my whole life has been nothing but a dismal play, presented just for someone else’s amusement, and that the playwright who invented my cruel twist of fate is somewhere far above me, laughing and laughing at his creation.” (214)
—The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket