My first-ever favorite book (my parents inform me) was The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit, a picture book for babies and toddlers by Beatrix Potter. Wikipedia summarizes the plot:
“A bad rabbit finds a good rabbit sitting on a bench eating a carrot his mother gave him. Wanting the carrot, he takes it from the good rabbit and scratches him. The good rabbit escapes and hides in a nearby hole. Meanwhile, a hunter notices the bad rabbit sitting on the bench and mistakes him for a bird. He fires at the bad rabbit, but finds nothing but a carrot and a rabbit tail on the bench. The good rabbit then sees the bad rabbit running away without his whiskers and tail.”
A pretty short and straightforward morality tale—be a good rabbit and don’t take other people’s things, or you’ll get shot. And yet my toddler self was fascinated by the ending, insisting that my parents read it to me over and over again to get to the page showing the rabbit’s disembodied tail lying on the bench. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the bad rabbit running away after—either the version I had didn’t include that final page, or I had decided that it was more interesting to imagine something unspeakably terrible had happened to the rabbit and the tail was the only thing left of him. Looking back, that seems surprisingly dark for a little kid, but that was the whole appeal: I was fascinated by just how fierce and bad the fierce bad rabbit was, and how harshly and swiftly he was punished. It had a deeply satisfying cosmic justice, and to my surprisingly Puritan two-year-old morality, it made perfect sense. I enjoyed The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit for the same reason many adults enjoy true-crime podcasts: it’s a strange fact of human nature that dark, scary, weird things—at a safe enough distance—can be kind of exciting.
I got older and moved on from rabbit-themed schadenfreude to early chapter books. Once you can pick and read books on your own, there are more options for literary weirdness. Alice in Wonderland terrified me, but there was something delightful about the serious and important way it treated nonsense—I read and recited “Jabberwocky” so many times I still know it by heart. We also had an illustrated book of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-cat,” which was read at my parents’ wedding (maybe absurdism runs in the blood). This set off a brief but highly productive period in which my sister and I tried to create our own nonsense language—bits and pieces of it, like “foo” as a term of endearment, remain in common use in our family. We revelled in a world of slithy toves and runcible spoons.
The real jackpot, though, was discovering Lemony Snicket. A Series of Unfortunate Events has long had a hold on my imagination. I found out many years later that the real guy behind them (not, in fact, named Lemony Snicket) lived only a few miles away from where I grew up, which makes an interesting kind of sense. He was responsible for shaping about 90% of my current sense of humor, with his observational asides and deadpan nonsense. I hung on every word; each sentence seemed to set out from normal assumptions, then took me along on a little trip into the surreal (“If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats”). To a child, advice like that made perfect sense. It was a world of the imaginative and unexpected, expanding the borders of the possible.
It wasn’t only entertainment, though. The worldly voice of the narrator made a reassuring companion on the bumpy road to adolescence—here was an odd adult, who must have turned out okay if he was speaking to me through the pages of a book, and so if I was a bit odd, I could be okay too. Through humor, it often addressed the young reader in a surprisingly mature way:
“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
It was one of the first times as a child that anyone really spoke to me about life honestly. This was the Real Adult World—dark, scary, weird parts and all—and it was thrilling.
This, I think, is the real function of all that macabre strangeness. So often adults try hard to avoid any mention of the dark, scary, or weird—according to most children’s media, all problems in life are brief and painless and solved in time for dinner, and everyone always lives happily ever after. Attempts to sanitize children’s media to the point of idealism leave them with an unrealistic image of reality, and one that often rings false even to young readers. Books that leave in the darker aspects of life are simply more relatable, and in dealing with them through absurdism and humor, they equip children with the tools to face difficult emotions as adults. As a kid, I would often cheer myself up by narrating my life as if I were in a book, and it helped me find the humor even in difficult situations—it gave me the perspective to realize that being rejected by a friend or having my beloved art project thrown away by the teacher would someday become just another funny story that happened one time. That, to me, was the ultimate lesson of A Series of Unfortunate Events: bad things are a given in any life, but determination, clever problem-solving, patience, and a good sense of humor can get you through a lot.
My final discovery, the pinnacle of camp-macabre, was Edward Gorey. Working in the 1950s and ’60s, his distinctive, surreal illustrations and mysteriously reclusive personality made him a bit of an oddity in his time; he was inspired by the nonsense poetry of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and in turn was a big influence on ASoUE (Lemony Snicket supposedly sent him a copy of his first book with a plea for forgiveness for “stealing everything”). His waifish orphans, ghastly murders, decadent, vaguely Victorian interiors, and densely crosshatched black-and-white style have appeared on the covers of everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, in the opening sequence for Masterpiece Mystery, and in a vast and prolific number of his own books, including the uniquely gory alphabet The Gashlycrumb Tinies (“A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil, assaulted by bears…”) and The Doubtful Guest, in which a family finds their house taken over by a strange, mute penguin creature that wears Converse high-tops and munches on their plates.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to it—he published under dozens of pseudonyms (Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, E. G. Deadworry, Raddory Gewe), all anagrams of his name, and illustrated one storybook in which children are carried off by strange birds, with captions consisting only of sentences like “Hippity wippity” and “Thap.” His work is somehow both spooky and gentle, weird and familiar in the way your favorite uncle would be. In moments of confusion in my own life, his books have become a kind of haven to me. When I first stumbled on Amphigorey as a teenager in my local library, I was first confused and put off, then charmed, then obsessed. He completely refuses any genre definitions or conventions—he spent years cranking out little illustrated books in complete obscurity for his own amusement, and you get the sense that every page and every drawing is exactly how he wanted it to be. He’s created his own little world, full of an imaginative openness where logic and meaning are suspended, and anything is possible as long as it amuses him. As a people-pleasing high-schooler deathly afraid of my own strangeness, the sheer freedom with which he expressed himself, without apology or even explanation, seemed revolutionary. Here was a man who did nothing but be his bizarre, terrifying self—and he was internationally beloved for it.
Despite this strange and macabre education, I turned out surprisingly alright—I never even had a goth phase. Instead, these books taught me to take myself less seriously, to take life’s darker moments in stride and face them with resilience and imagination. It taught me the freedom in embracing all the messy, ambiguous weirdness that is existing as a human being, and that, just maybe, the monster under the bed could be a friend.
So flippity-hippity to you, dear reader, and goodnight. Consider this my own small defense of the creepy and absurd.