Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and John Klassen

The Dark is one of those books that is kind of reassuring yet still somehow kind of creepy. Even though the eponymous character, the dark, turns out to be quite helpful and kinda friendly it’s still a little nerve-wracking and I’m still a little worried about ‘him’. Which, when you think about it, is pretty true to life. I know that the dark itself cannot harm me, but despite supposedly being a gown-up, if I wake up in the middle of the night after a bad dream, the first thing I do is reach out for the light, flipping the switch to shatter the darkness from around me.

Much about The Dark is true to life. Dark hides in the corners of rooms, behind doors, in the basement; and Laszlo is afraid of it. Mostly Laszlo is afraid that the dark will visit him in his own room. And then it does. “I want to show you something,” the dark says, leading Laszlo around the house and down into the dark’s own room, the basement. “Come closer,” says the dark. What is it going to do? What does it want?

… But the dark only has the best of intentions for Laszlo, showing him not a big black hole or a scary monster, but where to find a new light bulb for the nightlight in his room. Phew.

Right from the beginning Lemony Snicket treats the dark as a character, describing how it lives in the same house as Laszlo, how it hides in cupboards and spreads itself out at night as if it is a decision-maker with a will of it’s own. This construct is taken the next level when the dark sneaks into Laszlo’s room and speaks to him. The thing about it is even though the dark is quite friendly – it never hurts Laszlo and is helpful more than anything else – I think just the idea that the dark is alive and breathing and waiting is in itself creepy. Thus the story is ultimately reassuring – the dark, although it’s always there, does not have ill intentions – but still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick up.

Jon Klassen’s striking illustrations have earned him a place on the shortlist for the 2014 Kate Greenaway Medal. Simultaneously soft and sharp, they represent the same mix of reassuring versus slightly odd as Snicket’s story. At first glance the images appear quite plain and simple, with straight lines, a plain colour palate and muted tones, but on closer inspection you can see the detail that he has worked into them to create the atmosphere of things being ever so slightly off. Everything is very angular, the rooms often viewed from slightly unusual angles, light and shade travelling across the spaces he has drawn in not entirely predictable ways.

Klassen plays with the dark and the light in the same way that Snicket does with his words as well, the dark ever-present on the edges of the drawings. Laszlo’s torch-light cuts through the dark in clear lines; the dark speaks from boxes of black that fill doorways and stairwells. But Laszlo himself remains mostly expressionless throughout the story, staying on the sidelines of most of the illustrations, thus allowing the dark to be characterized much more strongly than the little boy, to dominate many of the pages.

The Dark is a great book to read as an adult, but it’s just that little bit too sinister for me and I don’t think I would personally but for it young children unless they were extremely hardy! It is remarkably clever: the dark doesn’t use any words that in any way could be construed as threatening or sinister, yet as the reader I cannot help but feel creeped out, that it is very sinister – but when I stop and think about, I realize that I only feel like that because I already believe that the dark is bad. If you came to this story not pre-conditioned to feel like this, would it still be scary?

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