Is 13 the lucky number for the bad news Baudelaires?
Lemony Snicket knows, but he is not telling.
Snicket, alter ego of author Daniel Handler, has ended his wildly popular Series of Unfortunate Events with the 13th novel, scheduled for release on Friday the 13th, naturally, and imaginatively titled The End.
Readers are going to have to crack open the book to find out how the three Baudelaire children, tragically orphaned in book one, The Bad Beginning, and beset by tribulations and treachery in the 10 subsequent books, fare.
Reviewers got an advance copy. But by a strange coincidence - surely not on purpose? - it was missing the last two chapters, breaking off just as the children face a very dire situation involving some poisonous mushrooms.
The Associated Press met up with Handler recently, hoping for some answers.
Polite, personable and punctual, Handler was discovered sitting quietly at a San Francisco restaurant, reading a book and seemingly oblivious to the hustle and bustle around him.
He was happy to answer any question, he said, but not necessarily with a definitive answer.
Was it wrenching letting go of the "Unfortunate Events" series? "I guess I feel a sort of bittersweet about it," he said. "I think I'm actually still in denial. It was such a ridiculous thing to say so many years ago that I was going to write 13 books about terrible things happening to orphans. But the idea that I actually did it is astonishing."
Other things continue to baffle, such as fame. The books, which are published by HarperCollins and have sold more than 51 million copies worldwide, routinely skip to best seller status and are read around the world.
"It's very bewildering to me to get off a plane in Italy or New Zealand to find that there are people there who have very specific questions about books that you have written. That's a strange feeling. So, it's been very delightful and some parts of it have been hard, but mostly it's just surprise. I keep waiting for my amazement to fade, but it has not."
From the (bad) beginning, the "Unfortunate Events" were unusual, with their divagations on vocabulary and warnings to readers to find something nicer to read. The books are also strewn with literary and historical allusions, a motif that has inspired Web sites that mine for meaning.
In the latest book, for example, the three Baudelaires - Violet, Klaus and Sunny - fetch up on an island after a harrowing sea journey with the vicious Count Olaf and encounter a slew of nautically named characters.
"Call me Ish," says the island leader, whose name is Ishmael, which may snap you right into the opening line of the seafaring classic, Moby-Dick. Or not.
"There are people who get those references and there are people who don't, and there's some overlap between adults and children, but it's not the kind of overlap that one might suspect," Handler said. "One of the delights of touring around for the 12th book ('The Penultimate Peril') was hearing the number of children explain to adults what the word 'penultimate' meant."
Penultimate means next to last, but you knew that. If Handler has cause to look something up these days, he has the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, "a substantial source of procrastination."
He writes regularly and at length, ending up with "long, long," first drafts that he then whittles down with "a blunt machete." "I don't know another way to do it," he said. "When I finish a book, or finish a tour, I'll have a couple of days where I'll clean out my desk and see if I can bully a friend into going to a movie in the middle of the day. But after a couple of days, I don't know what else to do."
HarperCollins, which has an initial print order of 2.5 million copies for the new book, has mixed feelings about The End. "On the one hand, we're excited to see the conclusion of a story that began 13 books and seven years ago, now it can live on as a complete journey that generation after generation of children can embark on," said executive editor Susan Rich, who is also Handler's editor. "On the other hand, we can't wait to see what's next for Daniel Handler," she said.
Although Snicket would probably advise you to stay away, the new release is being marked by after-school parties at a number of Barnes & Noble and other bookstores nationwide.
At Cody's Books in Berkeley, an event is planned with Snicket in November, but children's book seller Elizabeth Jenkins, has a simple release plan for Friday - "stack the books up high and get out of their way."
She sees the secret to Handler's success as his ability to tackle dark subjects with a light touch.
"It feels creepy. It looks creepy, but it isn't," she said. Handler is about more than unfortunate events. This year saw the release of his third adult novel, "Adverbs," a collection of stories about love and other dark emotions. He has ideas for future projects, although as he cheerfully points out, "I could be run over this afternoon while having my photograph taken on the corner."
Since life is, after all, short, maybe now would be a good time to discuss the end of "The End?"
"How does it all turn out?" he said, considering the question gravely. Pause, smile - "Ambiguously."