The Unfortunate Course

The Grim Grotto

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The Grim Grotto Plot

The book begins immediately after the events of The Slippery Slope with the Baudelaires traveling on a collapsing toboggan down the stream of the Mortmain Mountains. The fire that they helped Count Olaf begin at Caligari Carnival is spreading through the hinterlands, and the children have trouble avoiding it, even on the stream. Just as hope seems lost, they are caught on a submarine that rises from the waters. Climbing over to the hatch a voice within asks if the orphans are friends or foes. They declare that they are friends. The same voice asks for the password, and Violet guesses correctly the V.F.D. motto: The world is quiet here. The children descend into the submarine, which they discover is the Queequeg captained by Captain Widdershins, a V.F.D. member and old friend of the Baudelaire parents. Also on board is Widdershins’ stepdaughter Fiona and the ship’s cook, Phil, (or Cookie) the optimist, who met the children while working at the Lucky Smells Lumbermill in Paltryville.

The Grim Grotto - Fiona, a mycologist who becomes the Baudelaires' new ally.
The Grim Grotto – Fiona, a mycologist who becomes the Baudelaires’ new ally.

The Baudelaires are welcomed on board, where they discover that the crew wears uniforms with a picture of Herman Melville on them – are searching for the mysterious sugar bowl that was thrown downstream. They have less than a week before the meeting at the Hotel Denouement which contains certain people that could destroy the V.F.D. forever. Widdershins runs on the moral. He who hesitates is lost and Fiona, an expert mycologist, begins to fall for Klaus, who returns the favor. Sunny, meanwhile, helps Phil cook dinner for everyone. Violet also learns that Fiona and Widdershins have learned of the Baudelaires’ plight via their telegram device, which is now broken. Although she tries to fix it, she realizes that someone – likely Olaf – is disrupting V.F.D. communications, explaining why the Baudelaires’ telegram to Mr. Poe in The Hostile Hospital went unread. (The story of this is explained in Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography.)

Klaus, meanwhile, has examined the tidal charts to estimate the location of the sugar bowl given the water cycle. He suspects it to be in the Gorgonian Grotto, located near Anwhistle Aquatics. Widdershins explains that that aquatics center was founded by Aunt Josephine’s brother-in-law, Gregor Anwhistle. At this time, the group are interrupted by an approaching submarine vessel on the sonar. It is a ship in the shape of a giant octopus with many tentacles, and inside they can see Count Olaf. Luckily, due to quick thinking, all the engines on the Queequeg are turned off and Olaf does not notice them. Before long, however, a third shape appears on the sonar, a mysterious object shaped like a question mark that the crew do not see, but which clearly scares off Olaf’s vessel.

Over dinner, Widdershins attempts to matchmake Klaus and Fiona, to everyone’s discomfort. Fiona explains her family situation – her brother Fernald has been missing for many years. Her real father left when Fiona was small and Widdershins claims her mother died in a manatee accident, although this may be untrue. Widdershins mentions the Snicket siblings, who fought on the noble side of V.F.D.: Jacques Snicket, whom the children saw murdered in the Village of Fowl Devotees, was a researcher similar to Klaus; Kit Snicket, who helped build the Queequeg; and briefly mentions the third sibling before being cut off by Fiona.

Fiona asks about the message Violet and Klaus found for the mysterious J.S. at the former V.F.D. headquarters. Widdershins doubts it would be for Jacques, who is dead, which gets the group wondering about whose initials J.S. stands for. Fiona then looks in her mycological textbooks to discover information about the Gorgonian Grotto. It is a cone-shaped cave that houses a rare species of poisonous mushroom, the Medusoid Mycelium. They wax and wane periodically, but when waxing – as a poet says in her text – A single spore has such grim power/That you may die within the hour. Because the Grotto is so remote, it acts as a quarantine for the Medusoid Mycelium which would otherwise be unstoppable, although Fiona suspects there is an antidote. Widdershins sends the children off to get some sleep but steadfastly refuses to tell them about the sugar bowl’s purpose in the plot.

The Grim Grotto - The Baudelaires and Fiona swim to the Gorgonian Grotto.
The Grim Grotto – The Baudelaires and Fiona swim to the Gorgonian Grotto.

Later, the children wake to find the submarine has arrived abruptly at the Grotto and has been damaged on the journey. Widdershins and Phil are too tall to fit into the smaller areas of the grotto so Fiona, Klaus, Violet, and Sunny (who cannot fit into a diving suit but instead floats in a diving helmet) are sent in. Inside the grotto, the children find an area without water, an undersea cave that appears to have belonged to someone in V.F.D. It is filled with items, mostly junk and various food items, but is also – as Fiona discovers – the breeding ground of the Medusoid Mycelium, which send the children scurrying into the far corner where they are safe while the mushrooms rise out of the earth. The children start fighting over what to do next, which gets the Baudelaires remembering their parents again.

At last, Klaus finds a poetry book – Versed Furtive Disclosure – and begins going through it to see if it relates to V.F.D. As the three older children begin researching while they wait for the mushrooms to die down, Sunny cooks a meal–pesto lo mein. Later, over dinner, they discuss their findings. Klaus has found partial information of a code used by V.F.D. but not enough to figure it out. Violet has found a letter to the now-deceased Gregor Anwhistle from Kit Snicket. It seems Gregor was going to use the mushroom to poison the enemies of V.F.D. Kit was working on a way to dilute the poison, in a factory in Lousy Lane, but Gregor insisted on cultivating them as they were in the Grotto. The mushrooms apparently poisoned the entire Aquatics center. The children contemplate for a while how everything links together. But when Fiona asks Violet about the newspaper article, Violet pretends it is too blurred to read. She can read it perfectly, and whatever is on it concerns her.

On returning to the submarine, the children find Phil and Widdershins gone. In their place are three balloons tied to chairs, with the letters “V”, “F” and “D” on them. But this is little horror compared to what happens next, as the children discover a spore of the mushroom has infiltrated Sunny’s helmet and she is trapped within it. Fiona stops Klaus from opening the helmet, as in order to keep themselves from being affected, for the moment they must keep Sunny quarantined. She goes to work on an antidote while asking the others to fire up the engines. Violet is suspicious but Klaus obeys orders. Just as the ship starts up, Olaf’s submarine returns and engulfs the Queequeg in its “jaw”. Olaf comes down to the children and tells them that he has been at the Hotel Denouement preparing for his final scheme but had to return to search for the sugar bowl himself, which is the only thing he needs to complete his nefarious plans. He is overjoyed to find he has also captured Fiona and shows little concern for Sunny’s condition. He is also working on perfecting a villainous laugh. As he leads the children through to the brig, he marvels at the octopus submarine, which he stole, which can apparently be used to destroy all of V.F.D.’s armies.

The Grim Grotto - Children being forced to power the ship in fear of being slapped by a giant noodle.
The Grim Grotto – Children being forced to power the ship in fear of being slapped by a giant noodle.

As the children enter the next room they see how the ship is powered, by dozens of children rowing the “tentacles”. Among them are children from Prufrock Preparatory School, the Snow Scouts, and other children the Baudelaires do not recognize. Esmé Squalor, wearing an octopus costume, is in charge of the children. She is stunned to see the Baudelaires alive but happy to have another chance to celebrate their deaths. Olaf’s group wear uniforms bearing images of Edgar Guest, whom Lemony Snicket disparages in his narration, and Klaus earlier stated he hates. It is here that we learn the ship is named the Carmelita, after Carmelita Spats who is also on board and being spoiled by Esmé.

The Grim Grotto - Fiona and Fernald reunite.
The Grim Grotto – Fiona and Fernald reunite.

The children are taken to the brig where they are to be interrogated by The Hook-Handed Man until Fiona drops a surprise on them all; he is her brother Fernald. Fiona is stunned that her brother is working as a villain, but Fernald defends his work saying that Olaf isn’t all evil, that no one is entirely evil. Violet confesses that the newspaper article – by Jacques Snicket – proved that Fernald burnt down Anwhistle Aquatics and that Gregor died in the fire. Klaus realizes that one-half of the V.F.D. schism wanted to put out fires, while the other started them. Fernald hints that there is a good reason why he now has two hooks instead of hands and that there are few differences between the Baudelaires and Olaf. Fiona begs him to help them get back to the Queequeg, for Sunny’s sake, and Fernald finally agrees but asks for them to take him with them.

Violet is firmly against Fernald’s involvement but Fiona defends him, asking if Violet would ever abandon a sibling. So, the Baudelaires, Fiona and Fernald plot their escape, aided unwittingly by Carmelita, who is doing a song and dance routine that distracts Esmé and the rowing children. The Baudelaires return to the Queequeg, but Carmelita spots Fiona and Fernald trying to leave. Fernald, whom Esmé calls “Hooky”, pretends that Fiona has joined the team, and they need to borrow Esmé’s “tagliatelle grande” – the giant wet noodle she uses to whip the children – to torture the Baudelaires in The Carnivorous Carnival. Esmé gives in but changes Fiona’s name to “Triangle Eyes” because of her glasses shape. Back on the Queequeg, Sunny is close to death. Klaus and Violet read Fiona’s texts, and Kit’s letter, and realize that the antidote being made on Lousy Lane was horseradish. Although they have none, they discover a surprise Sunny and Phil had made – a birthday cake for Violet who turned fifteen without even realizing it. The balloons stood for “Violet’s Fifteenth Date”. Violet breaks down but Sunny saves her own life when she manages to blurt out one word, the culinary equivalent of horseradish: wasabi, which she still has from their trip into the underwater cavern.

While Sunny recovers, Klaus and Violet are stunned when the telegram machine starts back up again. The Voluntary Factual Dispatch they receive is from Quigley Quagmire, which touches Violet as she remembers their romantic involvement. The letter is also sent to the mysterious J.S. Quigley needs the Baudelaires at a certain coded location by Tuesday, the very next day, and just two days before the meeting at the Hotel. The Verse Fluctuations Declarations code is similar to the one Klaus discovered in the grotto and references poems by T.S. Eliot and Lewis Carroll. Although they haven’t read the poems, Klaus and Violet discover the secret poetry books that Widdershins has hidden away, which he used to read with Fernald. They also find a photo of the family, when Fiona’s mother was alive and when Fernald had hands. Violet suggests that answering the code and finding Widdershins are more important than freeing Fiona, who likely might not do the same kindness to them, and Klaus reluctantly agrees. Sunny, recuperated, joins her siblings. Klaus is first to solve the riddle when he learns that the code in the Carroll poem asks the Baudelaires to meet Quigley at Briny Beach. As Violet begins decoding the Eliot poem, they are interrupted by Olaf, Esmé, and Carmelita, who have found them. Olaf announces triumphantly that they are just minutes from the Hotel Denouement and, even worse, Fiona has joined their team. The girl herself enters, with Fernald, in the uniform of the Carmelita and tells the Baudelaires that it is true.

Olaf triumphantly tells the Baudelaires that, once they arrive at Hotel Denouement, he will finally have won. While he, Esmé, and Carmelita search the Queequeg for things to pilfer, Violet and Klaus attempt to reason with Fiona. They offer her the mushroom sample still inside the helmet, which she could use to research. She is clearly tempted but Olaf returns and takes it, overjoyed with the people he could extort and murder. Fiona is horrified. Esmé finds a ruby ring that belonged to Fiona’s mother, whom she went to school with, and decides to keep it for herself. Suddenly, on the radar, the mysterious question mark appears again. Olaf clearly knows what it is, as he orders everyone to battle stations to get away from it. He tells Carmelita not to tap dance so that the octopus submarine will not show up on “their sonar” Fiona, knowing that she is wrong, allows the Baudelaires free access to the Queequeg to escape. But she cannot go with them, out of loyalty to her brother. Before she rejoins Olaf, however, she kisses Klaus. Violet powers up the Queequeg, as Klaus navigates her out of the Carmelita. Sunny, using the chewing gum Phil brought with him from Paltryville repairs a porthole Olaf broke, and the Queequeg is freed from Olaf’s clutches.

As the Queequeg escapes, Lemony Snicket himself provides a few more questions: he states that Fiona was right in her suspicions that her mother did not die in a manatee incident. He states that Widdershins believed a certain article in the Daily Punctilio that was false, which he showed to the Baudelaire parents, the Snicket family, and Beatrice – which was possibly the reason Beatrice refused to marry Snicket himself. He explains that, in the darkness, the Baudelaires could scarcely see the giant monster, which was shaped like a long eyebrow, and which vanished back into the depths of the sea as quickly as it appeared. The children sit and eat Violet’s cake as the long Monday night passes. When Tuesday comes, they find themselves at Briny Beach – back where all of their troubles began. Surprisingly, from the fog, comes Mr. Poe. He received a message from J.S. – whom he naïvely assumes is The Daily Punctilio reporter Geraldine Julienne – that he had to meet them at the beach. He tells the children to come with him to the police station to resolve all of their troubles.

Violet, however, has decoded the Eliot message, which states: “violet” “taxi” “waiting” and has concluded that a taxi will be at the beach for them. The children say goodbye to the startled Mr. Poe and walk up the beach where they find the waiting taxi. Inside is a woman they have never seen before. Even though the children remember being instructed not to get into cars with strangers, they decide that taxi cab drivers are different – and as the car starts off, the driver introduces herself as Kit Snicket, and begins driving them to the Hotel Denouement.

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