Neil Gaiman has scored a hit in just about every writing career he’s attempted so far. Probably still best known for his award winning 75 issue run on the comic book, Sandman, Gaiman was also very successful with his recent dark fantasy novel, American Gods and branched out still further in 2002 with Coraline, his first young adult chapter book. Lately, he’s stirring up the world of Marvel Comics, writing a series which portrays their characters as they might have been in the 17th century.
There was an earlier children’s picture book called The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish, in which Gaiman was first reunited with Dave McKean, who had earlier done the covers for the Sandman comics. They have since produced The Wolves in the Walls, another picture book.
Coraline won a slew of awards before it ever got to its paperback edition, finishing its run by picking up the Hugo Novella Award for 2003 at the World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto last fall.
The obvious inspiration for the story is the second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass. Coraline is a little out of the ordinary to begin with. Take her name, for instance, Everyone gets it wrong - Caroline - except her parents, who are so preoccupied with their own busy lives that they might as well make the same mistake.
That leaves Coraline rattling around in the part of the big old house that they owned. The ground floor flat has Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, who were once-famous actresses. “The man upstairs” is very secretively training a mouse circus. There is also a cat, and if the Alice connection weren’t clear enough, this black cat sometimes talks.
Alice had a mirror, and ended up in a place where none of the normal rules of reality worked. One of the unrealities was a beast called the Jabberwock, which was killed by a young knight who stood awhile in “uffish thought” (so now you know where that comes from) just before he whacked its head off with his “vorpal blade” (there’s another catchy title for an opinion column).
Coraline, on the other hand, has a door in the drawing room (short for “withdrawing room”, which may be a hint) which sometimes opens and sometimes doesn’t. It opens onto another version of the real world, one that looks like it was created by an artist whose attention faded the farther she got from the house. Parts of the place are better than real, but most of it is cartoonish and sketchy. Down that spooky corridor between realities is the domain of the “other mother”, whose eyes are buttons and whose teeth are way too sharp.
Somehow, when Coraline opened the door, she allowed the evil to get into the real world, though that isn't clear to her for several days. At first she explores the other house, and finds that it is peopled by perverted versions of the inhabitants in her real home, who do odd things that sort of relate to their real life counterparts. Oh, and the black cat talks in this world.
Back home, it seems that Coraline’s parents have finally become so self-absorbed that they’ve forgotten to come home and left her alone overnight. It is the cat, who does not talk in the real world, but probably could if it felt like it, which shows her where they have got to. “Help us” they write from behind a mirror at the end of another hallway. Only they write it backwards.
The “other mother” wants Coraline to join her other children, which can’t be a good thing, and she has somehow made off with Coraline’s real parents to force her into the bargain.. Like the White Queen in Looking Glass Land, the “other mother” just won’t take no for an answer. Coraline has to find the other children, whose essences are trapped in objects in the house, find her parents, who are also trapped there, and find a way to deal permanently with the “other mother”.
And she does. I’ve told you enough.
Gaiman has used a quotation from G.K. Chesterton to introduce his story. It seems apt here. While Gaiman often has bad things happening in his stories, he usually seems to keep this idea in mind.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons
exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”