When the previews and movie posters started turning up for the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel, Coraline, I let the wife know that she would not be allowed to accompany The Littlest Critic and I to see the movie unless she read the book herself. We had read the book maybe two or three months prior to the advertisements’ appearance and we were kind of excited. The few previews I’d seen worried me a little as they seemed sillier than the book which has a chilling quality to it*. To be quite frank, I’d read the novel once through by myself, then thought, Well, it’s pretty damn scary, but I think TLC will like it anyway.
And she did.
We read the first eighty pages of the novel in about three or four nights. We read the novel’s second eighty pages in one.
TLC has this tendency, when we’re reading stories to her, The Wife and I, to squirm. Actually, she squirms all the time. When she goes on the computer to play her games, when she watches cartoons, when she’s in her car seat. Hell, when she creeps into our bed in the middle of the night, all she does for the remainder of the night is roll about, kicking me in the stomach, flopping her arms onto my face, and generally trying to sleep perpendicular to her parents.
But she was almost rock still through parts of this novel. She listened with the keenest of attention. Were I to have photographed the moment and sent the picture off to the author, I’d have made his year just letting him see how involved in the world he’d created she had become. There was only one real chapter where she became active, moving around the bed and interrupting me and tugging on my arm, and that was a rather disturbing chapter that takes place in a cellar in the novel. In fact, being a part of the second half eighty pages, it was right after this chapter that I broke off reading and got a drink. TLC encouraged/pleaded me to “come back to bed and read some more, that chapter made me all shivery.”
What is remarkable, then, about Coraline is how engaging it is across ages. I myself found the cellar chapter the creepiest part of the book, but in the past few days while listening to The Wife read the novel, I keep on returning to the book's coda, a quote from writer G.K. Chesterson: "Fairy tales are more than true -- not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten."
(Internet sources now tell me that that is a paraphrase of a conversation or something along those lines and the precise wording may, in fact, originate with Gaiman. And despite my best googling efforts, I can't, in fact, disprove those sources.)
Nevertheless, Coraline is indeed about the dispelling of dragons. There is a part near the novel's beginning when Coraline tells a story to a cat about how once, when she and her father were out hiking, they stumbled across a yellow wasps’ nest. Her father told her to run, and he stood there getting stung while she ran to safety and once she was far enough away he ran after her. Later that day, her father has to go back and retrieve his glasses which had fallen as he ran. For Coraline, the two actions of her father are different. The first, as brave as it sounds, isn’t really, because it’s a situation where you have little choice. It’s what a parent should do, and as dull as Coraline finds her parents, they are good parents at any rate. It is her father’s second act, the going back when he knows there’s a strong chance of being hurt, but going back anyway, that defines real bravery.
It is the going back part of the story that really gets the plot moving. An elementary aged girl, maybe ten or so, bored in her flat over school break, goes exploring. She does so, on the advice of her father, one of two work-from-home parents who don’t have the time to spend entertaining their daughter. One of her father’s suggestions, count various items in the flat, leads Coraline to discover a locked door in the apartment that only leads to a brick wall.
Not that anything should ever be so easy. Later, when the door ends up ajar, what was once a brick wall has become a long, dark path. On the other end? A mirror of Coraline and her parent’s home, replete with someone calling herself Coraline’s “Other Mother.” All the various persons living in Coraline’s real apartment building – two spinster actresses living together, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, and the crazy old man living upstairs who trains mice for a circus – all find their slightly more interesting and slightly more sinister counterparts in this new mirror world. And each one of them, each down to the last, has buttons for eyes.
At first, though, things seem preferable to her own home, where she’s regularly ignored, but the kind of attentiveness, the creepiness of this new world rapidly becomes apparent to our heroine, most dramatically portrayed in the scene where the “Other Mother” tells Coraline she can stay with her and the “Other Father” and the rest, have all the fun she wants, as long as she lets the “Other Mother” replace her eyes with buttons.
It is, obviously, a trap, and Coraline is wise enough to escape the first time, but the "Other Mother" manages to somehow ensnare both Coraline's real mother and father into her mirror world. This is the going back. Coraline knows that she must be brave and go back through the door if she is to save her parents. And, in going back, she finds the ghostly souls of other children the "Other Mother" has trapped once before.
Gaiman’s prose is deceptively simple throughout the novel. The Wife has been reading it out loud as TLC’s chapter book of the night and she’s found that slight British phrasing differences, and Gaiman’s choice of language, has made the book slightly jarring for her to read. Yet within this limited palette choice, Gaiman manages to wring quite a bit of horror from his story. Better yet, nowhere does the author feel he has to explain things or give away all of the secrets. The “Other Mother” exists. Where she comes from, where she goes, what she is, all of this is left to the reader’s imagination.
It’s kind of the author’s gift to the readers; he never once denies us our part in enjoying and engaging with the story. We are never just a faceless audience to which Gaiman is pitching some fanciful novel, but are more like kids around a campfire, eagerly taking in every twist and turn of the plot, almost, but not quite, active participants in the storytelling process.
I have wracked my brains through the three (more or less) readings of this novel to find a flaw somewhere, a bit to glom onto as a critic and not just as a lover of the novel, but I’ve been stumped at every turn. Coraline runs like a finely tuned machine, without a hitch, leaving just as much as you can take unresolved, putting the responsibility on you to fill in the blanks where totally necessary. Gaiman clearly knows the single most important lesson of horror fiction: the reader’s imagination will always make the monster worse than you could. Thus, he leaves enough up to us to make this book truly a shivery experience.