“I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”
Basically: Coraline moves into a new house and is surprised to find a passage into another identical house which is ruled by the button-eyed Other Mother. Neil Gaiman’s classic tale is a creepier version of Alice in Wonderland.
If you think we’re ashamed of admitting that a children’s book gave us the creepy-crawlies, then you’re wrong. Coraline takes many horror elements and dials it down for a childish audience, but it doesn’t stop it from sending a shiver or three down our spines.
Young Coraline moves into a new flat with her very busy mother and father. Despite her intriguing neighbors–a man who trains mice to be circus performers, two older ladies with a vast collection of ageing Scottie dogs–Coraline is bored and soon finds herself crawling through a passage into an identical house, complete with its own version of her mother and father. The only difference is, this Other Mother has buttons for eyes and when she makes Coraline an offer, the little girl is not so sure it’s a good idea…
Not your average children’s book, Coraline is more traditional gothic than happily-ever-after. Throughout her interactions with the Other Mother, also called the beldame, we can’t help feeling anxious for our plucky protagonist. Sure, this Other world is a lot more fun for her–she gets everything she wants and never has to beg for attention from her Other Mother, unlike her real mother–but there’s something sinister lurking under the surface. Because it’s such a short book (about 160 pages), we find ourselves racing along beside Coraline as she tries to outwit the Other Mother and keep her own normal human eyes.
With elements of the Addams family (a disembodied hand) and Alice in Wonderland (a talking cat who is both mysterious and helpful), Coraline is a book for all ages. Its creepy factor probably works best on its middle grade audience, but Gaiman’s lyrical prose is haunting, regardless of age, and the book is a fantastic stepping stone into the rest of his works, offering the same character-driven plots and fantastical worlds found in his “adult” fare.
In the end: Read it! While the existing stop-motion movie (directed by Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame) is a visual treat, Neil Gaiman’s carefully chosen words will have you giving every stray button a suspicious side-eye long after you read the last page.