Coraline: A dark and creepy fairytale

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Like many, I watched the brilliant stop-motion filmic adaptation of Coraline before reading Neil Gaiman‘s original story, and as such, it was interesting to see the deviations between the book and film. Much like Stardust, another Gaiman book that was given the big-screen treatment, Coraline is a truly wonderful example of a story of such imaginative potency that any filmic adaptation only enhances and enriches it.

Gaiman is consistently good at two things: drawing upon ancient folklore in which to shape his tales, and remembering what it was like to be a child. So many of his books (most recently The Ocean at the End of the Lane) have taken the structure and elements of fairytales and filtered them through a child protagonist’s point of view, resulting in stories that tap into our most primal fear and anxieties: darkness, isolation, purgatory and — most pertinently for young readers — the idea that our loving and protective parents aren’t really that loving and protective at all.

Coraline Jones is a little girl of an indeterminate age (I would have placed her at about ten, but at other times she seems much younger) who has moved with her parents into a house so large that the owners let out various portions of it as flats. Coraline has an eclectic collection of neighbours, but no friends and inattentive parents. It is on one particularly rainy (and boring) day that she discovers a door leading into another section of the house. Much like Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Coraline finds herself in a house that reflects her own — except here the food is delicious, the toys are delightful, and her parents focus all their attention solely on her. It’s every child’s dream. But strangely enough, this Other Mother has buttons for eyes — and tells Coraline that she only can stay in her specially-made wonderland if she undergoes the same procedure.

The stakes are raised when Coraline returns to her own world only to find that her parents have disappeared. Now it’s up to her to rescue them and the Other Mother’s previous victims. Armed with a stone with a hole bored through it and a talking cat as her only companion, Coraline challenges the Other Mother to a game — her life for the freedom of her parents and the souls of the lost children. The Other Mother accepts, and the game is on…

In many ways Coraline isn’t an original tale. It draws upon countless fairytales in order to shape its content: a threefold trial, missing parents, an evil “stepmother,” a mirror-world, a talking cat, a series of riddles and a heroine that must rely on cunning and bravery if she’s to overcome the challenges she faces. But Gaiman’s light prose and ability to tap into the nature of childhood makes this a story that simultaneously feels new and deeply familiar — as all the very best stories are.

If you’re like me and you watched the film first, you’ll find that both versions of the story complement each other wonderfully. Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation is the perfect visual medium with which to tell this story, and though some elements such as Coraline’s friend Wybie were added to the film, there are other treats to be found in the story — such as an extended confrontation between Coraline and her Other Father in the basement — that didn’t make it onto the big screen.

Whether it’s suitable for very young children is a call that each parent will have to make, taking into consideration that each child has their own threshold for scary tales. Suffice to say that this is a very dark and creepy book. Gaiman’s imagery and ideas can be disturbing, right down to the glistening dark buttons that all the living creatures of the Other House have for eyes (and apparently fear of buttons is actually a real phobia known as koumpounophobia — I doubt any sufferers will enjoy this book). Coraline’s story is dangerous and suspenseful, and any parents looking for a light bedtime read might want to think twice before cracking open this book. Even the illustrations by Dave McKean are macabre in nature, with angular bodies and distorted faces and shadows that grow out from the walls.

That said, being scared is not necessarily a bad thing. As the preface (a quote from G.K. Chesterton) states: “fairytales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Being frightened and learning to face those fears is a process we all have to go through, and is often best prepared for by reading stories that prove that evils of all kind can be defeated with resilience and fortitude. Coraline is a wonderful heroine and this is a great book.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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  1. I enjoyed the book but haven’t seen the movie. Maybe it’s time.

    • Rebecca /

      It’s time! Watch it for Halloween! (Seriously, it’s one of my favourite movies, and it supplements the book so well, building on the history of the house and the Other Mother’s victims in a way that feels totally in keeping with the book).

  2. Excellent, excellent review. Also, I’m pretty sure kids get more truth from reading about the Other Mother and her button eyes than they do from sweet stories about Sally trying out for the volleyball team.

  3. Sometimes when my little girls are being purposely annoying, I stare at them blankly and tell them I’m the Other Mother. We all get creeped out by this.

  4. Speaking of Halloween, today I’m reading The Graveyard Book.

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