Coraline is a YA fantasy-horror novel. And it is very good.
Coraline follows a few days in the life of Coraline Jones, who has recently moved with her parents to an old house which has been partitioned into a number of apartments, occupied by a few oddball characters. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible are a pair of elderly stage retirees who foretell danger in Coraline’s future. Mr. Bobinsky (whose name Coraline doesn’t learn until the end of the novel) lives upstairs and trains a circus of mice. Through Bobinsky the mice warn Coraline as well. Bored and without playmates, Coraline discovers a door and a key. Through the locked door Coraline discovers a mirror world where her parents are no longer too busy to dote on her. In fact, her “Other Mother” wants nothing more than to have Coraline stay forever. All she needs to do is let the Other Mother sew buttons in (over?) her eyes.
The novel is genuinely creepy, something that can’t be said for many novels nowadays. Gaiman does not have to resort to gore, or even much violence to achieve a growing sense of disquiet. In fact, with a few noticeable exceptions, Coraline is rarely frightened by events in the novel – even when chased by malformed creatures and a maternal figure which permeates the very fabric of the world that Coraline finds herself trapped in.
To my mind, one of the most interesting parts of the story is one of the least commented-upon. Just for fair warning, there are a few spoilers ahead. Coraline meets the ghosts of three children who were drained and forgotten by the Other Mother. One is a young boy, another is a young boy. However, Coraline is certain that the third has wings, suggesting that the Other Mother, the beldame, hasn’t always just fed on humans, but has fed on fairies as well. The suggestion here is that the Other Mother is not just otherworldly and predatory, but is so otherworldly and predatory that she has captured and outsmarted a creature which, in a number of folk and fairy tales, outsmart and hunt humans. It isn’t a huge detail, but it is one of those little facets which adds an extra layer to the story for those who know what they’re looking for.
There is a film version by Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame, which is a bit different from the novel, and not nearly as creepy, but which is still good in its own right. Dave McKean, a longtime collaborator with Gaiman, provided the illustrations for the novel, and in my opinion, they are far more eerie and unnerving than Selick’s (still quite captivating) art direction.
The story has garnered a number of comparisons to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and while Coraline is much less off-the-wall crazy than Carroll’s novel, it is my opinion that Gaiman’s is the better book. And this is coming from someone who likes the books (though, in all fairness, I should admit that I never cared for Alice as a child).
Coraline is an excellent book: children, enjoy an excellent books. Parents: swallow your hesitation and let your children read a genuinely unsettling horror story – a horror story that doesn’t need to rely on violence, gore, obscenities or any of the other potentially objectionable qualities now synonymous with horror. Rather, let them read one of the few horror novels in recent memory which succeeds because its excellently writing creates a genuine sense of unease, which young Coraline Jones must either face, or flee forever.