Some children’s books may be scarier if you read them when you’re older. Children seem to be able to take almost any terrible circumstance as a given, especially in stories. I myself had a little more trouble accepting pale, swollen monsters that sniff around for a little girl who is trapped in a cellar, than I would have when I was little. At 25, I’m pretty much an adult, have just read my first book by Neil Gaiman and was thoroughly scared by it. Gaiman wrote the story for his own little daughters, who loved scary stories and brave girls. He thought about the houses that he had known well in his life and used them to build a children’s horror adventure with the bravest, most charming heroine that you can think of.
Coraline is a little girl and an explorer. She has just moved into a flat in an old mansion, and has started to investigate the grounds around it. She has all the time in the world to do it: it’s the summer vacation and her parents are busy with work. They hardly pay any attention to her. Coraline talks to her neighbours sometimes, but mostly she thinks grownups are a bit useless. They can’t even say her name correctly. On a very, very rainy day when she can’t go outside, she resorts to exploring her own flat. One of the doors, she discovers, opens unto a brick wall. It’s not locked, because is doesn’t lead anywhere. The next day, the eccentric old ladies that live in the flat under Coraline’s read her tealeaves, and tell her she’s in danger. The crazy old man who lives in the attic flat tells Coraline that the mice he claims to train told him to give her a message: ‘don’t go through the door’. Coraline thinks nothing of it.
The next time she opens the door with the brick wall behind it, the wall has gone. Instead, she finds a corridor that leads to a flat almost exactly like her own home, with people in it that look almost exactly like her parents. Except, they have black buttons in their faces instead of eyes and they pay a lot more attention to Coraline. The girl likes this new place: it has great food, singing rats, dancing neighbours and smiling parents, even if they act a bit strange. It is like a dream. But when her ‘other mother’ invites her to stay in her ‘other home’ forever, Coraline declines. She misses her true parents. Only when she returns to her real flat and discovers that her parents have disappeared, she realises just how determined the ‘other mother’ is to have her live with her. Scared as she is, she knows that she’s the only one who can save her parents, and she has to go back. Horrific discoveries expose the other house for what it really is: a nightmare of trickery and decay, with a hungry, capricious monster in its centre.
Now, I have a particular thing thing about eyes. Maybe it’s because I’m practically blind without my contact lenses or because people can say so much with their eyes, but I hate it when things happen to or with eyes. Characters who are supposed to be dead or sleeping, but suddenly open their eyes are a worse jumpscare for me than ghosts jumping out of corners. So you can imagine that I did not like characters with buttons for eyes, especially not when the ‘other mother’ casually suggests that Coraline will need to have buttons sewn unto her face as well. The drawings that the wonderful illustrator Chris Riddell made for the tenth anniversary of the book further convinced me that those buttons are scarier than any gore or fangs. Exhibit A:
Neil Gaiman creates a great sense of atmosphere and surroundings. He writes in the introduction to the book that he based the mansion in the story on different houses he lived in during his life. Everything started with the house he saw in his mind and that’s noticable in the book: throughout Coraline’s adventure you can feel the old house around you, with its corridors and cupboards and stairs. Together with details like crawling toys and dogs who eat chocolate this house makes up the sinister world on the other side of the door. At the same time it’s also the stage for the part of the story that plays in our real world on this side of the door, the mundane world with microwave pizza and parents who work on their computers. Somehow, it works both ways, and I think that is because the two worlds aren’t completely separated. Coraline’s real parents are abducted from one world to another, rats from the other side creep around at night in the drawing room on this side of the door and a black cat can come and go as he pleases.
The only thing I didn’t like much was the double ending to the story. After the natural climax of the story, another problem arises and instead of winding down, Coraline has to spring to action again. It felt a little unnecessary to me, I would have been happy with things as they were after the first ‘ending’. However, it was nice to see how inventive Coraline was once again when she resolved the final problem. “What an extraordinary child,” a neighbour says about her, and she is quite right.
I loved how realistic Coraline is as a young girl. The way she acts demonstrate a peculiar childlike kind of logic, even before anything mysterious happens. For example: she is disgusted when her father makes a ‘recipe’ for dinner instead of a normal meal, she searches for the dangerous well in the grounds “so that she knew where it was, to keep away from it properly,” and she tries to draw the attention of her dad by wandering into his study several times. Later on in the stry, she is clever enough to understand the very real danger she is in, but brave enough to keep searching for her parents. Her view of the world is matter-of-fact, even in the face of inexplicable situations, with a hint of cynicism that all too intelligent children can sometimes have. She handles her problems much better than most grownups would, I think. But in the end, she is just a child who wants to be picked up and hugged by her mum and dad. And pizza.
Rihanna Award for an acute sense of Disturbia
Neil Gaiman, Coraline (London, 2002)