My first encounter with Coraline was with the movie, an unusual occurrence for me — usually the reverse is true. I thought it was atmospheric, quirky, a teensy-bit scary (even for me, a-totally-fully-grown-and-not-at-all-afraid-of-disembodied-hands adult), and creative. Then, of course, I had to read the Neil Gaiman’s book. Which was, in my opinion, even creepier. There’s this lingering doom which seems to permeate the pages of the novel. I think this is helped by the Harper-Perennial trade paperback edition I have, the all-black one with the swirling white filigree on the cover, bracketing the title. Gorgeous and Gothic, it definitely sets a mood — not to mention it’s jam-packed full of Dave McKean illustrations, with their ominous blacks and greys.
Coraline is, however, a “challenged” book: challenged because of its scarier themes and because some consider it inappropriate for the age group it’s intended for (the age of its title heroine, Coraline, which is never clearly stated in the book but seems to be between 10 and 13, if we can judge by the movie at all). There’s no doubting that the story dwells in the uncanny, in particular the only slightly-off, which can become frightening because of its otherwise intense familiarity. The central premise of the book is that Coraline finds a doorway into a parallel world where her “Other Mother” dwells — a woman who looks and sounds just like her real-world mom, but gives Coraline everything she thinks she wants. The plot seems simple and comes down to a choice: will Coraline stay in the colorful, beautiful Other World with her Other family? Or will she return home to her dull, drab life? The simplicity is deceiving, preparing us for one kind of story and sneaking in another: one about bravery, and choice, and love.
One of the most frightening scenes from the book comes about three-quarters of the way through. Coraline has taken it upon herself to retrieve her parents from the clutches of the Other World, and is attempting to collect their souls as well as the souls of others lost to the Other Mother. She has used a key given to her by the Other Mother, and has entered the spare room that had captured her attention in the beginning of the story. She finds a trap door and descends into a cellar. The imagery as she progresses is fiercely suspenseful, so much so that I can fully understand why children and adults would find it terrifying, hinting at the out-of-place, the not-quite right:
Set into the wall at the bottom of the steps was another light switch, metal and rusting. She pushed it until it clicked down, and a naked bulb hanging from a wire from the low ceiling came on. It did not give up enough light even for Coraline to make out the things that had been painted onto the flaking cellar walls.”
Far from existing merely to shock, the scariness in Coraline is used to illuminate the nature of the world in which Coraline finds herself. It’s beautiful on the outside, but it has no soul — it’s made up of nothing more than the dark wishes of the Other Mother’s heart. It’s a construct, and the fear instilled in the reader is meant to clarify this.
Gaiman himself is a huge proponent of not restricting what readers are allowed enjoy, literature-wise: “people tend to find books when they are ready for them.” I love that Gaiman doesn’t make the distinction between children and adults here. My own experience with Coraline was as an adult, but there were plenty of “age-inappropriate” titles I stumbled upon as a kid, and they either resonated in some way or they completely did not. In the former cases, I learned things and grew; in the latter cases, I was none the worse for wear. It really speaks to the universal acceptance of books as powerful, transformative objects that so many fear their influence.