When young Coraline Jones finds a mysterious passageway in her family’s home, she crawls into a world exactly like her own – only better. Here, nobody says her name wrong (“It’s Coraline, not Caroline”), the toys are marvelous, her bedroom is delightfully pink and green, and the food is actually edible (unlike her father’s “recipes”).
But of course, there’s a catch.
Her parents in this alternate world look exactly like her real parents, but with shiny black button eyes and ghastly paper-white skin and a fervent desire to keep Coraline on their side of the door. Coraline can have everything she’s ever wanted – so long as she’s willing to allow her own eyes to be replaced with buttons.
Did I mention this couple is just a tad bit creepy?
Clearly, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline isn’t your typical Disneyfied fairy tale. It’s dark, whimsical, sinister, smart, and funny – frequently all at once. You will recall it was Lewis who once said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” If this is true (as I believe it is), then Coraline is a very good children’s story indeed.
I haven’t read any of his other novels, but judging from this one, Gaiman is a firm believer in the “short and sweet” method of writing. His style is spare yet colorful, fraught with crisp dialogue and fantastically bizarre images that flicker out of the gloom like candles in a haunted house. It is precisely this restraint that keeps the story from becoming overly dreary or morbid, while still maintaining a keenly creepy edge.
Like all the best fairy tales, this one isn’t without a moral or two tucked slyly up its sleeve. Be careful what you wish for is one; be thankful for what you have, however imperfect it may be is another.
The world on the other side of the door looks like a lot more fun than the one on this side; but like a child’s version of the Matrix, its “betterness” is merely illusory. When the curtain is pulled back, and the masks come off, we see monsters have been running the show all along.
Coraline sighed. “You really don’t understand, do you?” she said. “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?”
It seems getting everything you want can be an exceedingly ugly business after all. Who’d’ve thought?