A short post on a short book!
What is it about talented, bizarre writers that drives them towards children's literature? Roald Dahl is famous for his schizophrenic canon of creepily disturbing adult stories and his better-known children's fables. More recently, George Saunders, that master of strangely affecting satirical pieces, put out a warmly illustrated book that combines his incredibly ear for real human voice with a tale for tots. And the trend is continuing for Neil Gaiman, who I first encountered because of his books about Armageddon, Hell, religious pantheons, nightmare creatures who eat eyeballs, and the like... and, it turns out, has produced not just one but a whole parcel of stories for young readers.
"Coraline" is technically a Young Adults book, not a children's book, so Gaiman can indulge a bit more in his macabre tendencies.
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Probably the most striking of these is the detail of buttons. In the other world that Coraline discovers, her family's doppelgangers all have buttons sewn on where their eyes would be. Creepy, huh? The mother threatens to do the same to Coraline, in one of those great cringe-inducing scenes. It doesn't stop there... you get to meet vicious rats (who sing in a menacing verse) living under the clothing of the man upstairs; dogs who morph into bats; a sticky cocoon surrounding two aged women with a sticky goo, through which Coraline must claw with her bare hands; and let's not forget the skittering menace that haunts the heroine during the book's final pages.
The story seems to be pure Gaiman. His other works have really all been fairy tales for adults, so it isn't exactly a stretch to do a fairy tale for a younger set. It follows the classic English model: it starts in a well-grounded location that is utterly ordinary or boring, then the protagonist sees some evidence of a hidden, fantastic world, and eventually follows that evidence to enter the other world, experiencing great adventures that help them grow before eventually returning home. Writ large, it's the same plot as the Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, G. K. Chesterton, E. Nesbitt... pick your Brit. Gaiman is following a grand tradition, and certainly holding up his legacy.
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A side note: books like this make me grateful for the library's requests system, where they'll collect books for you. I probably would have felt a little weird wandering into a Young Adults section to grab this book, but am very glad to have read it... it's good literature, and should be available to everyone.
I still need to check out the movie (in 3D!), but from the little I've read so far, it sounds like they've nailed it pretty well. It's great to see such a delightful and strange work achieve success on its own terms. Who knows, maybe one of these days we'll see the Corinthian on the silver screen