Neil Gaiman: Coraline (2002)

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I’m slowly reading all of Neil Gaiman’s novels. I just love the way he combines the familiar with the uncanny and Coraline, a deliciously creepy tale, is one of the best examples of this ability. I often think I already know a Neil Gaiman story or novel when I begin reading it, but then, all of sudden, half-way in, he twists the story and what seemed like something I’ve read before turns into a new and highly original tale.

Reading Coraline reminded me of the discovery of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ book and it also reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Only the land that Coraline explores isn’t a wonderland, it’s dark, creepy territory.

Coraline is a small girl who has moved into a new apartment with her parents. The apartment is in a big, old house, surrounded by a vast garden. In the apartment below Coraline’s live two former actresses, in the apartment above, an old man who pretends to have a mouse circus.

Coraline is bored. The family moved in during the school holidays and Coraline has no friends in the new neighbourhood yet. Her parents are kind but always busy and distracted. At times it seems they wouldn’t even notice if Coraline was gone.

Then Coraline discovers the door and through that door she enters a reversed world. It’s the same apartment house, the same people live in it. Only things seem more beautiful at first. There are doubles of her parents and they are much more attentive. There’s a black cat that can speak. It’s the same black cat Coraline saw in her own world, only there it wasn’t able to talk.

When Coraline notices that the eyes of the other mother and father are made of buttons, and when she realizes that the other mother wants her to stay, she knows this world is a sinister place.

Will she be able to return to her own world? Will the black cat help her? And what about those ghost children? Will Coraline be able to free them?

What I loved best about Coraline, is how it got darker and darker towards the end. At first it seems a simple tale of a lonely girl finding another, better world that looks almost identical to her own, but then, slowly, she discovers more and more unsettling elements— rats who carry keys, snow globes with little people in it, button eyes, dead children and a lot more. The best element comes towards the end. Unfortunately I can’t write about it, or I would spoil the fun of reading it for the first time.

There is one thing that bothered me though. I’m not fond of black cats in fantasy novels, especially not when they have a few negative traits. This one is a helper but it has a lot of creepy characteristics too. There are too many countries that are superstitious of black cats, and, as long as this is the case, I find the use of black cats highly problematic. Halloween is upcoming, and, like every year – it’s a terrible time in many places for black cats. I would have wished he’d not used a black cat.

I wrote at the beginning that Gaiman combines familiar and unfamiliar elements. He uses stories we all know, but he also combines realistic descriptions of everyday life with fantastical elements. Coraline’s boredom, the way her parents treat her —kindly but without fully acknowledging her — is done very realistically.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but now, with the weather turning more autumnal, I feel like watching it soon.


52 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman: Coraline (2002)

  1. I actually really love black cats, so I do know what you mean – they have a bad enough reputation as it is. Luckily, not here in France – they seem to be the first ones to get adopted at cat shelters…
    I’ve been thinking of reading my way through all of Gaiman’s works too, as I never did it in any systematic way and there are lots I’ve missed out. Let me know how you get along.

    • I got both my black cats from a Fench shelter and they had two whole houses filled with blakc cats because nobody wanted them. Isn’t that strange? Maybe it depends on the region? I live on the border to Alsace.
      I love other cats as well but I do think they are particularly beautiful. Those eyes in the glossy fur.
      I’ve missed a lot of his books. I liked everything I’ve read with a very few exceptions. He’s written the one or the other short story I didn’t like.

      • I read a study that showed that black animals are the ones that are hardest to place. Dogs and cats. Say you have a litter of kittens: gray, calico, orange and black. People will chose the other colours before the black one.

        • There was this advert once – I can’t remember about what – and there were hundreds of cats – but no black cats. You’ll also hardly ever find a blakc cat on cat magazine or most other “cute” cat pictures.
          I didn’t know about other animals. It’s so wrong.

  2. Hi, Caroline. My nephew has been after me to read this book for ages, and it was only when he apparently outgrew it himself that he stopped. Now, it’s my turn. I do agree with you about the black cats, however; cats in general are the “good guys” in my opinion, and black cats are often gentler and more affectionate than others. I base this on my brother’s adoption of two different black cats in a row, both of which mysteriously turned up in his basement, and apparently came from a family just down the road. But they didn’t want their roaming kittens back, so he got to keep them. And of course, I salute your very own black cat whose picture is up on your site; how’s he doing these days?

    • Oh – he’s doing very well. He’s the cutes thing. Right now he’s sitting on his back legs, trying to get a little toy that’s dangling from a chair. My second cat – a female – who is also blakc is a bit on the vicious side. Can’t blame her though, she’s been through a lot.
      Neil Gaiman is British and as far as I know in the UK – and Canada? – black cats are seen as bringing luck.
      Not so in France. I’ve had another balck cat before but he was very kind as well.

  3. I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane a few months ago and really enjoyed it. I’m going to read Coraline too sooner or later. The film version of the book never had any appeal but then someone showed me a trailer for it recently and it looked really interesting.

    • I’m surprsied to hear you’ve read The Ocean … I can’t remember a review? I’m going to read that soon as well.
      The end of Coraline is creepy. I really enjoedy that. I also thought i might not like the movie but I saw the trailer and found it looked good. Now that I’ve read the book, I’ll watch it.

  4. Wonderful review, Caroline! ‘Coraline’ was the first Gaiman book that I read, but I didn’t read the full version but read the graphic novel version. It had most of the important lines from the book and so I opted to read it. It was quite good. Glad to know that you liked it so much. I haven’t watched the movie version yet, but I have the DVD. I remember it came out in 3D and I got 3D glasses alongwith the DVD 🙂 I remember having a discussion on the movie with one of my friends who is a Gaiman fan and she told me that it is not a regular kind of animation movie but was made in a unique way with novel techniques. I hope to watch it someday. Hope you enjoy the movie.

    It was fascinating to read your thoughts on black cats and others’ comments on them. I think in many countries they are regarded as inauspicious. Of course, that is unfortunate and superstitious. Here in my place when my parents were young, it was regarded as bad luck if a black cat crossed your path when you were going out. People who believed in it used to go back home and have three glasses of water before trying to go out again. It sounds silly to me, but people used to do that. I love cats of all types and black cats are fascinating in their own way. Your cat is, of course, very handsome 🙂 My favourite kind of cat though is one which has black fur with white patches or one which is striped – I love those tigerish stripes.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      I wonder what the movie’s like in 3D. I found the imagery pretty strong in the book and I’m really curious to see how they did some things in the movie.
      In Germany it’s considered bad luck when a black cat crosses your path on Friday the 13th.
      You would like my cat even more if you saw him up close. 🙂 He is striped, black on dark brown and has a small white patch on his breast. I’ve never seen a black cat with stripes like that before. You can only see it when he’s lying in the sun. She is far darker. And no stripes.

  5. I loved the movie they made of this. I’m really picky about films, but this is one I can watch over and over. I’m curious to know how different/similar the book is to it! And I have to confess I’ve yet to actually read Neil Gaiman – though I’ll get there in the end!

    • That’s wonderful to know. I’m sure I will like it too.
      I think his latest novel sounds like a good starting point but so are some of the others. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts once you’ll get to him.

  6. I bought the book for my daughter as for a while Coraline was her favourite film and she watched it endlessly, actually she watched the making of it as many times as she watched the film itself. I decided to get the book as I was fascinated by what she was interested in and back then I wasn’t that aware of Neil Gaiman, but the combination of Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton is just the kind of genre she likes.

    • I like watching making ofs as well.
      I’m a huge Tim Burton fan. I just don’t think I’ll ever like an animated movie more than Nightmare before Christmas. But we’ll see. I don’t think he directed Coraline, though.

  7. I’m probably the only book blogger who has never read Gaimain. Tsk Tsk! I hope you enjoy the movie, too.

    Last year, around Halloween, one of the big animal shelters in Perth had a half price adoption fee for black cats because they said black cats are 50% less likely to be adopted because of the association with bad luck. Superstition is never a good look. :/

    • Make that two book bloggers who have not read Gaiman. I want to read him however.

      It is very true what everyone is saying about black cats. Sometimes I think that this would be a better world if the cats just replaced the people.

  8. I loved the book when I read it, and the film is pretty awesome too. It manages to really create that atmosphere of familiar but oh-so-strange you mention with regard to the book.

    I think black cats are probably regarded as the quintessential witch’s cat, so in a way it fitted to have the cat be black, and yet flipping that cliche he helped rather than worked with the “witch”.

    • I need to watch the movie soon. I really think that’s what makes him so special – that he manages to turn the stories aroun d when we don’t expect it.
      His black cat isn’t a stereotypical cat but after I’ve seen those shelters in France, with only black cats, I’m quite touchy.

  9. It’s not really my genre, but I loved The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Didn’t know there was a movie version of Coraline, but I’m probably going to read the book first.

    I had a black cat when I was a child and loved her to bits. In the U.S. It is considered bad luck when a black cat crosses your path. Supposedly, during the Salem Witch Trials people believed that witches transformed themselves into black cats.
    Not sure if or when this silly superstition will go away. It is true that black cats and dogs are adopted last, sadly.

    • I think Neil Gaiman is a writer who appeals even if you don’t exactly love fantasy.
      That’s exactly why I wasn’t too happy about his choice of a black cat. Our society isn’t ready yet. And when you look at the cat in the film version – it looks scary.

    • I agree, it’s so creepy. I have a thing with dolls anyway – many people do – I just find them unsettling. No wonder they are often used in horror movies. Gaiman’s use is very subtle though.

  10. Great review! I haven’t read it yet but would love to one day. As for the animation, do watch it! It’s on my top-5 best animation I have ever seen…and the only English speaking animation in that list of mine

  11. I read an interview with Gaiman where he said the impetus for Coraline was a visit to a bookstore looking for horror stories for young children and they didn’t have any! I thought movie was very well done, somewhat different than the book, but just as creepy.

    American Gods was pretty good, especially in the scenes taking place in the Midwest, a nice mix of traditional themes and modern life.

    • True. There are a lot of ghost stories for children but not horror and those few I know are for older children and a bit gory. This is creepy but not gory.
      American Ghost is one I’m always keeping for later. I’m looking foward to read it.

  12. I have read very little of Gaiman’s work, but I do love this story. I have read it once, listened to the audio twice (Gaiman reads and unsurprisingly he reads it perfectly!) and I have seen the film, which I thought was really good, too. It is a story I can go back to again and again as you see…. I suppose I should try some of his other work, too?!

    • If you loved this so much, there’s afair chnace you’ll like a lot of what he writes. His October in the Chair is one of my favourite ghost stories. But I loved Neverwehere and The Graveyard Book is neat as well.

  13. Hi. On your recommendation, finally got around to reading “Coraline.” It was a pleasant read, and I was favorably impressed that the black cat was a pal and had transworld abilities. I guess in some respects, however, it seemed to me lightweight. By this I mean that it had no real world view. When you think of Narnia, you think of Christian propaganda worldview, however much you like the series as fiction. When you think of Harry Potter, you think of a liberal moral world view sketched out in the humanism of wizarding. When you think of “The Hobbit,” you think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “vanishing gentry folk of England” world view. Do you see what I mean? Of course, “Coraline” is a shorter work, and is what it is, so maybe I’m asking too much. But even though I found it totally likeable, I wanted something which it didn’t supply. Maybe I brought the wrong expectations to the work, or maybe all the previous publicity I had seen ruined it for me.

    • This is a very interesting comment and has actually clarfied something for me.
      The other day I read and reviewed Skellig and called it a timeless classic. I even comraed it to The Little Prince. As much as I liked Coraline because of its creepiness I’d never call it a timeless classic and now you put into words, why. Skellig is a very spiritual book. Coraline is fun and certainly contributes to gender equality in children’s books (always good to have a strong female character) but it doesn’t provide any deeper meaning, as you correctly pointed out. I don’t think that has anything to do with the length of the book. As Skellig isn’t any longer and The Little Prince is even shorter.

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