Thursday, September 17, 2015

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

After recently enjoying the collaboratively written Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, we decided to try one of Gaiman’s own books. Coraline was recommended by a commenter on the previous review, and was available at the library, so we picked it up.

One of the first things that struck me is that there is a similar concept in this book to one in The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. In both, a malevolent female character “creates” a world which must borrow from the real world, because the villainess cannot truly create, only copy and distort. Likewise - and because of this - the worlds are incomplete. As one gets further from the center, the details become vague and blurry. In The Wee Free Men, only what you look at directly has detail, but things will gain detail as one concentrates on them. Also, creatures called Dromes can take the thought in one’s mind and build it into a fantasy world with a function like a spider’s web. In Coraline, there is a similar idea. The world that the villainess creates is detailed (but warped) only in the immediate surroundings: Coraline’s flat and the surrounding flats, and the gardens. After that, things quickly dissolve to fog, and even close examination will not bring detail.

I was curious about this, because there seemed to be some significant overlap in ideas. Knowing that Pratchett and Gaiman had collaborated at one point, and apparently were fairly close, seem to give at least an opportunity for inadvertent borrowing or sharing of ideas.

A quick internet search revealed that I was not the only one who picked up on similarities in the plots (although I didn’t find a corresponding comment on the worlds themselves). However, to me, the most interesting find was the fact that Coraline (2002) and The Wee Free Men (2003) were published rather close together, and both postdated Good Omens by some time. In other words, it seems entirely probable that both books were written concurrently, and subsequent to Gaiman and Pratchett’s formal collaboration. I could not find any evidence that they intentionally sat down and discussed their books, but one does have to wonder if some of the ideas were discussed over a few (or more than a few) exotic drinks of some sort. It seems perhaps too coincidental to be accidental.

In any case, on with the review. Coraline, (like Tiffany Aching) finds herself drawn into a fantastic other world, where she must take action to rescue her parents. (Aching must rescue her brother.) Her only ally, and a sarcastic and unhelpful one at that, is the black cat from her own world, who seems to move freely between them. In the other world, he can talk, which may or may not be an improvement.

The villianess is the “Other Mother,” who is a creature of some unknown kind, perhaps fairykind (this is never really explained, despite Coraline’s repeated request for this information), who wishes to have Coraline for her own. Is this love? Or maybe hunger? The cat seems to think it is both. Coraline would be both loved and devoured - a classic fairy tale idea if ever there was one. 

Neil Gaiman also illustrated the book. Quite the talent in many areas.

To lure Coraline, the Other Mother creates a world which is like Coraline’s, but much more interesting. The food is better, her “Parents” aren’t as busy and distracted, and the other adults can actually remember that her name is Coraline, not Caroline. (My second daughter appreciates this, because her nickname, “Cora,” is often mistaken for “Cara.”)

Another thing that my kids appreciated were the rat songs. The rats (which are the analogues of the trained circus mice in Coraline’s real world) sing these creepy songs.

we are small but we are many
we are many we are small
we were here before you rose
we will be here when you fall

we have and we have tails
we have tails we have eyes
we were here before you fell
we will be here when you rise

we have eyes and we have nerveses
we have tails we have teeth
you will get what you deserveses
when we rise from underneath

In the audiobook version we listened to (narrated by the author, who does a fine job), there was also a creepy soundtrack of songs by The Gothic Arches, such as this one:

Overall, fun, creepy, and a good book for keeping one entertained while driving. I haven’t watched the movie, but with very few exceptions, I think the books tend to be better anyway.


  1. I've seen the movie and not read the book, so I can't say which is better (probably the book, obviously), but I like stop motion animation so I enjoyed it.

    1. Stop motion animation is a favorite of mine as well. I adore Wallace and Gromit, and the other stuff by the same creators. I should also mention the Cosgrove Hall version of The Wind in the Willows - one of my favorite books of all time - which is pretty remarkable.

  2. I think it is an excellent book for a young person to learn they can matter. A quote that appears in the printed version: G.K. Chesterton: The value of fairy tales is not that they show us that there are dragons; it is that they show us dragons can be defeated.

    1. I love Chesterton, and I love that quote. It also appears in the audiobook version.

      One of the truly great lessons of all time.

    2. Just a fun update on this: It appears that Gaiman misquotes Chesterton. Some friends who also are Chesterton fans and I had a discussion about it, and my wife found an explanation where Gaiman himself weighs in. Here is the definitive version:

  3. I've seen the movie, but not read the book. When the movie came out, a FB friend asked whether it would be suitable to bring her children to watch. She is a foster parent and the children under her care have come from dysfunctional families.

    So, with her question in mind, I watched the movie. It creeped me out and not in a good way.

    1. I'm probably the wrong person to ask about this, because I have a deep macabre streak. My kids seem to have inherited it to, particularly my second daughter, who asked me (at age 4 or so) if animals liked being eaten. And a bunch of other things about death. And, no, she wasn't bothered, just curious.

      One of the highlights of my college musical career was getting to play the solo violin parts on Saint Saens' Danse Macabre, and Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead. So take this with a grain of salt.

      My kids really liked this, including the creepy parts. As a previous commenter noted, "The value of fairy tales is not that they show us that there are dragons; it is that they show us dragons can be defeated." In some ways, the attraction of stories that thoroughly creep us out is that they let us face our fears and hurt in ways that promise that we can overcome them.