Coraline Jones, and her parents, have just moved into one of six flats carved out of a slightly decrepit and more than slightly mysterious house. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible live in the ground floor flat; they trod the boards when young, and are prone to quote snippets of Shakespeare at random moments, but now have retired to a quiet life with their Highland Terriers. A “crazy old man with a large moustache” lives on the floor above them; he claims to be training a mouse circus which no one has yet seen.
Being new to the area and living outside of town means that Coraline is at something of a loose end until school starts; her parents are affectionate but have lives of their own to live. While the weather is good, Coraline can explore the unkempt grounds surrounding the house, but after two weeks of exploration, a cold rainy day keeps her inside: “It wasn’t the kind of rain you could go out in—this was the other kind, the kind that threw itself down from the sky and splashed where it landed. It was rain that meant business, and currently its business was turning the garden into a muddy wet soup.” Bored with her toys, her videos and her books, Coraline pesters her parents for something to do. Her father suggests she count things in the house, which leads to her discovery (among other things) that thirteen of the fourteen doors open, but the fourteenth1 is not only locked but bricked up. Her mother gives the explanation of the mundane adult world: it used to lead into another part of the house, but was closed off when the house was divided into flats.
A couple of days later, Coraline is temporarily alone—her father’s gone to London for the day and her mother gone to the grocery store—so she again opens that locked bricked-up door…only to find that this time, it leads down a hallway, like the corresponding one in her own flat but strangely different. Down this hallway, she finds a world that is almost but not quite unlike a mirror image of her own world. The crazy old man upstairs has a collection of rats, who sing discomfiting songs. The Misses Spink and Forcible perform on stage before an audience of terriers. Most importantly, perhaps, there are Coraline’s “Other Parents”—the father is absent-mindedly biddable, the mother thinner and whiter with restless fingers, but both have only buttons for eyes—and they’ve prepared the most appetizing meal Coraline can imagine:
It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever tasted. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and it was very dry, and it never tasted of anything. When Coraline’s father cooked chicken he always bought real chicken, but he did strange things to it, like stewing it in wine, or stuffing it with prunes, or baking it in pastry, and Coraline always refused to touch it on principle.
She returns home to what adults would consider reality, only to find that her parents have disappeared, and all the remaining adults, who might be presumed to care, don’t seem capable of acknowledging what has happened. Upon seeing her parents in a mirror, she returns to that world on the other side of the door, guided by a sardonic cat2, and challenges the Other Mother: if Coraline loses, she stays with her Other Parents and allows them to buttonize her eyes, but if she “doesn’t lose” (as the Other Mother phrases it), she returns home with not only her own parents but the three little children held captive by the Other Mother.
Coraline doesn’t lose this battle….but of course things don’t work out as smoothly as all that. The Other Mother’s hand has crossed over into the ‘real world’, and Coraline must concoct a plan to entrap that last remnant. She does, in a manner which not only disposes of the hand, but throws up a smokescreen for the adults in her world to leave them thinking that this is yet another childish component of her imagination. The book ends with Coraline ready to start a new term at a new school:
Normally, on the night before the first day of term, Coraline was apprehensive and nervous. But, she realized, there was nothing left about school that could scare her any more.
It’s a spare book, with little description, but every detail counts. Gaiman here makes great use of Chekhov’s Gun from the first sentence on: Coraline discovers the door, which, when they first move in, appears to lead nowhere but under the right circumstances led to the sort of adventure most of us could do without. I find the difference between adults’ and children’s reactions to the book fascinating: adults think it a horror story while kids think its an adventure. Perhaps Coraline’s reaction to the passageway where there was none before behind that locked fourteenth door is a good example of that divide; adult readers will be chewing their nails and crying out “Don’t go there!” but Coraline, like any self-respecting child, sets out firmly to find what’s at the other end…and then bravely deals with it absent any adult assistance, as they aren’t aware of this any more than they are of any of the other nightmarish phantasms inhabiting the world of the children around them.
It is, however, obviously a book written by someone who knows not only the phrasing and tropes of the world of fantasy and fairy tale but also knows the fears of small children. Reading Coraline, I am reminded of a young girl, long since grown to womanhood, explaining to me that she preferred to come up my driveway with an adult because all the monsters which lived in the culvert halfway up hid away when adults were present. (I was eighteen at the time.)
What to read next? Try the suggestions at Reading Matters (and because the kids’ own opinions are listed in the comments; never mind what adults think…did the intended audience like it?)
1Keep an eye on that door. (but then anyone who’s read Neverwhere will know that!)
2is there ever any other kind of cat? As a cat owner/subject, I appreciate Gaiman’s characterization of the black cat here.