Anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit holiday-obsessed. As soon as the calendar is turned to the right page, I am covering my home with decorations, listening to themed music, and eating whatever CVS is willing to wrap in the appropriate colors and stock in that middle aisle it reserves especially for the weak wills of people like me. You might think that this could only apply to Halloween and Christmas, but I’ve been known to put up Valentine’s Day window stickers and stuffed rabbits with pastel bows. Basically, I’m everything Tim Horton’s wants when they strategically decide the colors of their doughnut sprinkles. To quote Icona Pop: I don’t care, I love it, I don’t caaaaare.
Halloween is a particular favorite, though, especially because of the stories associated with it. It is in this spirit of Halloween that I have chosen the books I plan to read and review in October. This week is a book I’ve been really excited to revisit. It’s the first book that I remember DEEPLY scaring me as a child, so of course, it was one of my absolute favorites. And let me assure you, Coraline by Neil Gaiman absolutely holds up.
Coraline is a story about a young girl who is cunning and stubborn and extremely bored in her new home. Her parents are a bit of a rarity for children’s literature. They are not especially whimsical or a source of entertainment for Coraline, but they are attentive enough and generally well-meaning. Still, Coraline is a bit lacking in companionship and fun, so when she finds a secret passage to a parallel world, one that mimics her own in many ways but is much more interesting, it proves to be entertaining at least. But when Coraline returns home to find her parents missing, she has to venture back into the parallel world and contest with her Other Mother to get them back. What was once interesting and new becomes nightmarish and awful, and Coraline has to outwit it if she wants her life to return to normal.
One of the best things about this book is the character of Coraline. I think she’s so refreshing because she doesn’t act the way one might expect a child protagonist to act. She is not so hyper-precocious that she seems unbelievable, but she isn’t helpless and naive. For example, one might expect that when she first encounters the parallel world, she would be instantly charmed by it. Instead, she is curious but remains weary, deciding that she would prefer not to spend the night there. The sorts of things one usually yells at horror story protagonists never come up in this story. Before you think Don’t do that!, Coraline herself has decided that she probably doesn’t want to, thank you very much.
Of course, the world of this book is also as consumable and fun as Halloween candy. Neil Gaiman’s imagination has yet to disappoint me, and Coraline is no exception. What Gaiman creates here is almost an uncanny childhood wonderland: everything is whimsical and fun, and should be wonderful, but is just enough off to be completely unsettling instead. The scariest things in the parallel world are the singing rats, an element I had completely forgotten:
“The rats formed a circle.
Then they began to climb on top of each other, carefully but swiftly, until they had formed a pyramid with the largest rat at the top.
The rats began to sing, in high, whispery voices,
We have teeth and we have tails
We have tails we have eyes
We were here before you fell
You will be here when we rise.”
Just, shudder. No thank you no thank you no thank you.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t talk about perhaps my favorite element of this story: the cat character. This is the most accurate, best depiction of a cat I’ve ever encountered in literature. When Coraline finds it in the parallel world (the only creature, besides her, who can move between them and doesn’t have a counterpart there), she discovers it can talk and briefly bickers with it about the fact that cats don’t talk in her world:
“‘Well, you’re the expert on these things,’ said the cat dryly. ‘After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.’
It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.
‘Come back,’ said Coraline. ‘Please. I’m sorry. I really am.’
The cat stopped walking, sat down, and began to wash itself thoughtfully, apparently unaware of Coraline’s existence.”
Every encounter with the cat is perfect.
If you’re looking for a good, fun, scary read this Halloween, this is a great choice. It completely breezes by (I read it in one sitting) because it is so enjoyable. There was also a kid’s film made about it a few years ago. (Behind-the-scenes note: I typed “a few years ago” and then found the trailer and discovered that it came out in 2009. What is time. Why.) While it changes some things, it still captures the core of the story pretty well, including the Uncanny Wonderland-ness of the world and the spirit of the protagonist. The film also, like the book, has its share of “nope nope nope” moments. If someone were to try to adapt this book into a straightforward adult horror movie, I think it would go over really well, too. It’s just so creepy and great. Have a cup of something warm, curl up under a blanket, and enjoy this book.