There is a bittersweet undertow to the book’s lessons, a pay-off between neglect and self-sufficiency. The ingenuity which Coraline demonstrates in confronting her other mother is the same she uses to make her own dinner and administer her own first aid when her real mum and dad aren’t around. It’s her ability to find her own way of getting on with things that allows her to succeed at home and, Gaiman notes, ‘when she goes into the other world it’s the same thing. It’s that skill set that gets her through.’ Her victory comes from her smarts, not a charm: ‘There’s a lot of unmagic in the book. Yes, she has a little good-luck token which gives her a hand getting through, but basically she gets out using her wits and a cat — and using her wits and a cat in a way that a girl of that age probably could use her wits and a cat.’ It is a way too that suggests that violence has its place. Just as love cannot automatically be taken as well-meaning, bloodshed has its upside here. ‘You’re trying to write a book for kids that says there are monsters out there,’ Gaiman explains, echoing Coraline‘s epigraph’ — and that monsters can be beaten. That is probably the most important thing to remember, that you can find the bravery in yourself to defeat monsters, and the skill and the knowledge. Much as in the case of that seven-year-old in America recently who was kidnapped and chewed off the duct tape round her hands and broke the window and called for help. And I think, that’s a Coraline thing.’
The wonders of unmagic are also what Coraline most appreciates on her return from the other mother’s realm: ‘the sky had never seemed so sky; the world had never been so world … Nothing, she thought, had ever been so interesting.’ Is this a rejection of the fantasy realms in which Gaiman’s writing has always been grounded? ‘I’m not sure that reality is necessarily pre-eminent in this,’ he counters. ‘There’s a kind of fiction that I don’t like where somebody has a problem in the real world and they go into a fantasy world, which is not real, and they sort out their problem. Then they come back to the real world and [he affects an unthinking, banal drone] taking the lessons they have learned from the fantasy world, they now apply them to the real world. They think to themselves: “I am the person who slew the mighty Giant of Thod. How can I let Jimmy Brown the local bully beat me?” And they beat him up and the book ends proudly. And I always feel that that’s somehow not just cheating, but deeply betrays the nature of what fantasy is about. Fantasy isn’t about neat lessons learned in a discrete and safe environment that you then come back with. It’s not: “Well, there’s a fantasy world and there’s reality and that’s that.” It’s like: “No, no, no, it’s all real.” ‘ Accordingly, the then-I-woke-up ending with which Gaiman teases us develops into a fully fleshed-out coda: Coraline is again pitched against the other mother, but this time in the everyday world. The separating lines are as fuzzy as the edges of the other mother’s creation.
There’s a certain fuzziness to the prose, too: there are hardly any physical descriptions of the characters and scarcely more names (though the ones there are — Miss Spink, Miss Forcible, Mr Bobo — are good); Coraline isn’t described, isn’t even given an age. This ambiguity seems so central that it’s surprising to learn that the American edition of Coraline is illustrated, by Gaiman’s regular collaborator Dave McKean. Terrific as the pictures are, they can’t help but pin down impressions the UK edition carefully leaves to the imagination. Bloomsbury are considering using them in future editions; in any case, those hungry for visuals can look forward to a film adaptation. Already in pre-production, it will be a mix of live action and animation to be directed by Henry Sellick, who made The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.
A realised movie would mark a long journey from the story’s accidental origins: ‘I was typing to somebody — probably somebody in publishing, at a guess, because it would have been a Caroline — and I typed it wrong and looked at it and thought what a lovely name. It has echoes of coral, beautiful and hard.’ Beautiful and hard, Coraline rehearses many of Gaiman’s long-standing motifs: the navigation of parallel worlds with the use of omens and talismans, a monster that can’t resist games and challenges, children as agents to be taken seriously, the arbitrariness and importance of rules, names as weapons and shields. It rehearses them in ways which appeal differently but no less strongly to child and adult readers, ways which are fresh and extraordinary with the feeling that they couldn’t be any other way. Gaiman has always been a storyteller above all, and Coraline is a story which will last.