In Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, the young girl of the title opens a door which should lead on to a brick wall and wanders into a parallel version of her parents’ house. In the kitchen she finds a figure, terribly familiar but for the black buttons she has instead of eyes. ‘Who are you?’ asks Coraline. ‘I’m your other mother,’ says the woman. ‘Go and tell your other father that lunch is ready.’ Coraline does.
The up-ending of Coraline’s life is numbly accepted, by both character and reader. Eased along on a jolly rhyme, the existence of an other mother seems so obvious that it would be churlish to take issue. Coraline’s is the acquiescence that dreams are made of: in dreams you accept that a speaker’s identity can change mid-sentence without you losing their drift; that you are suddenly involved in the action you’d just been watching on a cinema screen; that you open the carriage door and descend the staircase, kicking yourself for failing to realise earlier that trains have basements. This kind of contained wonder — a recognition of something extraordinary twinned with the sheepish feeling that it couldn’t really be any other way — is characteristic also of the best fantasy and children’s writing, and of Neil Gaiman‘s work in both. The young boy in his last children’s book The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish does exactly that. The characters of his Tube-set novel Neverwhere include an angel called Islington and the feudal hangers-on at the Earl’s Court. The train with a basement is from his best-known work, the 75-part comic series The Sandman, which used the interaction of dream realms and the real world to tell stories about story.
Coraline’s acceptance doesn’t last long, however. She is a very smart girl and — having explored the alternative, magically improved versions of her house and neighbours — she realises this world has to be resisted. Finding that both her real parents and her soul are in mortal peril, Coraline is forced to challenge the other mother on her home ground. She sets off to rescue her mum and dad — and some ghost children’s souls — with only a stone, a haughty cat and her wits to help her. Children will enjoy Coraline as an adventure; adults will savour it for its rich, nightmarish imagery. As the other mother’s power is threatened, her sharp, spindly hands and Medusa-like hair grow agitated and the world she has made to snare Coraline grows soft around the edges. Trees and houses become more like the ideas of trees and houses than the real thing; the dogs and people she has made become doughy things, hairless and jellyish, pale and panicky. And there are the buttons, and the needle and thread.
But the really scary things in Coraline have the whiff of the mundane about them. The other mother is an unusual monster: she doesn’t want to devour or destroy, but to be loved. More human a motivation than most fairy-tale foes’ — rather than the traditional step-mother’s envious hatred, this one is ‘ready to love you and play with you and feed you and make your life interesting’ — it is set unnervingly against the distant attitude of Coraline’s own parents. The other mother’s most tempting devices are not the clockwork angels or the clothes made of night and stars, but succulent roast chicken and the best cheese omelette in the world. Similarly, Coraline is at her most vulnerable not when faced with a grotesque or locked behind a mirror but when, not quite awake, she registers the feeling of ‘having been cuddled and loved and wanting more of it’.
‘Yes, it is absolutely disturbing,’ Gaiman tells me. ‘I wanted to make a difference between the love that is very real love going on between Coraline’s parents and Coraline — even if they don’t pay quite as much attention to her as maybe they ought to, and even if the food isn’t the greatest — and the downside of people who appear to want to give you a lot of love. Sometimes it does well to be wary of those who profess love, who pay you too much attention.’ The notion of an other parent over-desperate to be loved seems uneasily resonant in an age of step-families. ‘That’s not necessarily how it was intended to come across,’ Gaiman insists. ‘I wanted it to be much more about … kids are aliens without a passport in somebody else’s world. They’re here under tolerance. When you’re a kid you’re a guerrilla fighter — all the respect, all the power you get you’ve grabbed and held on to. Kids are forever essentially second-class citizens, living in a world where the rules are never quite explained and they’re having to make sense of that.’
This is borne out by the narration in Coraline. Written in the third person but firmly from our heroine’s viewpoint, it draws attention to the contingency and absurdity of much adult conversation. The thespian neighbours’ talk of not wearing green in the dressing room or mentioning the Scottish play is deposited as inexplicably in the text as it would be on a child’s ears in conversation. (‘Coraline wondered why so few of the adults she had met made any sense. She sometimes wondered who they thought they were talking to.’) On the other hand, we know exactly what Coraline means when, after her parents disappear, she tells an unreceptive policeman: ‘I think my other mother has them both in her clutches. She may want to keep them and sew their eyes with buttons, or she may simply have them in order to lure me back into the reach of her fingers.’ We retain the child’s perspective, curious, internally rational but without the habitual conventions of thought that come with adulthood. Continue…