It’s hard to believe that it’s October! The endless stretch that is 2020 makes it difficult to keep the days, weeks and months straight sometimes. But alas, it’s the tenth month of the year and for most of us, that means cooler temps, warm drinks and… Halloween celebrations! In honor of the spookiest time of year, I’ll be sharing a series of frightening fiction over the next three weeks.
Let’s kick things off with Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Now, disclaimer right away: My 8 year old did not make it past the introduction of Other Mother and Other Father in this book. It seems that the idea of eyes being replaced by black buttons was just a bridge too far for my guy. But I persisted in reading the book myself because I believe it could be a big hit for the slightly older set, maybe 11-12ish. In any case, Coraline is a delightfully creepy tale that puts a new spin on the idea of loving the life we already have.
Coraline is a young girl who has recently moved into a new home with her parents. The home used to be one huge household but has since been split into smaller flats. She and her parents live in one, two older women who were once actresses live in another, an odd elderly man lives in the attic with what he insists are circus mice. The fourth flat is empty… or is it? It sits alongside Coraline’s home and would be connected by a large door, if a brick wall hadn’t been erected between the two spaces.
Coraline feels mysteriously drawn to the door, despite having been warned by her neighbor (though to be fair, he said it was a message from his mice) not to go through the door. Her tea leaves, as read by her other neighbors, warned that she was in danger. Regardless, one day while her mother is running an errand, she decides to unlock the door, just to see if the brick wall is still there. I suppose I needed to put myself in the shoes of our headstrong heroine but I felt so uneasy as the door swings open to reveal a dark corridor.
Making her way to the other side, she encounters a flat that at first glance, appears to be almost a mirror image of her own. Her mother is cooking at the stove, though when she turns towards Coraline, it’s revealed that instead of eyes, she has huge black buttons sewn on her face. This is where my son put the brakes on the story but I continued to read on my own.
Other Mother and Other Father, as they come to be known, tell Coraline that they have been waiting for her for such a very long time. They are so glad she’s there and they would do anything to convince her to stay. For a short time, she considers how her real parents are often very busy working. The Other Parents seem content to dote on her every moment of her life. But once she learns that staying in the other realm requires that her own eyes be replaced with black buttons, Coraline decides to dip out. The Other Parents accept her decision but implore her to return if she changes her mind.
Returning home through the corridor, she’s aware of a presence that feels very old and slow. It’s terrifying and she’s not sure she’ll find her way home. However she opens her eyes and finds herself in the drawing room of her home. She realizes that her parents are nowhere to be found. She isn’t particularly bothered by this development; she feeds herself dinner and eventually falls asleep. When she awakes the next morning, she finds her parents’ bed still made so she knows they haven’t returned home. She’s still not terribly concerned which honestly made me wonder about their parenting performance and philosophy up to this point.
Still, she walks to the grocery store on her own, makes her own meals and sorts her own bath before breaking down that evening in her parents’ bed. A black cat that Coraline first encountered in her exploration of the Other World returns at this time and reveals that her parents have been trapped in a mirror world. In a panic, she calls the police to report that her parents have been grownup-napped into a mirror by Other Mother, likely as a ploy to lure her back to the other realm. As you’d expect, the police officer urges Coraline to go back to bed.
She determines that if she is to save her parents, she must return to the Other World, where the Other Parents try to convince her that her real parents have abandoned her. They show her concocted visions of her parents saying they’re so glad to be rid of her; that Coraline was always such a bother that kept them from living their best lives. But fortunately, Coraline is not convinced.
When she refuses to denounce her real parents, Other Mother locks her in a closet where she meets three lost souls who were once in Coraline’s shoes. They beg her to run while she still can, to save her soul while she has a chance. But she knows it’s no use. She’s been told by the cat that Other Mother enjoys playing games, whether for fun, or psychological torture, or both. Coraline knows that she’ll have to play along if she is to have any hope of escaping, rescuing her parents and hopefully, freeing the souls of the imprisoned children locked in the closet.
She strikes a deal with Other Mother; freedom for all if she wins. But if she loses, she’ll remain in the Other World and play the role of the dutiful daughter forever. It’s a daring pact to be sure, especially with an entity that has revealed themselves, by this point, to be quite evil. Our Coraline has already shown herself to be bright, brave and resourceful. But will that be enough to triumph against Other Mother’s wicked ways?
Gaiman does a spectacular job weaving a terrifying tale of what might happen when we stray into a world in which we don’t belong. It could be perfect for kids who already enjoy stories with a spooky bent but who might also be a little older. There are some unsettling elements but the story’s entertainment value will outweigh the scare factor for kids who skew towards the creepy side.