Coraline, a dark children's fairy tale readable in about an hour and a half, is an interesting book for Neil Gaiman to follow up American Gods with. But it's similar to that book in several ways, not the least of which is the nagging feeling you get while reading it that, though it's certainly entertaining, it's making a good pretense of brilliance while being little more than a highly imaginative and stylish trifle. Not that there's anything wrong with a trifle, mind you. One just ought to be aware that Gaiman's most impressive talent as a writer is the eerie skill with which he makes his stories seem better and more meaningful than they actually are. It's a talent that fools a lot of people. This book is covered in blurbs from Gaiman's colleagues and friends, and Diana Wynne Jones' comment to the effect that Coraline dethrones Alice in Wonderland singlehandedly redefines hyperbole as a concept.
Coraline Jones is a little girl whose family has moved into a flat that is part of a converted old manor house deep in the English countryside. With barely a week to go before school starts, Coraline, an only child, is desperately bored. Her parents ignore her — her father is always too busy on the computer and her mother perfunctorily runs through her maternal duties (dinner, buying new schoolclothes) as if working her way down a things-to-do list. What's more, the family's only neighbors are two dotty old ladies who claim to be ex-actresses, pathetically obsessed with their salad days when they "trod the boards," and an equally weird old man upstairs who claims to be training a bunch of rats to play musical instruments.
Exploring the flat, Coraline finds only one locked door, which her mother soon shows her leads nowhere; it was bricked over when the house was converted into flats. But after much ominous portent (the old ladies foretell danger for Coraline by reading her tea leaves), Coraline finds that a passage has appeared behind the door, leading to a strange alternate reality that seems to mirror the real world. There is a flat on the other side almost like her own, and even a new set of parents! But there the similarities end. These "other parents" (who identify themselves this way) are far too phony in their loving and solicitous manner. And the fact that other-mom has pasty white skin, clawlike fingernails, a sick habit of snacking on bugs, and big, black sewn-on buttons where her eyes should be doesn't exactly inspire feelings of home sweet home.
Returning home, Coraline finds her real parents gone without trace. It seems that her other-mom has abducted them somehow, and is holding them hostage so that Coraline will come back and be her daughter. Coraline discovers that other children have been captured and imprisoned by the being that wants to be Coraline's mother. Can Coraline find a way to free her real parents, as well as the other captive children, and go home?
Coraline certainly has its share of effective, scary scenes. Labelled for ages 8 and over, I can tell you straight up that if I were eight years old this book would scare the shit out of me. (Parents can use that right there to determine if Coraline would be a wise purchase for their little reader.) The question for me is whether Coraline works well as a grim fairy tale. And there, I think it comes up wanting.
It is true that the purpose of fairy tales has always been to terrify children, not simply lull them to beddy-bye. The earliest version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, ended with the children being killed and eaten, not with their outwitting the evil witch and kicking her into her own stove. This, and other dark tales like Little Red Riding Hood, had a distinct moral purpose. They taught children not to trust creepy strangers who offer you candy, and not to stray too far from home and family, because there are things that'll getcha if you don't watch out. They were meant to provide harsh and straightforward messages about the cruel world, couched in fable. Ultimately the goal was to reaffirm the value of family, to remind kids that mom and dad love you and have your best interests at heart.
Coraline seems to strive for something similar. The problem is that it's difficult to determine what lessons Gaiman wants his prospective eight-year-old audience to glean from the proceedings. Don't open locked doors, maybe? If there is a metaphor at work in the devilish creature pretending to be Coraline's mother, I'm doggoned if I know what it is. One message does emerge clearly: Coraline's other-mom promises Coraline everything her real parents, through their indifference, deny her, but Coraline mistrusts the offer. What is it worth, she asks, if you are simply given everything you want without earning it? A good moral, to be sure, but one that is bereft of context within this story. Being spoiled is hardly Coraline's problem, nor is she a selfish girl who constantly makes unreasonable demands on her parents. And parental attention and love isn't a special treat that a child ought to have to earn. It's a right, something to which every child should be entitled, period, and there's no indication in the story that Coraline wants anything more than that.
From a fantasy standpoint, Gaiman also misses an opportunity by failing to explain at all what kind of evil being the other-mom really is, and why she/it tries to trap children (the spider/fly comparison is made) in the first place. Perhaps Gaiman wanted to keep his story simple for the little ones, but the problem is that in so doing, he has created a tale that will give them nightmares without providing the comfort and reassurance of a healthy moral message at the end. Yes, Coraline proves to be a girl of pluck and resourcefulness, but when Coraline has her final showdown with the evil here in the real world, that's when fantasy really does take over. In real life, evil is never so careless and stupid as to be fooled or outwitted by a child. That would have been a responsible idea for Gaiman to have got across at the end. As it is, Coraline may just lull kids into a false sense of security after all. And that's just not what fairy tales, even at their most grim, are for.