Turning Fairytales into Horror

Coraline – Neil Gaiman

Tea: Rooibos Ginger

Do you ever feel like there should be a book that can disturb your kids from an early age on? Well, look no further irresponsible parent, because Neil Gaiman has got your back. Just as a quick note: I am talking about the book and not the movie, just so we are all on the same page here.


Coraline is advertised on the back as a fairytale and follows Coraline a…girl. I would say something about her age here, but the book leaves us in the dark about this. Coraline lives in a house with her parents and some other people. She is bored 90% of her time, since she doesn’t really have anything to do other than pestering her neighbors and going on little explorations and while this actually sounds like at least somethings to do, she is bored out of her mind. Her parents aren’t helping much either by giving her such solid advice as: Count every blue object in the house. Yeah, that will keep her occupied. Next look for everything that is magnetic, why don’t you. She soon discovers an alternate reality behind a door that was bricked up beforehand. Another world full of fun and endless possibilities and also creepy alternate versions of her parents that at first only seem to be different appearance wise by having their eyes replaced with big black buttons. Coraline is intrigued by this new world, but not so much by the prospect of having buttons sewn on her eyes. So she tries to leave, if only it were that simple…

I have a mixed relationship with Neil Gaiman, some of his books were really good like Neverwhere or Good Omens, his collaboration with Terry Pratchett. His other books aren’t bad either they are just so okay I can’t really say much about them. There is solid writing in all of them, but the tone is sometimes hit or miss and the characters range from relatable to completely detached from the story. So what is the case for Coraline? Well, I have to say I quite liked the atmosphere of the other place. It’s set up well. Familiar enough to not feel like straight-up fantasy as soon as you enter it, but different enough to give it that strange and creepy undertone. Coraline’s companion, a cat, is pretty well written and shines in his nuanced appearances. The character of her other mother is unsettling but not too hyperbolic. Her simply not moving and staring at Coraline is far more effective than turning her into a monster.

Speaking of monster, Coraline has quite a few grotesque figures. Some of which would probably feel more at home in Silent Hill than this book. I can’t really predict how a child would view these things, but the descriptions are vividly enough to paint a clear and disturbing image in my head and what I see actually creeped me out a little. There are not gory in any way. It’s the abnormal being born out of normality that is the scariest. And if this is a bit cryptic think of it the following way: Why is Five Nights at Freddy’s so scary (at least in the beginning?), because animatronic mascots are horrifying. They are not trying to, but their pseudo-friendly and massive quotes “normal” look gives them the chill factor. What is not scary on the other hand is a straight up monster with no human qualities whatsoever. It is the fact that there is a human characteristic to them that relates these figures to us that turns them into something truly horrifying.

While I won’t spoil the ending for you there is one thing I have to say about it: It’s a bit of a letdown. There is a really simple way to improve it and that would be to cut the last chapter as it is just unnecessary padding. Imagine the following: You are playing Super Mario and defeat Bowser and after that you have another level that is just jumping on some Goombas and after that the game ends. This entire last chapter serves only the purpose of reincorporating something from the start that felt forced in anyways. Absolutely unnecessary in my opinion.

Another gripe I hinted at earlier is the fact that the reader is never certain about Coraline’s age. While it is true that you can read Coraline at just about any age and will get something out of it, doesn’t mean that the characters age should be irrelevant. I can’t picture Coraline in my head this way. Are her actions smart for a girl her age or just reasonable? Is she really that contained or just old enough to be able to cope with it? Is she mature for her age or just older to be above that? The movie (the one I have only seen the trailer of) paints her as twelve-ish, if I were to guess. That doesn’t sound like the Coraline I just read who would be a strong-willed 10 year-old at best. Her character development is not really present. She doesn’t really show any signs of fear and just gets dragged along for the ride. She has very little agency to begin with and only seems to follow the rules set out by the story, never straying from the path. She never fails at what she does and shows very little signs of doubt in her actions. When she does it seems more like the writer felt he had to include them, to make this character more believable.

Coraline is an enjoyable read, but very short lived. It might have actually worked better as a short-story than stretching it into a novel format (just like that other book Neil Gaiman wrote: Ocean at the end of the lane). But I would recommend it for the atmosphere if nothing else. It’s rare to see a children’s book that is meant to be scary that actually manages to unsettle me. It is a trip that is more about the journey than the characters involved in it. And while I love good character arcs, I also like atmosphere and that works great in Coraline. Anything that reminds me of Silent Hill in a positive way can’t be that bad.

Image source:

http://www.neilgaiman.com/works/images/Coraline_Paperback_1185750231.jpg (Last date of access: 28.07.2015)


2 thoughts on “Turning Fairytales into Horror

  1. Let me get this straight: We´re talking about a children´s book here which would turn my poor offspring into nervous wrecks (assuming that they understood the plot, I don´t know how complex it is as I haven´t read it). I don´t quite see the point. Why not proclaim it a fairy-tale for adults from the start?
    I guess there have to be some victims first. Oh well.
    Anyways, the cover is quite appealing in my opinion and I enjoyed the movie (although it isn´t the best Tim Burton ever boxed), so I might actually give it a read.


    • It is not so much about understanding the plot, but rather the imagery used and the implications. It is a fairy-tale for adaults aaaaand children. It is suitable for all ages, according to the author. I will check out the movie as well, as soon as I have worked my way through all the other movies I want to watch. Maybe I am reading too much into it, give me your insight as soon as you have read it.


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