We love Neil's work here at Green Man -- we've reviewed more of his work than anyone else on the net. We've even reviewed his Day of the Dead: an Annotated Babylon 5 Script, and multiple versions of his Stardust novel -- both the illustrated and just 'plain text' editions. (A full review of all 75 issues of his Sandman series is forthcoming!) So it was with great delight that I grabbed for myself the advance reading copy of Coraline that I had requested from the publicist at HarperCollins. I settled on the couch with a cup of tea in my Green Man office and quickly devoured this book in a few hours.
It won't surprise you that I think Neil's written a sweet, scary trifle of a book -- a treat to be savored in an hour or so while sitting in your favorite reading spot. It's not as deep as American Gods, nor is it as jaw-droppingly amazing for me as Neverwhere was when I read it for the first time, but it's nonetheless an interesting tale that reminds me more of a dark Ray Bradbury or Roald Dahl tale than anything that Neil has written to date.
But as arguably the third children's tale that Neil has done, it's charming. (One person thought that Stardust is a children's tale. I would question that assertion, having read Stardust. The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish, which is listed as his other children's tale, is a dessert souffle -- sweet but not very filling.) Coraline is definitely a children's book, with developed characters, an odd setting, and a really weird plot line.
Neil is, as Green Man reviewer Marian McHugh noted in her review of the Day of the Dead script, a man never satisfied with what he's already done: 'What was that man up to now? Couldn't he just be satisfied with writing comics, his own television series, novels, poetry, essays -- basically anything in the form of the written word? ' It seems that Neil has wanted to write a children's tale for over a decade now, so here is the result! (The press kit says that it's for 'his daughter, Holly, who was five years old. I wanted it to have a girl as a heroine, and I wanted it to be refreshingly creepy.')
Coraline has a setting that is akin to The Rookery in Charles de Lint's Someplace to be Flying in that it's a very large house now divided up into apartments. Like The Rookery, it has a large, slightly unkempt garden/backyard. And the house itself has such odd things as bricked-up doorways and rooms that appear to be occupied even though no one of a visible nature uses them. Are there ghosts here? Or something much more sinister?
Another similarity to The Rookery is these odd beings. The Rookery had the aunts who dressed alike and puttered in their garden, and this house -- which has no name -- has Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, once famous actresses. (Weird names is a Gaiman trait.) And then there's the unnamed crazy old man who claims to be training a mouse circus -- an assertion Coraline doesn't believe (yet). A mouse circus? How preposterous! Or is it?
Coraline is, of course, the name of the central character in this short novel. If you saw the Bettlejuice film, you'll remember the Lydia Deitz character that Winonna Rider played. Coraline is a slightly less dour version of Lydia, but could be her long-lost sister. Coraline is bright, more than slightly bored, and very, very curious about the house and its surroundings.
Now it's important to take a side-trip and mention that Coraline is illustrated by Dave McKean, the genius that illustrated Gaiman's Sandman series. His black-and-white drawings are so strongly reminiscent of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas that I had the thought that Jack Skellington from that wonderful film was going to pop up here! They certainly add a creepy touch to the story.
As for the plot, I'll not spoil your fun. No, I won't. Let's just say that Coraline has a lot of adventures -- some scary, some just weird. Coraline is a quick read, and an interesting one at that, which you'll finish in about an hour or so. After you finish it, I recommend that, if you haven't read them yet, you pick up copies of American Gods, Neverwhere, and Stardust to see what he can do when give space to develop both the characters and plot at length.