By Neil Gaiman (Harper; 2002)

CORALINE was Neil Gaiman’s first foray into kid lit, and has gone on to become his most widely read work.  Yes, that means it’s even more iconic than Gaiman’s universally acclaimed SANDMAN comics or bestselling novels NEVERWHERE and AMERICAN GODS, much less his subsequent kiddie books THE DAY I SWAPPED MY DAD FOR TWO GOLDFISH and THE WOLVES IN THE WALLS.

The rapturous reception CORALINE has received is surprising, as it’s likely the darkest children’s novel I’ve ever read.  It may not be “one of the most frightening books ever written” (as The New York Times Book Review claims), but it does deal with childhood fears of loneliness and abandonment in a startlingly blunt, unflinching manner.  The writing is pointed and unadorned in the manner of many young adult books, which actually works in the novel’s favor: the simplistic prose has the effect of enhancing the horrific weirdness of the story, which would have been lessened (if not completely obscured) by a more fanciful style.

Coraline is a young girl who discovers a suspicious door in the strange new home she’s just moved into with her parents.  Said door leads to a bricked-up wall.  Coraline reopens it one day, however, to find a tunnel that takes her into a house that looks just like hers.  This place has pictures that move and a mother and father who strongly resemble Coraline’s real mom and dad, but for the fact that they have buttons for eyes.  They also keep mice for pets and shun cats as vermin, and want nothing more than for Coraline to join them in this scary alternate world by sewing buttons onto her own eyes.

This leads to a nightmarish odyssey that has Coraline’s actual parents snatched from the real world and enclosed inside a snow globe.  Two children have their souls stolen by Coraline’s “other mother” and are imprisoned in a tiny space behind a mirror.  It’s up to Coraline to rescue these unfortunates, and find her way back to reality in the process.  This won’t be easy, as Coraline’s other mother appears to be gaining in power.

Other wonders on display include a performance staged for an audience of dogs, a talking cat, a banquet of beetles and an errant severed hand.  It’s an authentically surreal tale in the manner of classics like ALICE IN WONDERLAND and the Nineteenth Century “dream romances” of George MacDonald (PHANTASTES and LILITH), but CORALINE has a real charm to it–albeit an extremely dark charm.

Anyone familiar with Neil Gaiman’s previous work in the comic field (or his script for the ‘05 film MIRRORMASK, which has quite a few similarities with the present novel) well knows that his imagination is a fertile one, and CORALINE gives it quite a workout.