Though you may have never heard of Neil Gaiman, if you walk through your local library you will find his world of dreams in nearly every section: young adult, graphic novels, short stories, picture books, poetry, and more. He’s been a magazine interviewer, written a biography of Duran Duran, and penned an episode of the television series Babylon 5. Movies have been made of his books (Stardust), and he’s turned other people’s books into movies (Beowulf). Name the medium, and Gaiman’s mastered it.
Where does one go from there? This weekend, his children’s book Coraline is establishing its own, new medium: the first stop-motion film in 3-D. If any book was meant to be adapted to feature spindly clay hands reaching out of the screen at the audience, it is this odd tale of a young girl’s ferocious rejection of a forced Faustian bargain.
Coraline is trapped in a world of uninteresting people who are uninterested in her. Her mother and father spend their days catatonic in front of their computers in their home offices, and her neighbors prattle on about themselves without even bothering to learn that her name isn’t “Caroline.”
Then, one day, she finds a secret door into the world of her dreams. Inside this Other House, the chief occupation of her Other Mother and Other Father is searching for ways to please her, her toys leap to life to entertain her, and everyone knows her name. The Other Mother, a precise copy of Mrs. Jones but for her paper-white skin and black button eyes, invites Coraline to sew a set of buttons over her own eyes and take her place at the locus of this Coraline-centric universe.
Our heroine discovers that this fulfillment of her desire for attention and adventure comes at a price, and the price becomes increasingly apparent as she runs at needlepoint from the Other Mother. The Other Mother never intended to accept any answer but “yes” to her invitation. Coraline’s dream world deteriorates into a nightmare.
And so Neil Gaiman explores every corner of what it means to dream. He delves into the varied fruits of our daydreams–the power of wishing and the agony of a wish come true. The Coraline we are introduced to at the novel’s opening pines for adventure and attention. Yet the eerily wonderful world to which she journeys causes her to exclaim, “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?” Coraline lives out the maxim of St. Teresa of Avila: “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.”
Daydreams aside, Gaiman’s works themselves read as though narrated from the midst of a particularly lucid dream. Unusual, almost primal images are linked together in the peculiar ways a sleeping mind would connect them, animating childhood fears and adult neuroses. Coraline alone brings us an auditorium with a Scottie dog in every chair, heavyset old women who unzip their bodies to reveal twentysomething beauties, and more. Many scenes from the book would seem to make more sense recounted groggily around a breakfast table. Gaiman’s most famous work, in fact, is the Sandman series of graphic novels, which chronicle the adventures of the personification of–you guessed it–Dream.
Unlike many examples within the fantastical genres, Gaiman’s literature works less to incarnate ideas or create worlds with internal consistency than it does to exercise the muscle of the reader’s imagination. Reading one of his books pushes one to hazy, uncharted realms that combine and jostle the stuff of life as in a dream. Upon awakening from the story, rather than contemplating free will or man’s inhumanity to man, one feels haunted by it in the same way the fragments of dreams cling to us the next day. “The point” of the story isn’t so obvious; what one remembers are the imagery, the emotions, and the sense that it all was important somewhere, to someone.
Even some of the story elements of Coraline hang loosely, the blurred edges of a half-remembered fantasy. A voice whispers crucial advice to her in the Other House, yet the speaker remains a mystery. The name of the villainess is revealed, but never her origin. Many of the questions raised by Coraline’s adventures are left unanswered. Why buttons? Why this house? Why Coraline? Coraline ends less with a resolution than with an awakening from a night terror. Gaiman’s plot engages the subconscious more than the conscious, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the crew’s most memorable adventures is their salvation of Lord Rhoop as he frantically swims from the Island Where Dreams Come True. They pull the tattered man aboard ship, but hesitate to leave when they discover whence they have rescued him, imagining the realization of all of their hopes. Rhoop urges them to flee:
“This is the land where dreams–dreams, do you understand–come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.” There was about half a minute’s silence, and then with a great clatter of armor, the whole crew were tumbling down the main hatch as quick as they could and flinging themselves on the oars to row as they had never rowed before. . . . For it had taken everyone just that half-minute to remember certain dreams they had had–dreams that make you afraid of going to sleep again–and to realize what it would mean to land on a country where dreams come true.
On his blog, Gaiman offers his candid opinion on the age-appropriateness of Coraline: “As a general rule, Coraline the book is much creepier for adults than it is for kids. ” Though the book jacket might seem to promise a story about a little girl who takes a journey to a land of wish fulfillment, adults know that Gaiman’s Land Where Dreams Come True has much about it that is indistinguishable from nightmare.
– Emily Karrs is an associate editor of National Review Online.