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CoralineIf Neil Gaiman had a Klout score, he might just break a hundred.

But then maybe Neil Gaiman does have a Klout score. He seems to be everywhere else on the Internet these days.

As, for example, in “A Beginner’s Guide to: Neil Gaiman” a feature in this week’s Time magazine. (For those who haven’t a clue who Neil Gaiman is, this article in Time is a good, short place to start.

I’m someone who spends a good amount of time in the children’s entertainment space on the Internet, and I’ve been struck more than once by the reverence accorded to Gaiman’s work. His famous (or perhaps infamous) commencement address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 is perhaps not yet as culturally iconic as Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford University commencement address, but it’s up there. A mantra from that speech, “When things get tough, make good art,” struck a chord with me. And generally I have been inspired by the prodigiousness of Gaiman’s imagination, the versatility which allows him to write in widely different genres, and the fluency with which he does it all.

And yet, until recently, I had never read a complete work by Neil Gaiman. I had dipped into this or that and read various things about his work, including his own blog. But I had never committed myself to anything, being put off, I suppose, by the darkness and edginess of my first impressions of his work.

Now, however, I have read Gaiman’s Coraline, published in 2002. I started with Coraline because it is arguably the best known of his works, has been made into a well received movie (which I haven’t seen), and because Gaiman, in a charming audio interview he gave to his daughter, calls it his favorite work.

I came away fairly disappointed.

Coraline is a creepy story with plenty of disturbing images, a book that I would recommend only to the upper segment of the middle grade demographic (say, ages 11-12), and even at that only with close parental supervision. The eponymous heroine is a young girl who has just moved with her parents into a very old house broken up into flats. The flats are mainly inhabited by a cast of eccentrics, but one holds a very dark secret. Venturing into it one day, Coraline discovers her “other” mother and “other” father, ghastly versions of her parents who beckon her to leave her home and come live with them.

It’s not that I was bored by the story–at least not until the tedious chase scene of the “third act.” Gaiman writes a strong thriller, and for the most part he had me doing what a good thriller writer wants his reader to do: stay up late turning pages by the light of a tiny clip-on reading lamp.

But I was expecting something more substantial than a creepy thriller, even a very good creepy thriller. Gaiman’s reputation had long preceded my reading of Coraline, and so I thought the story would have greater depth. The “other” mother turns out to be a kind of witch who snatches the souls from those whom she lures into her lair, but there is no intellectual heft to this focus on the “soul” such as one finds in the dementors and horcruxes of the Harry Potter books. This, now that I think of it, is an interesting comparison: Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling. When it comes to writing a good thriller Rowling is every bit Gaiman’s equal. And she strikes me as by far his superior when it comes to creating a richly symbolic world. Her characters are also far more engaging.

Coraline, in fact, is oddly disaffected, showing only minimal emotion when she finds herself alone for days without her real parents and then when she is being chased by the witch. And I wonder what is the point of Coraline’s battle with her “other” mother? Is she supposed to learn the value of her real parents? Perhaps. Her real parents are somewhat preoccupied and out of touch with Coraline when presented at the beginning of the book, but they are hardly bad parents. And Coraline’s reunion with them at the end of the book doesn’t manifest much change in any of them.

Gaiman’s imagination strikes me as more vivid than it is disciplined. Coraline takes us through a series of sometimes strikingly creative thrilling episodes, gives us a plucky and resourceful if rather cold heroine, but more than that it does not do.

I am sufficiently intrigued by Gaiman’s work, however, to proceed to his more recent, The Graveyard Book.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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6 replies to this post
  1. Dan,

    Like you I am puzzled by Gaiman’s appeal, although I think I have a sense of what makes him tick. My understanding is he is the child of high-level Scientologists in Britain. That gives me something in common with him–my father is a Scientologist. From about 7-12 I was around a lot of Scientologists. You will never meet a creepier bunch of people. Like him I was also immersed in comics during childhood–further I know he is an admirer of Lovecraft–someone I’ve written about. The big difference between us and Gaiman (apart from wealth and fame) is the Gospel. The Gospel is the mother of the happy ending. If the Gospel is not true then every story in the end has a sad ending–a dark one. In the end heat death and oblivion take us all. When that’s all you’ve got then consolations are inward, or perhaps interpersonal, but they’re ephemeral. Critically acclaimed authors these days must be “realists” in this sense, tapping the watery-sap of personal consolation in a dead world. But if the Gospel is true–then the great eucatastrophe changes everything. There is a happy ending.

    • Thanks, C.R. for this comment. I did not know about the influence of Scientology upon Gaiman–I will keep this in mind as I read further in his work. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is my next stop; it promises to deal with mortality and whatever immortality may or may not mean for Gaiman, and so I’m interested to see what he does with it. I don’t suspect it will be a revelation. Your point about the Gospel and happy endings is beautifully put.

  2. Coraline was never my favorite Gaiman work. I found it odd that they made it into a claymation movie, for children, because it certainly isn’t for children who normally watch such movies. Some of my favorite works of his have been his short stories. One in particular, “Chivalry”, in a collection called “Smoke and Mirrors”, stands out the best. It’s about a little old lady who finds the Holy Grail at a thrift shop. But other stories in the collection I could completely do without. I came into Neil Gaiman from his comic book, The Sandman. Which at the time brought back the Vertigo imprint of DC almost single handedly. Especially the Midsummer Night’s Dream issue, which won The World Fantasy Award, and forever changed how I interpret Puck’s last speech. After it won they changed the rules so a comic couldn’t win again. Otherwise I’m pretty sure Stardust, which was again illustrated by Charless Vess, would certainly have been a contender.
    Gaiman is very good at twisting things. Imagining scariness and horror in the most mundane objects. He manages to incite the imagination, without being exactly clear on what it’s being incited to. This can work well, or not. But he’s good enough to keep me coming back for more.

  3. I agree with the assessment that Gaiman’s imagination is “more vivid than it is disciplined. ” That said, I think that his work has lost a fair bit of its depth over time. If you want depth, meaning and symbolism you need to reach back to his work on “the Sandman.” But even there, one will still find only the inward, interpersonal and ephemeral hopes that Mr. Wiley references.

  4. Hannah, this comment of yours captures my impression of CORALINE perfectly: “Gaiman is very good at twisting things. Imagining scariness and horror in the most mundane objects. He manages to incite the imagination, without being exactly clear on what it’s being incited to.”

    D. Bohannon, I have heard Sandman spoken of reverently by many online. I will take a look at it with your caveat in mind. Thank you!

  5. Not a fan of Gaiman, beyond the oohs and aahs he provides. I believe he’s a brechtian, or at least his girlfriend is. He’s one of those writers whose politics inform his writing but because he has such a good background in literature he can disguise his disgust for tradition in spectacle.
    Pop culture in general is now defined by spectacle. Some may say it always was, but now everything just has to be “cool”. Doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. As long as it’s cool, it’s in. Gaiman is all about cool.
    I much prefer Tim Powers.

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