Coraline and Other Stories
by Neil Gaiman.
Bloomsbury Publishing 2009.
This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers.
So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.
Or then again, you might not.
This is a good place to start, with the almost flawless Coraline¹ together with the other chillers about the fears and bogeys that haunt the childish and not so childish imagination, deliciously presented in a volume with pages that are black-edged and including Dave McKean’s original nightmarish illustrations for Coraline. This story about a girl (don’t call her ‘Caroline’!) who finds a way into a parallel house where her mother has been replaced by a sinister figure with buttons for eyes is both a terrifying and yet satisfying modern equivalent of all those Grimm fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel, with their bewitching and unspeakable devouring figures.
Outstanding are the pieces that bring horror (and sometimes humour) rather too close to home; Troll Bridge, Don’t Ask Jack, Chivalry, The Price and The Witch’s Headstone, whether set in the UK or the States, all remind the reader that the veil separating reality and the supernatural may be awfully thin. Chivalry is a humorous take on the grail quest,² while The Witch’s Headstone became chapter 4 of The Graveyard Book.³
Less engaging but just as skilfully written are the more alien, fantastic or futuristic stories such as How to Sell the Ponti Bridge and Sunbird; these are more for those who have leanings towards genre fiction, but they are still rooted in a rich Western cultural heritage.
Gaiman is a master at bringing the unexpected to the seemingly banal; don’t read this if you don’t ever want to have his disturbing visions floating up to your consciousness unbidden.
¹ I reviewed a graphic version of Coraline here.
² Chivalry appeared as a graphic novel in 2022, illustrated by Colleen Doran.
³ I reviewed Volume 1 of the graphic version of The Graveyard Book, adapted by P Craig Russell, here, and contributed to a discussion of the novel here for Witch Week 2020.
Review first published 27th March 2013, revised and reposted now for Wyrd and Wonder
8 thoughts on “Disturbing visions”
Thanks for that rider, Chris 🙂 I shall think seriously, but, like most of your recommendations I shall probably end up putting it on my list to read.
I’m sure you won’t have any problems with them, Kate; they’re not in the James Herbert league, by all accounts!
I’m way behind with Gaiman, so I probably should try these, although I could do without the disturbing visions…! I read an interesting review suggesting that he owed something to earlier Joan Aiken stories http://www.amazon.co.uk/Not-what-you-expected-collection/dp/0385075189
– I’d be interested to know what you think?
He may well be familiar with those spine-tinglers like A Touch of Chill and A Bundle of Nerves (I must re-read those!) as he certainly was an admirer and friend of Diana Wynne Jones, who also rated Joan’s writing.
Hadn’t heard of Not what you expected but I see from a not entirely complimentary Kirkus review that this combines selections from A Harp of Fishbones, A Small Pinch of Weather and All and More, and as I’ve got the first two and All But a Few I’m hopeful I’m not missing too much in not getting it!
The review on amazon.com suggested that her stories had the “mythical atmosphere of Neil Gaiman”, but thought that “Gaiman’s stories often seem all hollow atmosphere and no purpose”. Oh dear, damned with rather more than faint praise!
I didn’t care for “Sunbird” but I don’t remember why; I read it a long time ago. I usually have no problem with “the alien, fantastic or futuristic” so I don’t think that was it.
My favorite of Gaiman’s short stories is probably The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains, which is online, at a website from Harper Perennial: http://www.fiftytwostories.com/?p=1338
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‘Sunbird’ isn’t my favourite either, Beth, probably because the joke is a bit laboured – perhaps an audio version would work better.
The ‘Cave’ tale is in the collection Stories which Gaiman co-edited, from which I’ve read a handful of tales but not this one.
I should really start whittling down the short story collections I’ve accumulated, maybe sticking this near the top of the list. I considered getting Fragile Things but it seems to include many items I’ve got elsewhere. Ho hum, I suppose we should be pleased he offers so much of his short fiction free online.
I read a lot of Joan Aiken stories as a kid, but Hope would be my favourite.
That criticism of Gaiman’s work is harsh, but definitely has a grain of truth; mood rather than story being his strong suit. Maybe this is why a lot of his work is a riff on books by other authors? (e.g., Coraline bears some resemblance to Alice in Wonderland while Gaiman openly admits that The Graveyard Book was inspired by The Jungle Book).
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It’s been many years since I read the stories in A Harp of Fishbones but I’ve dug out my copy and will reread ‘Hope’ in due course.
I hadn’t considered that Gaiman was as derivative as you suggest, though he’s definitely good on atmosphere; to the extent that many authors riff on one theme or other that’s evident in another author’s work it doesn’t surprise me that Gaiman would too, though at his best he does it rather well.