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Literature / Coraline

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"What is there to be frightened of about buttons?"

Coraline is a 2002 horror novel written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean.

Coraline Jones is a girl with loving but distracted and inattentive parents. Having recently moved into a new home without any friends around, she finds life utterly boring. Then, one afternoon, she opens a mysterious door in her house. Behind that door lies a different world where Coraline finds other versions of her parents who dote on her, spoiling her with wonderful toys and home-cooked meals. But something oddly sinister lurks just beneath the surface...

A graphic novel adaptation was released in 2008, and an animated adaptation was released in 2009; tropes for the latter can be found here.

This book includes examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Miss Spink, Miss Forcible, and Mr. Bobo mistakenly call Coraline "Caroline", despite her repeatedly correcting them. Meanwhile, their Other World counterparts always call her by her correct name.
  • Adults Are Useless: Played with. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible read Coraline's tea leaves and see that there's trouble, and give her the hagstone, while Mr. Bobo sends her a message that warns of danger. They seem to be only mildly perturbed, though. Coraline is unable to convey to the old ladies that her parents have gone missing, let alone the rest of it, and when she calls the police the policeman indulgently says she's just had a nightmare. Still, the hagstone helps.
  • All Take and No Give: The Other Mother just wants something to love other than herself... and feed, dress, and take the souls of children so she can possess them completely.
  • All Up to You: Coraline tries to tell Miss Spink and Miss Forcible that her parents are missing but they don't seem to hear her, and the police think she's describing a bad dream. If she wants to get her parents back she has to do it all herself.
  • All Your Powers Combined: When Coraline is fleeing the Other World for the final time, she struggles to close the door, and calls upon her parents and the ghost children whose souls she liberated for help; they're able to channel strength to her to seal the passage.
  • And You Were There: Everyone in the Other World is (deliberately) based on someone Coraline knows in the mortal world. Except the Cat, that is.
  • Animal Motifs: The novel describes the Other Mother using various bits of spidery imagery; she's made into a full-blown spider lady in the film.
  • Apologetic Attacker: The Other Father, who tells Coraline he's sorry and that the Other Mother is making him attack her during their encounter in the basement.
  • Arc Words: "Ever and always".
  • Bad "Bad Acting": The illusion the Other Mother shows Coraline of her parents coming home from a holiday to try and make her think her parents are happier without her and it's eased their minds to think Coraline will be with her more loving Other Mother instead. Coraline actually doubts whether it's true or not...for about ten seconds.
  • Big Bad: The Other Mother. She's the real power behind the Other World, and it's her schemes that drive the plot.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Other Mother and Father might seem like the kind of parents every child wants, but they'll sew buttons into your eyes or worse if you're not careful.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Black button eyes of evil.
  • Body Horror: Geez, where do you start? If the button eyes themselves aren't enough for you, try imagining the Other Mother sewing buttons into your eyes. The Other Mother's creations degenerating into horrifying monsters as Coraline rebels against her will also send a shudder up your spine.
  • Catchphrase: Almost everyone Coraline meets on her first visit to the Other World says "for ever and always" at some point.
  • Cats Are Mean: Downplayed, as the Cat isn't necessarily mean, but it does consider itself to be automatically above any other being in the world and treats them with according superiority.
  • Cats Are Snarkers: As befits its superior attitude, the Cat has a very smart aleck-y attitude.
    "Please, what is this place?"
    The cat glanced around briefly. "It's here," said the cat.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • "Protective coloration", anyone?
    • The well, which Coraline uses to finish off the Other Mother's hand and seal the key to the Other World away in one go.
    • The stone with a hole in it, which proves essential for finding the ghost children's souls.
  • Cool Gate: The wooden door leading to the Other World.
  • Cordon Bleugh Chef: Subverted — Coraline treats her dad's creations as if he's one of these, but he actually seems to be a competent chef who enjoys experimenting with complex gourmet techniques. Coraline just despises "recipes" and, as young children often do, doesn't like spices and garlic and would prefer pizza and french fries.
  • Creative Sterility: The Other Mother suffers from this, and it's actually a major plot point. She can't make anything new, only copies of things that exist in the real world, so Coraline wonders why she would have a snow globe on the mantel when the real one has nothing on it.
  • Creepy Basement: CREEPY? Try absolutely terrifying. It's got the horribly mutated Other Father creature in it, and he comes this close to catching Coraline before she can escape.
  • Curiosity Is a Crapshoot: Coraline is bored in the week before school and just has to go through the mysterious door... She nearly dies because of it. And three other kids in her position actually did die.
  • Dangerously Garish Environment: The Other World is very colourful, with bright clothes on the people, flowers, and so on, but it's run by demon-like creatures who want to trap and eventually kill Coraline. Unlike in the movie, the world doesn't become less colourful when it starts to disintegrate, but instead it becomes less defined, and is described as looking like a 2D drawing.
  • Dark World: The Other World is a perfect example of this. Interestingly enough, it first tries to look like an improvement over the real world, but when Coraline rejects it, it takes a turn right down into nightmare fuel.
  • Death of a Child: Coraline encounters the three ghost children abducted by the Other Mother prior to her arrival. Avoided with Coraline herself however, who survives the story with no worse than a skinned knee and a scratched palm.
  • Defanged Horrors: The book is definitely scary, but it's scary in a way that kids can usually handle. It's more upsetting to adults who have children.
  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Coraline goes through a mysterious door in her drawing room, and ends up in an alternate version of her home populated by alternate versions of the people who live there that seems too good to be true.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The passageway between the worlds turns out to be one of these towards the end. As Coraline makes her final escape, she touches the sides and discovers it's fleshy and covered in downy fur. Some steps later she touches it again and finds it hot and wet "as if she'd put her hand in someone's mouth".
  • "Eureka!" Moment: While Coraline is looking for the third ghost child's soul, she realizes that the Other Mother can't actually create anything — she can generate illusions and facsimiles of things in the real world, but they're just copies...which makes Coraline ask herself: what's the point of that snow globe on the mantel?
  • Evil Counterpart: Every inhabitant of the Other World is one for their real-life selves, but the Other Mother is the big one, since she created all the rest and is the Big Bad.
  • Exact Words: The Other Mother swears on her right hand she'll let Coraline go if she wins their game. Technically speaking, by having her right hand follow Coraline after the Other Mother breaks her word, she's keeping up her end of the bargain.
  • Eye Scream: The Other Mother wishes to sew buttons into Coraline's eyes. She's done it to other children before Coraline, as well.
  • Face-Revealing Turn: When Coraline first ventures into the Other World, the Other Mother does one of these to greet Coraline.
    "And then she turned around. Her eyes were big black buttons."
  • Fake Better Alternate Timeline: When the eponymous girl first finds the other dimension in her closet, she enjoys it — she wears the clothes she wants and there is a circus nearby. However, it then turns out to be a trap laid by the alternate parents, who want to sew buttons in her eyes and then kill her.
  • Fairy Tale: The book is one of Neil Gaiman's own invention — the simply told tale of a little girl who ventures into a mysterious realm and faces down terrifying monsters with her wits and determination. To top it off, the Other Mother is implied to be one of the fair folk, as is one of the ghost children, who has wings.
  • The Fair Folk: The Other Mother is heavily implied to be one of these. She loves to play games, which is a common trait of the fair folk, and her scheme of luring away human children to her otherworldly realm is reminiscent of changeling myths. Her other name, the beldam, is a synonym for witch, but might be a play on words related to a poem about a fairy that lures knights to her hill and sucks the life out of them. "Belle dame" is homophonous, and it's French for "beautiful lady", and "step-mother" for that matter. And if we know anything about fairy tales....
    • One of the ghost children is also a fairy.
    • That stone-with-a-hole-in-it? That's a self-bored stone, which according to Celtic Mythology tradition allows you to see through faerie illusions.
  • Fate Worse than Death: What happened to the ghost children, and what nearly happens to Coraline — the Other Mother fed on their love, removing their eyes so they would be imprisoned in her world forever, possessing them so completely that they lose their sense of identity and their consciousness is tossed aside. They're Not Quite Dead, referring to themselves as dried husks, and can't move on to the next life until someone saves their souls.
  • Fear Is Normal: At one point, Coraline remembers her father telling her that true bravery is doing something despite one's fear, such as when he braved a wasps' nest to retrieve something.
  • Femme Fatalons: The Other Mother has these.
    "Only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark red fingernails were curved and sharp."
  • Fisher Kingdom: Arguably, the Other World counts. After spending a night there, Coraline feels cloudy and groggy, and only after touching the adder stone — which is stated to provide protection against the Other Mother — in her pocket does she truly feel like herself again.
  • Glamour Failure: The Other Mother doesn't show up in mirrors. When Coraline asks her why, she simply replies that mirrors can't be trusted.
    • The Other World itself begins to suffer this as Coraline finds each of the Ghost Children's souls — as the Other Mother grows angrier and starts losing her hold on the place, it fades and flattens into something resembling a child's drawing, with no depth or color.
  • The Grotesque: The transformed Other Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, and by the end, what's left of the Other Father, each being melted barely-humanoid abominations of their former selves.
  • Helping Hands: The Other Mother loses her hand when Coraline closes the door on it in her final escape from the Other World, and it goes searching for the key in the real world.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The creepy chants sung by the rats, of which there are three, each creepier than the last. Sadly, all of them are absent from the film. The last one goes:
    We have eyes and we have nerveses
    We have tails we have teeth
    You'll all get what you deserveses
    When we rise from underneath.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. Coraline gets a glimpse at their former beauty during their performance in the Other World theater.
  • Impossible Task: Coraline has to find all three ghost souls to win the "game" the Other Mother agrees to play with her. Oh, and her missing parents, who are also lost in the Other World.
  • It May Help You on Your Quest: The self-bored stone, courtesy of the Misses Spink and Forcible. They're good for bad things, sometimes... Anyway, it might help... The adder stone is essential for Coraline to find the souls of the ghost children.
  • Kid Hero: Coraline. Her age is unclear, but the events of the book take place during her school holidays.
  • Knife-Throwing Act: The Other Misses Spink and Forcible perform this with Coraline as their audience "volunteer".
  • Lean and Mean: The Other Mother. After the first encounter, she's taller and thinner than Coraline's real mother.
  • Little Miss Snarker: Coraline tends to say things in a rather flat, deadpan tone.
    [the Other Mother eats a blackbeetle whole like a chocolate]
    “You’re sick,” said Coraline. “Sick and evil and weird.”
  • Magical Land: The Other World is an alternate version of Coraline's house with magical animate toys, talking cats, and child-kidnapping monsters with buttons for eyes.
  • Matricide: Played with. The Other Mother put her mother to the grave, "And when I caught her trying to crawl out, I put her back in". Does that mean she died either time? Is she dead now?
  • Mature Work, Child Protagonists: Inverted. The book was written for children, but evokes a vastly different reaction between the intended audience and the grown-ups who read it. Kids, Gaiman found out, see it as a child protagonist cleverly using their wits to escape danger. Grown-ups see a child left on her own in mortal peril.
  • Mind-Control Eyes: Everyone in the Other World (under the Other Mother's control) has buttons for eyes. The final step in stealing a child's soul is to sew buttons into their eyes too.
  • Muggle in Mage Custody: Coraline almost becomes a foster child of the Other Mother, who turns out to be a kind of evil witch.
  • New House, New Problems: The book starts with Coraline and her family having moved into a new house not long ago, and it's in this new house that the door to an Other World is located.
  • No Need for Names: The cat is only ever known as "the cat". According to him, cats don't have names, and they don't need them because unlike humans, they know who they are.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: The cat. It accompanies Coraline on each of her forays into the Other World, providing enigmatic advice and support.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Excellently evoked for a lot of the scares. As Coraline explores the Other World, its uncanny dissimilarities to the real world pile up until the tension has been ratcheted as high as it can go.
  • Not the First Victim: Coraline's discovery of the three ghost children reveals this, though the victims end up playing a larger role in the plot than usual for this trope.
  • Only Smart People May Pass: If Coraline can't see past the Other Mother's illusions to find her parents and the souls of the ghost children, she'll have to stay in the Other World forever.
  • Papa Wolf: Coraline tells the Cat a story of how she and her father stumbled into a wasps' nest near their old house. Her father told Coraline to run, while he stayed behind to be the one getting the majority of the bee stings.
  • Parental Bonus: Gaiman cites this as the reason the story is, ironically, scarier for grown-ups than for children. The themes go over children's heads, so they read it as an adventure story with some creepy monsters, delivering familiar Aesops such as "Be brave" and "Be Careful What You Wish For." Adults, on the other hand, get the message, "If you neglect your children, they might be kidnapped, mutilated, and murdered by somebody who pretends to be you."
  • Parental Love Song: The "twitchy-witchy" song, in which Coraline's father expresses his affection for his daughter by telling her (goofily) the things he will and won't do for her.
    Oh—-my twitchy witchy girl
    I think you are so nice,
    I give you bowls of porridge
    And I give you bowls of ice
    I give you lots of kisses,
    And I give you lots of hugs,
    But I never give you sandwiches
    With bugs
  • Parents in Distress: Coraline's parents are kidnapped by the Other Mother, and she has to challenge the Other Mother to an exploring game save them.
  • Perfection Is Static: The other crazy old man upstairs tries to persuade Coraline to stay in the Other World by promising that the Other Mother will make every day a paradise for her. Despite being only a child, Coraline is wise enough to understand that getting everything she ever wanted, all the time, would be meaningless.
    Coraline: And will there be grey, wet days where I just don't know what to do and there's nothing to read or to watch and nowhere to go and the day drags on forever?
    Other Crazy Old Man Upstairs: Never.
    Coraline: And will there be awful meals, with food made from recipes, with garlic and tarragon and broad beans in?
    Other Crazy Old Man Upstairs: Every meal will be a thing of joy. Nothing will pass your lips that does not entirely delight you.
    Coraline: And could I have Day-Glo green gloves to wear, and yellow Wellington boots in the shape of frogs?
    Other Crazy Old Man Upstairs: Frogs, ducks, rhinos, octopuses — whatever you desire. The world will be built new for you every morning. If you stay here, you can have whatever you want.
    Coraline: You really don't understand, do you? 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?
  • Pineapple Ruins Pizza: One of Coraline's pet peeves is the food prepared by her father, because he always experiences weird recipes, which she refuses to eat. After defeating the Other Mother and getting her parents back, her father makes for dinner a pizza with meatballs, green pepper and pineapple. Having learned to accept her parents as they are, Coraline eats her slice of pizza - except the pineapple pieces.
  • Plot Coupon: The souls of the ghost children. Coraline challenges the Other Mother to an exploring game in order to escape, with the souls as tokens that she has to produce for the Other Mother before she can be set free. If she can't find them, she'll be trapped in the Other World forever.
  • Plucky Girl: Coraline faces down all the horrors the Other Mother can throw at her but never once whines or gives up.
  • Police Are Useless: Coraline calls the police to report her parents kidnapped, but is told to go to bed by the cop. Understandably, since she tells him her parents are stuck in a mirror and that the Other Mother wants to sew buttons into their eyes...
  • Post-Climax Confrontation: After Coraline successfully escapes from the Other Mother and her custom dimension, her severed hand returns and attacks the former one final time in a last-ditch effort to reclaim the key that'll then allow the latter to enter the normal world, but the sequence instead ends with the severed hand getting dropped right on down into a deep hole with a boulder holding it down as well on top of that, and as an added bonus, this also even happens within the animated film adaptation near the end.
  • Protagonist Title: Coraline, starring Coraline.
  • Psychic Powers: Miss Spink and Miss Forcible have mild psychic ability: they accurately read tea leaves to tell Coraline's future, and Miss Spink gives Coraline a self-bored stone, sensing that the girl might need it soon.
    • There's also Mr. Bobo's mice, who send Coraline a cryptic warning "not to go through the door"; Mr. Bobo himself can communicate with the mice.
  • Pun: After her parents disappear, Coraline remarks to Miss Spink and Miss Forcible that she thinks she's become a "single-child family".
  • Reading Tea Leaves: Spink and Forcible insist on reading Coraline's tea leaves, and discover an omen of doom in them.
  • Real Fake Door: This is the normal state of the door to the Other World, as it originally led to another part of the house, but got blocked off in the process of dividing the house into flats.
  • See-Thru Specs: The stone with the hole in it. When Coraline looks through it, she can see the souls of the ghost children glowing.
  • Shout-Out: At the beginning of chapter 8, the illustration shows a mess of toys, including a Pikachu's head.
  • Sore Loser: After Coraline finds the first soul, the Other Mother sends a roaring wind indoors to slow her down. She also has no intention of letting Coraline go, whether she wins the exploring game or not.
  • Stylistic Suck: The story that Coraline writes on her dad's computer when she discovers that her parents are missing.
  • Supreme Chef: The Other Mother is much better at cooking than either of Coraline's parents. When she makes a delicious lunch of roasted chicken, potatoes, and peas, Coraline mentally compares it to her mother's chicken which is always dry and tasteless, and her father's chicken which is cooked in strange recipes.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The Other Mother tells Coraline she shouldn't listen to ghosts because they don't exist and everyone knows ghosts are liars.
  • Talking Animal: The cat, although only in the Other World.
  • Trapped in Another World: Near the end, the Other Mother. As for the ghost children, they're stuck there until Coraline can find their souls.
  • Urban Fantasy: In an ordinary house, behind an ordinary door, there's an Other World inhabited by a witch/faerie and her servants who scheme to lure children away from their families and trap their souls forever.
  • Vague Age: This seems to be the case with Coraline. The illustration for the first chapter makes her look like a teenager, but the story she writes on her father's computer is the work of an eight-year-old, maximum.
  • Vagueness Is Coming: Lampshaded. When Miss Spink and Miss Forcible read Coraline's tea leaves for the first time, they warn her that she's in serious danger. She asks what that danger is, and they explain that they can't tell—the leaves are good for general predictions, but don't reveal anything about specifics.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The Other Mother, in a way, as she's an evil alternate version of Coraline's real mother.
  • Wicked Witch: The Other Mother is a supernatural creature who uses illusions to kidnap innocent children and trap their souls forever.
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: Discussed. Coraline tells her parents a story about confusing alien abductors by wearing a wig and talking in a foreign accent.
  • Yandere: The Other Mother insists that she does everything she does because she loves Coraline, even as she tries to steal her soul and sew buttons into her eyes.
  • You Dirty Rat!: The species of the rodents in Coraline's house depends on which world she's in. Good world = mice. Bad world = rats. Simple.
  • You Won't Feel a Thing!: At one point, the Other Parents tell Coraline this when they try to convince her to let them sew the buttons on her eyes. Coraline doesn't believe them for an instant, as whenever adults say that something won't hurt, it always hurts very much.