The January 25th Star Tribune carried Eric Hanson’s feature on Coraline and Neil, amongst other things.
The story began, appropriately, with a child. A little girl would arrive home from school, climb into her father’s lap and weave tales from the loose threads of her imagination and dreams. He found them disturbing but fascinating. In some of the stories, an evil witch would capture the girl. In one, a witch pretended to be the girl’s mother. The little girl’s name was Holly. Her father’s name was Neil Gaiman.
“I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be fun to write one of these for her, to do something that would have the same level of creepiness as the stories she tells me,” said the English writer, 43, who now lives about an hour east of the Twin Cities in Wisconsin.
Ten years later the story turned out to be “Coraline,” Gaiman’s second children’s book and one that is being hailed by critics as an “instant classic,” worthy of being shelved alongside the works of Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Eerie, adventurous and at times downright scary, “Coraline” won the Hugo Award for best novella when it was published last year, the second time Gaiman received fantasy’s premier prize. Salon senior editor Laura Miller called the book “sublime” and wrote that it was “Gaiman’s most polished piece of writing yet.” In the British newspaper the Guardian, Philip Pullman _ author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy for children _ said he was enthralled.
“Not since four English schoolchildren walked through a wardrobe and discovered the magical land of Narnia has the simple act of opening a door unlocked such a fantastic journey,” wrote Kelly DiNardo in USA Today.
“Coraline” is the story of Coraline Jones, a bored only child who is ignored by her busy parents in the ordinary and seemingly benign way that some parents do.
“Here’s a piece of paper and pen,” her father tells her, feeling pestered. “Count all the doors and the windows. List everything blue. Mount an expedition to discover the hot water tank. And leave me alone to work.”
She does as he says, but in doing so, discovers an unused door. Passing through it, she finds an alternate, darker version of her own house inhabited by an “other mother” and an “other father.” They resemble her parents but have black buttons for eyes and long fingers with clawlike nails.
From the start there is a threatening, smothering quality to the other mother’s “love” for Coraline. “I will never become bored with you, and I will never abandon you. You will always be safe here with me.” Eventually, Coraline must triumph over her in a battle for the souls of her actual parents.
“The strange thing about ‘Coraline’ is every now and then I run into adults who are really disturbed and upset by it,” said Gaiman. “But so far, I have yet to run into any kids who saw it as anything other than a roller-coaster ride. I don’t know whether it’s because kids have a better sense of what is reality and what is fantasy than adults, but that’s very true. Kids know what is real and what isn’t.”
Perhaps, he said, kids and adults “are reading different genres. Kids are reading a book about someone like them who is going up against something scary and triumphing. Adults are reading a book about a child in danger. A child in danger is a different kind of story; it particularly troubles adults. But I think it’s very good for kids to be told that the world is not always a safe and hospitable place.”
“I find his books more frightening than mine. But I don’t necessarily find them inappropriately scary,” Daniel Handler said. Under the pen-name Lemony Snicket, Handler is the author of the gothic and moody “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books. “One thing that always annoys me is when children are talked about in one large, broad category; it’s like the last allowed bigotry in society. Clearly, Mr. Gaiman’s books would be too scary for some readers and not scary enough for some readers. I would be hard-pressed to think of a story that didn’t have at least some threat of something in it. And Neil Gaiman takes that threat very seriously, as do I.”
“Coraline,” Handler said, “taps into so many primal spots in the imagination, it’s fascinating: It taps into what’s scary about an empty house, what’s scary about a dark closet, what’s scary about rats and what’s scary about mysterious neighbors. And the overall feeling that the world you live in is one of many worlds _ and that in the blink of an eye the most comforting people in your life can become the most terrifying. He combines a lot of familiar, terrifying tropes into something that is a delight to read.”
Enter ‘The Sandman’
Greg Ketter, owner of DreamHaven Books and Comics in Minneapolis, has known Gaiman since they met on a train bound for London in 1985. At the time, Gaiman was a freelance journalist. Their mutual interest in comic books _ Ketter sold them and Gaiman wanted to write them _ drew them together. When Gaiman and his wife moved with their three children to Wisconsin to be nearer to his wife’s family, the two resumed the friendship. “Angels & Visitations,” Gaiman’s first short-story collection, was published by DreamHaven and will be newly issued in what Ketter calls “sort of a 10-year anniversary edition.” Gaiman, Ketter said, was “pretty much the same as he is now: enthusiastic and interesting. He is so unfailingly nice to people, I’m always amazed.”
Amazed, because in the world of comics and the fantasy and horror genres, Gaiman is revered at a level most authors cannot fathom. Gaiman’s book signings are notoriously long, both because of how many people show up and because of the time he spends with people. Ketter said the largest of Gaiman’s frequent signings at DreamHaven drew 500 people, but a recent signing in Toronto lasted six hours.
On the message board of Gaiman’s exhaustive Web site, fans indulge in speculative discussions. “Are there any plans to adapt [the novel “American Gods”] to graphic novel format?” asks Rob. “Don’t hold your breath,” replies Skylion. Shadeaux asks Gaiman to please call him. “Neil doesn’t check the boards _ you can contact him through the site via the FAQ area,” replies the administrator, GMZoe.
“It’s a bit weird” negotiating access to fans, admits Gaiman, who started his journal, or blog, during the run-up to publication of “American Gods,” his bestselling 2001 novel. “One of the reasons I keep the site going is it would be tremendously easy to have some sort of odd cult of personality. . . . The nice thing if I’m actually talking is, at least the personality is mine, and at least I can go in there and deflate it.”
That cult has, as its ever-replenishing wellspring, “The Sandman,” the landmark monthly series he wrote for the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics between 1988 and 1996. Telling the fantastical stories of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, and his archetypal siblings _ Death, Destiny, Desire, Delirium and others _ it ran for 75 issues and secured Gaiman’s place among those such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore who helped to remake comics into a mature art form in the 1980s and ’90s. “My 2,000-page story,” Gaiman has called it. Seven years after the series officially ended, “The Sandman” is still selling in paperback anthologies _ all of it totaling more than 7 million copies to date.
“There were other comic books that were intelligent and literary and did wonderful things with superheroes, but ‘Sandman’ touched a chord with a really broad and _ for comics _ unusual base for readers,” novelist Alisa Kwitney said. An editor at DC Comics, she worked with Gaiman and wrote the recent ‘Sandman’ primer, “The Sandman: King of Dreams.”
One of the ways in which “The Sandman” was different, she said,
that it brought in female readers, and readers who didn’t read other comic books. Gaiman has joked that the process was largely “sexually transmitted”: Boyfriends passed copies to girlfriends.
It also helped that the series had substantial female characters and they weren’t all Pamela Anderson clones. Beyond that, Kwitney said, Gaiman “has that ancient, around-the-campfire storyteller’s ability to say, ‘I’m going to speak, and kings and lawyers and exhausted mothers are all going to listen, because what I have to say is gripping.’ “
That storyteller’s sense, coupled with what Kwitney calls an unusual combination of artistic and business savvy, helped Gaiman leverage his stature in comics into mainstream success in publishing and film work. Novels such as “American Gods” and “Neverwhere,” the latter based on a series he created for British TV, could be shelved just as easily in a bookstore’s literary fiction area as among genre books. It is their hybrid nature that appeals to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, who included one of Gaiman’s stories in a book he edited, “McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.”
“Art in the 20th century was all about breaking down walls and piercing barriers between high and low, genre and mainstream, letting all the received categories flood into one another’s territories,” Chabon said. “Maybe the 21st century is about mapping the new landscape that we find ourselves in, now that all those floodwaters of revolution have receded. And Neil is one of our most intrepid and gifted explorers of that new territory.”
Author event: Gaiman will appear for a reading and discussion at 2 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. $12; $10 for members of Talking Volumes, Minnesota Public Radio or the Loft Literary Center. 651-290-1221. To register free for Talking Volumes, visit http://startribune.com/talkingvolumes.
Family day event: Families will be invited to further explore Gaiman’s “Coraline” at 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Loft Literary Center in Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Minneapolis. Hosted by the Loft and facilitated by Star Tribune’s Maria Elena Baca and Loft instructor/author John Coy.
A box with this article incorrectly listed author John Coy as a co-facilitator for the family event at the Loft Literary Center in Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S. The box should have listed Loft instructor David Bernardy for the 10 a.m.-1 p.m. event Feb. 21.