There’s something about being trapped in the world of Neil Gaiman. It’s not like being ensnared in the world of cute talking and singing animals of Walt Disney that leaves you light and fluffy inside. Nor is like being caught up in the world of modern vampire lore writers Stephenie Meyer and ilk. No drop-dead gorgeous, angst-filled vampires with impeccable sartorial skills to fill your head with twisted romance fantasies.
In Gaiman’s world of parallel universes, you walk through the unexpected without the hackneyed blood and gore, without the trite hero-heroine tryst and the stereotypical good-bad characters. You meet shrewd characters and supernatural characters caught up in situations that are extraordinary like the young Coraline who finds herself faced with her other parents and the young orphan Nobody Owens who is raised by a family of spirits and vampire guardian in a graveyard.
Coraline and The Graveyard Book are two of Gaiman’s books that have caught the attention of young readers worldwide. Coraline, in fact, has a film spin-off with the same title featuring Dakota Fanning as the voice of Coraline.
Written in 2002 and illustrated by Dave McKean, Coraline highlights the aphorism “Be careful with what you wish for” even though one doesn’t say it out aloud. The setting – an old-new house – is almost isolated, its isolation heightened by the dreary cold weather. The remoteness is further emphasized in Coraline’s situation because she has no friend – she’s an only child and her parents are too absorbed in their work to spend time with her.
The other characters are an array of bizarre and interesting – far from the two-dimensional characters – and this includes a talking cat.
Coraline and her busy parents had just moved into an old-new house. It’s a new house because it’s a new place for them and literally an old house with “an attic under the roof and cellar under the ground and an overgrown garden with huge old trees in it.” [pg 3] The house is partitioned off. One part is occupied by two retired stage actresses who are reminiscent of JK Rowling’s character Professor Trelawney, Miss Forcible and Miss Spink. Meanwhile upstairs is occupied by a “crazy old man with a moustache…training a mouse circus”. [pg 4]
Her adventures (or misadventures?) began when she found a mysterious door, which opened into a brick wall earlier on but, on the next try, she walked through. Down the corridor she went and into an exact replica of her old-new home where she meets her other mother and other father. Her other parents are exact opposites of her real parents, the ones she had been wanting. The other mother always fixes scrumptious meals and prepares everything for her while her other father pays attention to her. Earlier on, which Coraline doesn’t put much weight on, the other parents hint eerily at her fate: “‘We’ve been waiting for you for a long time,’ said Coraline’s other father.’” [pg 29]
Reiterates other mother: “‘…It wasn’t the same here without you. But we knew you’d arrive one day, and then we could be a proper family.’” [pg 29]
Coraline soon finds herself caught up in the much better world where meals are on time and her parents pay attention to her. “‘This is more like it, thought Coraline.’” [pg 30]
And just as the one gets comfortable with the turn of events, Coraline’s real parents go missing. The situation is far from easily walking back through the other door, locking it and throwing away the key. Other mother is pure evil, domineering and manipulative, as Coraline learns from other father and the three souls she discovers in a cabinet.
Following the advice of the cat coupled with wit and determination, Coraline rises to the occasion and locks horns with her other mother in a bid to get back her old life and imperfect parents. Although the ending is far from the adorable Walt Disney- endings, it’s still a happy ending nonetheless.
The Graveyard Book, on the other hand, is the latest from Gaiman who wrote it in 2008. Its pacing is slower and the storyline slightly unnerving compared to Coraline. It’s unnerving in the Edgar Allan Poe kind of way where the macabre sends a chill up your spine. Like the classic Dracula by Irish author Bram Stoker where the thought of Dracula is morbid enough – no need descriptions of blood dripping down his fangs or him ripping out the necks of his poor victims – Nobody’s situation is ghastly.
A graveyard setting is the first that grabs one’s attention followed by the storyline of a boy raised by a family of ghosts and vampire-guardian Silas. Third is the mystery behind the killing of the “architect Dorian Ronald Dorian, 36, and his wife, Carlotta, 34, a publisher, and their daughter Misty, 7, at 33 Dunstan Road.” [pg 227] There is no mention of Nobody Owens in the news but the mystery is him. Who is he? Why is he living in the graveyard? Why did he survive? Why is being hunted by the Jacks?
The characters are fascinating beginning with the spirits roaming the graveyard, which is a community of its own with set of rules. Individually, there’s the intriguing Liza, the witch who lives on “potter’s fields… (the site) for criminals and the suicides or those who were not of the faith.” [pg 94] Next is Miss Lupescu who Nobody thought “was not pretty. Her face was pinched and her expression was disapproving. Her hair was grey…her front teeth were slightly crooked (and) wore a bulky mackintosh and a man’s tie.” [pg 59] Despite her unappealing look and less-than-delectable dishes she made for Nobody, he learned, later on, of her place in his life. Then there’s Silas who sent Nobody back into the whole of the living, but not without packing a suitcase for him, a passport “made out in the name of Nobody Owens” and a battered old wallet with enough money for him to start in the world.
The revelation of Silas is done brilliantly; a cloud of mystery surrounded him until Gaiman revealed telling details about him in the last few pages of the book. Silas doesn’t have a reflection and carries the place he sleeps in when he’s far from his house – a steamer trunk “lined with whiteness” [pg 283] and dried earth.
The ending, again, is not your cute Disney ending. In fact, the ending is far from a completely happy ending. It’s bittersweet – Nobody is finally free to lead a life in the real world, but for a hefty price.
Being in Gaiman’s world is taking a brief respite from the real world. But you get the feeling that both worlds are not that different. At least, in Gaiman’s world, you can get on and off it when you feel like it.

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