I wasn't even aware that the new film Coraline was based on a novel. I'd been trying to decide if the movie would be too intense for my kids (particularly the youngest two) and as I was walking through the bookstore one night, I saw the book sitting on a shelf. I bought it and plowed through it in a couple of hours (it is a fairly quick read).
The setting of the story is a creepy old English house (manor?) that's been subdivided into a series of flats. Coraline lives with her family in one fairly standard flat. A strange old gypsy lives in the flat formed from the attic. And a pair of retired eccentric fortune telling thespians live on the other side of the main level. Between them all is a flat with no tenants that exists behind a brick wall on the other side of a door in Coraline's drawing room.
The layout of the house and its surrounding are a bit creepy in themselves. Coraline is an explorer by trade (is it fair of me to call it a "trade" for such a young girl) and so she's explored the outside of the house as well as some of the rooms of her neighbors. The yard/grounds are run down. The house itself seems to lack any real personality at present but shows evidence of a great personality in days gone by.
The main character is obviously Coraline Jones. We really get into her head and walk alongside her every action and get to partake of her thoughts, fears and motivations. This intimacy helps accentuate the scary elements presented in the book.
As Coraline encounters other characters, we're always looking at them through her eyes, so it's difficult to see just how strange they may be. Still, even trying to discount Coraline's bias, it's easy enough to see by their actions and their environments that these are definitely strange adults...bordering closely on the line of crazy.
Coraline's parents are fairly standard as far as fairy tale parents go...they are disinterested, uninvolved parents who don't seem to care for Coraline's welfare and who quickly disappear from her life. They are probably the most "realistic" and "sane" characters in the book. They also serve as a sort of commentary on parental involvement...they are definitely not the sort of parents a kid would like to have (nor the sort of parent a parent should try to be).
Miss Forcible and Miss Spink are the next most influential set of characters on Coraline from the "real world." They really sit in a sort of peripheral role but they do read Coraline's fortune in the tea leaves and give her a strange magical talisman. Beyond that, they seem to be just another pair of eccentrics.
Mister Bobo (aka the man upstairs) is given very little treatment in the book except appearing to be very crazy as he talks to the mice he's trying to train into circus performers. As you pay attention to the things the mice "tell" him, it's apparent that he may not be as crazy as we think.
The Other Mother (aka beldam) is the real antagonist in the story. She lures Coraline into the other world and tries to entice her to stay by giving her "everything she wants." It quickly becomes apparent that the Other Mother has ulterior motives and is not just looking for Coraline's "love" as she claims. The Other Mother takes on grotesque characteristics and behaviors that could be truly terrifying to younger children.
The Cat is an interesting character. It seems to serve as Coraline's guide through the other world and a sort of sounding board to explore ideas and learn about the Other Mother and the other world. The cat doesn't seem to have his (her? its?) own motivations and acts very nonchalant towards Coraline, and yet he does seem to have some desire to help her.
I've heard this story referred to as kind of a creepy Alice in Wonderland. While it does involve a girl going into a strange sort of world where everything behaves strangely...and it does have a talking cat that sometimes gives enigmatic advice...don't think that simply loving Alice means you'll love Coraline. More specifically, if a young child loves the Alice stories, don't view Coraline as a logical transition.
Realize that the comparison includes the word "creepy." This truly is a child's horror story. The plot includes a protagonist diving headlong into a strange and unpredictable world, fighting for her own life/soul and the lives/souls of her parents and three unidentified other children. There are occasional moments of whimsy but they are very short lived, to be replaced by images ranging from the slightly creepy to the skin-crawlingly scary.
As Coraline gets more and more involved in the plot, the events grow more and more scary. The "other" characters she encounters (the actresses, her father, the man upstairs) start out almost as normal as their real world counterparts, but as the story progresses, they each are involved in action that is rather scary.
The actions of the Other Mother are perhaps the most frightening. And even when it seems Coraline has finally won and it's time for the story to wrap up, you begin to wonder if the horror will ever truly end. With only two chapters left in the book, Coraline suddenly faces a new terror and has to overcome a new challenge.
Overall I really enjoyed the book. It was a very quick read and I did wish that it had another hundred pages to it where it could have gone into more depth about some of the trials Coraline faced, or perhaps introduce some new elements. It also felt like it took perhaps a little long to get started, but that back story really helped, so I probably wouldn't remove it except for the fact that younger readers might get bored before getting into the meat of the tale.
My main curiosity is as to the target demographic. This definitely seemed a bit more scary than the Goosebumps books my son has been reading. I don't necessarily think it's too scary for him but I am still nervous about handing it to him to read on a school night (for fear of a nightmare filled sleepless night). It's definitely a dark read.
Maybe I'm making kids out to be more wussy than they are but this seemed like too much for younger kids...and yet teenagers may be put off by how young the protagonist is and how simplistic the events are.
This is a lot of fun and I can recommend it to older readers with a penchant for the creepy but am hesitant to recommend it to kids under ~10. I'm definitely interested to see how the movie plays out...from the previews I've seen, it looks more entertaining/whimsical than the book (the preview shows numerous "fun" elements that aren't in the book)...which means it might be more accessible to younger kids. If anybody's seen the movie, let me know what you think.