Perfect mom is a nightmare

Neil Gaiman's instant classic follows young Coraline into the ideal family living right next door

If you open a door that's normally bricked up and a mysterious passage appears, slam that sucker shut and run.

"Don't go in there!" has been standard advice for every fairy tale and horror character since Bluebeard first got married.

Happily for readers, no self-respecting heroine since Bluebeard's wife has been able to withstand the lure of a locked door. Coraline, the bored young girl at the center of Neil Gaiman's beautifully spooky tale, proves no exception.

She and her distracted parents have just moved into a big old house that's been converted into apartments. Left to entertain herself while they busy themselves, she meets the quirky neighbors, all of whom get her name wrong - "It's Coraline, not Caroline."

She explores the grounds to find the well she's been ordered to stay away from, and she counts everything blue. But then she runs out of things to do.

One afternoon, while her mother is out, Coraline opens the bricked-up door in the drawing room, finds a secret passage, and walks inside. On the other side is an apartment that looks almost exactly like hers, and a woman who looks almost exactly like her mother - "only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark red fingernails were curved and sharp." And she has large black buttons for eyes.

The woman tells Coraline that she's her "other mother." In her "other" house, Coraline gets to eat her favorite foods, dress in the kinds of clothes she loves, and play with toys far more fantastic than any in her real house. But when she goes back home through the passage, she finds that her real parents are gone and that her "other mother" has no intention of letting her new daughter escape her loving embrace.

Unlike many of the other adult writers trying their hand at a children's tale, Gaiman ("American Gods," "Neverwhere") actually seems to understand the way children think. And his writing has the pared-down elegance of the best fairy tales. He begins with a quote from G.K. Chesterton: "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

While some reviewers have called "Coraline" a horror story, it falls squarely in the fairy-tale tradition. There are certainly scary moments here, but the energy is more ominous than terrifying, and the Brothers Grimm trafficked in more gore. The publisher claims it's for children 8 and up, but I'd feel uncomfortable buying it for anyone younger than 10 or 11.

Young adults will enjoy the book's creepy humor and its unsettling exploration of what we really want and need from the people who love us.

Yvonne Zipp is editor of the Arts & Leisure section.

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