Gaiman, Neil: Coraline (audio)

Another audio book, this one Coraline, written and read by Neil Gaiman. On Wednesday, during our escape to air conditioning, we stopped in at our Local Independent Bookstore (hey, we were in the plaza anyway to do a couple of errands). They didn’t have the book of this yet, but did have it on cassette; since we’d heard Gaiman read the first few chapters at Boskone and knew he was a good reader, and since we had a couple of hours’ driving to get to the air conditioning, we said why not.

Coraline and her family have just moved, into a big old English house that is divided into flats. There is a crazy old man living in the top flat, who says he is training a mouse circus (hence the URL of the official site; it’s Flash, according to Gaiman’s journal (which appears to not do permalinks, annoyingly), so I haven’t bothered going there). There are two old women on the bottom floor, who drink tea and read the leaves and walk their Highland terriers and talk about when they trod the boards. And in Coraline’s flat, there is a locked door that opens onto a brick wall—except when it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it opens into a dark passage that smells of something very old and very slow. The passage leads to a flat very like Coraline’s, where her other mother and other father live. They look and sound like her parents, and love Coraline very much, and want her to stay forever . . . but their skin is paper-white, and their eyes are shiny black buttons.

I enjoyed this very much, though I can’t say whether I enjoyed it more for hearing it first. There are few definite pluses to hearing it first. For instance, I picture the button eyes (a positively brilliant bit of creepy imagery) differently than Dave McKean illustrates them (yes, we bought the book too, later), bigger and sewn cross-wise, not parallel. Some of the characters call the other mother the “beldam,” which I heard as “belle dame,” as in “sans merci”; since I usually don’t pronounce things in my head as I read, I probably would have mis-read or misunderstood. More generally, Gaiman does the voices really well (and it’s a treat to hear his soft English-corrupted-by-America accent says things like “weird”), and the rat songs by the Gothic Archies (Stephin Merritt’s band), are terrific, though I don’t care for the theme song.

Audio books are, by their nature, a slower way to experience a novel, which can both heighten and deflate suspense. I commented about this in relation to The Reptile Room; though Coraline has more plot than The Reptile Room, I still found myself trying to tell Coraline “Don’t you remember this,” or “Didn’t you notice that,” or “What about this other thing?” It’s not that she’s an annoyingly stupid protagonist—she’s really quite sharp—but that’s the format again. (There was another point where something bad happened and then I had to turn over the tape, during which time I figured out, “Oh, of course, X will happen and take care of it.” And it did. Had I been reading, I would have gasped, barrelled on, and been surprised by X. The only point of which is that in an ideal world, audio books would be arranged so that they broke at chapters.)

On the other hand, I think I was considerably more creeped out by hearing this than by reading it, again because of the slower format. When I’m hearing something, I put a lot more effort into visualizing it than when I’m reading, and there are some lovely creepy bits here to visualize. I believe, at one point Wednesday night, I insisted that black rats with little red eyes were staring at me when I shut my eyes. In my defense, I must say that by the time we arrived at the air conditioning I was extremely car sick, and consequently fell face-first into bed and went to sleep almost immediately. Chad woke me up to change for bed, and thus when I said that, I was still quite sick and about 85% asleep. (But they were, all the same.) There’s a dash of something Stephen King-flavored (short stories, not novels) to Coraline; perhaps it’s something about the tunnel, and the mist, and the cocoons. It is, undoubtedly, a strange little book.

It is also a fairy tale, and accordingly runs on some of the logic and conventions of fairy tales. For instance, Coraline is given clues and tools along the way, and the how and why of those clues and tools isn’t important next to how she uses them to prevail. (I mention this because I found myself wanting to know more than we’re told, and had to remind myself what genre we were in.) There are also a couple of set-piece conversations which I heard as Gaiman attempting to subvert certain children’s stories/fairy tale conventions, which don’t work as successfully; again, perhaps it’s because I was hearing it, but I found them slightly awkward and obvious. (Terry Pratchett can pull stuff like that off in his Discworld books, but when he hits A Message, it’s inherent in the story from the start.) It’s a small point and one that doesn’t really affect the rest of the story.

Anyway: good stuff, which I found considerably more satisfying for what it was than Gaiman’s last novel, American Gods. I frankly don’t know whether to recommend the text or the audio book, but either would probably do just fine. (If you get the book, though, check that you got the regular edition; Borders was selling a limited edition, which had just a few pages of extra material at the end for something like eight bucks more.)

[Update: per Gaiman’s journal, which still does not do permalinks [entry for July 8], the more expensive edition was “produced for comics stores as a ‘retail incentive,'” and why Borders is selling it is a mystery. So, Stupid Bookstore Tricks, not Stupid Publisher Tricks.]

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