It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more.
In a rare reversal for me, I saw the movie “Coraline” before reading the book. The book is simpler than the movie, but no less eerie for that. In the tradition of Medea, The Wicked Stepmother, Cassiopeia, and Mother Goethel, Coraline’s Other Mother evokes the archetype of the malevolent, selfish, smothering female parent. Neil Gaiman, realizing that he is working with timelessly affecting material that needs little embellishment, uses a light hand to evoke a few powerfully dark images.
As a sidebar, I can’t overstate the importance of this technique in a good fairytale. If you, as a writer, know what your world feels like, and you carefully select just a few details to plant seeds in your readers’ minds, the best thing you can do is sit back and let those details take root. When I’m reading, I appreciate it when the writer leaves some space for me to let his story mingle in my head with the ideas that are already there.
If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, you might not know that the focus of both is young Coraline Jones, whose parents are loving, but typically preoccupied with work, and quirky in the ways that most offend the exacting preferences of a child under the age of ten. Coraline is tired of her mother’s indifferent taste in school clothes, and her father’s strange culinary concoctions, so when she finds that the door in the drawing-room (that was bricked up just yesterday) leads down a long dark hallway, she goes exploring. What she finds is a new set of parents on the other end of the hall. These parents, her Other Mother and Other Father, look almost exactly like her old parents, except they have buttons sewn where their eyes should be. This set of parents wants nothing more than to entertain Coraline and keep her life interesting, and all she has to do is consent to have her eyes replaced by buttons. The Other Parents assure her this won’t hurt at all– but Coraline wisely suspects this is false, as adults always tell you this about the things that hurt most.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Other Mother turns out to be not what she seems, but I don’t want to say much more than that, because there’s not much more to this book, and it works perfectly that way. Other Mother’s minimally-drawn character allows her to be the universally terrifying evil parent we’ve all encountered, whether in stories or real life.