Episode 24: Coraline - The Other Side of Our Doors


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            There’s an irony to me doing an entire month of spooky reviews, stemming from the fact that —simply put—I’ve never been that good at being scared. Some people seek out the thrill that comes from being scared or confronting the horrors lurking on the outskirts of our world, and meanwhile, I’m running as quickly as I can from literally everything. Like I couldn’t walk down the seasonal Halloween aisle of a drug store until I was twelve, and even then, I was holding my breath as I did it. And you know the childhood staple of so many 90s kids? The Goosebumps series? Yep, never read them. I couldn’t handle it. Even some of the covers bothered me.

            I’m not proud of this quirk. I’m well aware that it’s inconvenient, causing me to miss out on a lot of what is fun in life, and is likely the result of a brain whose sense of self-preservation—while not technically misguided—is slightly out of whack. But recognizing this fact doesn’t change it or the fact that I still avoid content with a scarier bend to it. But not scarier in the existential sense or in the human beings are capable of truly horrible things sense. Those things don’t bother as much as they PROBABLY should considering that sort of thing is more relevant to my reality.

No, it’s the fictional monsters that get me. The costumes, the creations, the make-believe. What’s weird is that it's the more commercialized horror that seems to get me most. And that’s usually the safest version because often times it’s built with a very clear out. Stab the vampire with a stake, hit the wolf with silver bullet, or say goodbye on the Ouija board. There’s a way to purge these demons from existence unlike the destructiveness of the human soul, and yet this is what scares me. The idea that there is a monster that can only be defeated if you do a certain set of things just perfectly hits all the hidden buttons in my very soul.

            In other (fewer) words, it’s the spooky or the spoopy that gets me. The very things I’m supposed to be reviewing this month. True, it doesn’t bother me so much now, I can say. But the bar was set pretty low from the get go. But to be completely honest, to this day, I still avoid horror films and certain Halloween specials.

            So—in some ways—it’s quite an achievement when a piece of spooky media can force its way into my life despite this initial reaction. More so if it can get me to finish it. And the ultimate compliment—perhaps the greatest compliment I could give anything—is to say that I finished and genuinely loved something spooky. And those are the pieces of media I want to talk about this month.

But especially today.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 24.

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            Today I want to talk about Coraline. Not the movie adaptation directed by Henry Selick, though, considering last week, that would be… Fitting? Telling? I’m not quite sure which would fit best at the end of that sentence. Not that it matters. I’ve watched the movie, yes, but not until I read the source material, which was the thing that stuck with me.

            So, Coraline is the 2002 novella by Neil Gaiman. It’s a dark fantasy children’s story that follows the adventures of the girl named Coraline. Weird name, right? Where did Neil Gaiman find it? What baby name service did he use because I’m sure every aspiring artist out there would like to use it or anything that’s Neil Gaiman approved. Well it was a typo. According to the internet, anyway. And it’s not that I believe everything that the internet says, but in the grand scheme of things this is a rather inconsequential issue that makes for a great and thematically appropriate story, so whatever. It works. Just don’t make any important life or societal decisions based on it. But if it’s wrong. I apologize. Just bear with me for now.

            Anyway, Neil Gaiman was trying to type out the name Caroline but got Coraline instead, and thought that this girl, whoever had this name—probably had an adventure of her own. Which is what we get to read.

            Coraline has been compared to the Alice who explored Wonderland, and I don’t think that’s a forced comparison by any means. Our young hero, Coraline Jones, and her family have moved into a set of apartments that isn’t exactly the typical apartment complex. For one, it’s an old house that was converted into a set of apartments. And on the other hand, the neighbors are… a bit eccentric. You have a pair of women who retired from the stage and a man seemingly trying to make it onto the stage with the help of the mouse circus he’s been training.

            The actual flat beside hers is empty, connected to her with a small door. Actually it’s not quite connected. It’s bricked up. And considering the warnings everyone is giving her, that’s probably a good thing.

But then there’s a chance to go through it. One day when she’s alone, the brick wall is gone, and in its place, there’s a long hallway to another world, another family, another nightmare than the one she thought she had moved into.

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            Considering the novellas release date and just general common sense, you might think I read this novellas as a child, which would explain why I was so freaked out by it. But nope. You might want to listen to the opening again. Just for your reference.

            The actual story of how I read Coraline isn’t so forgiving…. I had moved out to the big city a few months prior, but my tiny studio apartment was housing its first visitor. And sure, it wasn’t a luxurious setting by any stretch of the imagination, but she was one of my best friends and could overlook the creaking of the floorboard or the sounds of my neighbors yelling in each other’s general direction. Not fighting. It was a weird situation. Also neither of them were hard of hearing. They just were loud with each other. Not with everyone else. Just each other.

            In addition to being my best friend, she was also my partner in crime when it came to bookstore crawls, which are exactly what they sound like but tend to be more expensive than pub crawls because there’s likely a strong correlation between being inclined to do a bookstore crawl and not having any self-control in bookstores. Lucky for me, I only do this when she comes to visit, which is not that common. Insert the adage about silver linings and all that…

            We were in one of these bookstores when she found a copy of Coraline and immediately recommended it to me. She had read it as a child but swore up and down that it was the type of book that would work its way into the heart of any readier. Trusting her, I bought a copy—despite not having any bookshelf space to spare—and read it as soon as she left.

            I had no reason not to trust her. Except—rationally— that we had never had any conversations about my aversion to the spooky. It’s just not the sort of thing would ever come up in day to day talk. And obviously, it’s not something I’d ever bring up on my own accord. Maybe had she known she wouldn’t have recommended his story to me. But on the other hand, I knew, and I could have always stopped myself.

            But yeah, this book haunted me. To the point that I reverted to the childish habit I had of stacking scary book at the bottom of a heavy pile to keep whatever lurks within those pages from coming up from the book and getting me. Usually in the middle of the night. And there’s nothing logical about that idea, I readily admit. But it’s something that I started to do as a child and never completely talked myself out of, so there you are.

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            In my defense, it wasn’t the characters of the book that scared me—or that’s what I want to believe and that’s the premise I’m going to hold onto when discussing this novella.

            But for you to understand what I’m getting at, let me describe Coraline’s story in a new way. You have this young person now living in this environment that isn’t quite what she probably envisioned. At the very least, it’s not ideal for her. It’s dreary, the neighbors aren’t great, and there’s certain aspects—critical aspects—of her life that could be, well, better. So she dives into another world that seems similar but better. And then nope. Things go wrong when it’s reveled that this supposedly great world isn’t great and is going to come at a price she doesn’t want to pay. Not that she’s being consulted on the matter.

            There’s certain aspects of that which lined up far too well with where I was in my life. I was living in a new place—a place that I had dreamed of—but it wasn’t great. And yes, for me, my terrible apartment was just as a temporary home. I was passing through, much like a young person is just passing through their parents’ home before they go onto some other home. Yes, if you zoom out far enough all things are going to look the same, and there’s so many aspects of Coraline’s story that don’t line up with mine. But a mind inclined to be frightful doesn’t need a perfect overlap to do what it does best.

            But here’s the important thing. Coraline dives into this new world, right? And at first, it looks great. But it’s not. The novella is a story about diving deeper into a new environment and finding yourself lured in by the promises of so many of your dreams fulfilled only to find that you are now facing a foe unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and the stakes are far higher than you would have ever consensually wagered.

            And that’s where I was. I went to a new environment because it was everything I dreamed of. City life had promised freedom and adventure. It promised new sights and sounds, new things to learn and new people to meet. Which, yes, this city does have. But there’s a lot more to it. And maybe you’re more aware of it. I was, but it wasn’t something I had wanted to think about.

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            When I first came to the city all those years ago, I took a cab from the airport to my new apartment. With two large suitcases in my hand, I didn’t really have much of a choice, did I? Public transportation was out of the question, and Uber and Lyft weren’t allowed in that airport just yet. So, really, there was no choice.

            There was a specific part of the airport where you had to go in order to catch a cab, and even though this travel hub was, as a whole, overwhelmingly busy, it seemed worse when I stepped outside and tried to make it into the line for cabs. There were so many people, all irritated for having to wait so long when they had some place to be. And maybe they had already had a terrible day. Who knows? They probably do, but obviously I didn’t ask.

            To their credit, the airport employees were moving everyone along pretty quickly. Once I got in line, I think I only waited for three or four minutes. Or what felt like three minutes. Cars sped by, people were yelling, and the air had a thickness to it that I’ve always associated with airports. All of that can distort your perception of time. So maybe it was longer, or it wasn’t. But I was scared. There had been an announcement playing in the airport warning you about unlicensed cab drivers approaching you for a ride and how—in vague terms—getting in the car with them was not a good idea. And I thought someone had approached me along those lines while I was making my way to the door. I wasn’t sure though. It was hard for me to hear him over the sound of my own internal panic.

            Then came my turn to load up into a cab only to realize that I didn’t quite know how. I mean, I didn’t know what to say or what to tell the driver to get across the city to where my new apartment was. I didn’t know the lingo. My new landlord had never coached me on what to say. Not that it was his job to do that. He’s just the only person I knew who would have been capable of doing that.

            We made it, though. Eventually. The cab driver himself was fairly new to the industry. New enough to still have a GPS in his car rather than relying on his memory, and considering this small girl really wasn’t in any position to judge him, he had no qualms about using it. And so—with minimal problems—we were off.

            Not that I still didn’t feel bad about my cluelessness. I apologized frequently and defaulted to using “sir” at every available opportunity. It was what I was taught to do. I didn’t grow up in an environment where the best advice anyone can offer you is to never show any sign of weakness. Unfortunately, that’s kind of place where I was going. Or already in.

            And he caught it before I did. Overwhelmed by the first day of this new adventure, I don’t remember much of the details like the words he used when talking to me. I just remember the content of his warning.

            Namely, that girls with small town sensibilities don’t do well in this city. It will swallow you up the first chance it gets.

            Which he isn’t exactly wrong about. In this city, you have to take up a great deal of figurative space just to make sure you don’t get step up accidentally as the crowds rush around you distracted by their own lives. If you need to ask for directions, the locals—the people actually capable of directing you—are going to need you to speak up and quickly if they are even going to consider helping you. There’s no time for “sir’s,” there’s no time for pleasantries, and there’s no time to work up the nerve to find your voice.

            Even if I couldn’t remember what exactly he said, the sentiment still haunted me. I think because I was already acutely aware that I was going up against mysterious shadowy creatures I had never seen before. It was a fear I had ever since putting the deposit down, but up until then, I had chalked up to my usual anxiety in the face of change. But with his words, these fears felt more real. Like there was a monster lurking just outside my apartment door. And sure, there were things I could do to keep a physical intruder away. But what would stop the apartment from collapsing around me and swallowing me whole? Especially if it decides to not literally do this but to do this in a figurative way that still produces the desired effect.

            Coraline as a hero faces a similar challenge to what I was going through. Except she didn’t open the door out of desperation like I did. She had a lot more power and initiative. She was directing her own story how she saw fit. And not to get into spoilers, but isn’t she that how she gets out of it? Her sense of adventure was what got her into this mess. It pushed her to dive into this, and it could always get her out of it.

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            I didn’t have that. I was just desperate. Yes I was hopeful that this new place would be what I dreamed, but hope only gave me some sort of destination. It picked a point on the map. But I started running for a very different reason. Really, I was just desperate to find some sort of new place. I wasn’t strong. I wasn’t powerful. I was the mouse fleeing the cat. So if things went wrong, I couldn’t be sure if I’d be able to manage. Coraline could, but I wasn’t her type of person, was I? Instead, I was the kind of person stacking a children’s novella beneath a bunch of textbooks just to hide from a fear I should have been able to dismiss as nothing.

            But maybe you can understand why I got scared. This was the type of danger I really couldn’t take on if it proved to be real. And while the characters of the story obviously weren’t real, other things were. There were other forms of this monster out there, hiding somewhere that I may fall into. I just hadn’t seen them yet. They just hadn’t lured me in yet. But they were there. And this novella just had one form of them in it.

So out of sight and out of mind, I guess. It’s not a real solution, but it let me go about my daily life.

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            The story goes that Neil Gaiman wanted to seek out the story of the girl whose name he happened to stumble upon. And like I said, there’s a reason I like that explanation. Because there’s something about Coraline’s story that feels outside of the writer and novella. It’s the story of so many different young people who can be slightly unusual trying to find a place for themselves or just exploring a new world with quite a bit of promise, risking themselves in the face of whatever it is they find. Neil Gaiman created the details, but in other ways, he just made a focal point for all of us to gather around.

            He also made a story that was a lot more exciting than what tends to happen in the real world. Or at least, what happened for me. As for me, I guess I surprised myself. While I thought I had acted out of fear, in reality, I had a plan. It wasn’t apparent, but I knew what I was doing.

            I’ve wondered lately how much of our fear is just an extension of self-awareness. If we know that we are relatively small and easily crushed, then maybe we should run from those things that could step on us. Except, sometimes we aren’t as small as we think we are. Not physically but in the ways that matter. We’re capable of so much if we can just keep a level head, look around, and think about it. We can plan, we can prepare, and we can face things head on.

            Like Coraline did. So maybe it’s worth pulling that book out instead of hiding it away out of fear.

            That might just be step one.

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