Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Literary Dog: A Gothic Tail

A recent New Yorker article profiled the British writer Neil Gaiman, who specializes in creepy gothic tales and graphic novels for tweens of all ages. The article made a big deal of his children's book Coraline (Harper Trophy, 2002), which, a friend told me, has a pretty high creep-out factor. So I thought it would make for good reading on a cold, dreary, rainy night.  The story goes like this: a girl, an only child of unengaged parents, moves to an old house in an English country town. The parlor contains a locked door that opens onto a brick wall. Naturally,  the doorway is magical, and Coraline wanders through it to an alternate universe, where her "other" parents and neighbors live. They are exactly the same as her real parents and neighbors, except that they have buttons for eyes. The "other" mother appears at first to be far more nurturing and imaginative (and a better cook) than Coraline's real mum, and the girl is tempted to stay in the alternate world, but she decides not to. In revenge, the other mother kidnaps Coraline's real parents, and Coraline's challenge is to rescue them and escape from eternal bondage. Sheesh. The stakes are high.

There are dogs in the book, but it is the cat who helps save the day. It, like Coraline, is able to travel between the two worlds—although it can only talk in one of them, thank goodness. The dogs, as you might expect in a book in which a cat is the hero, come off as rather dumb and easily entertained. Here is a bit from a scene in the alternate world. Coraline has found her way to an old theater run by her "other" neighbors, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. She is ushered to her seat by a gruff Scottie dog with a flashlight in his mouth. All the other theater-goers, it turns out, are dogs who express their appreciation of events onstage (Coraline has just participated in a knife-throwing demonstration) by thwacking their tails against the velvet seats.

    Miss Spink gave Coraline a very small box of chocolates and thanked her for being such a good sport. Coraline went back to her seat. 
    "You were very good," said the little dog. 
    "Thank you," said Coraline.
    Miss Forcible and Miss Spink began juggling with huge wooden clubs. Coraline opened the box of chocolates. The dog looked at them longingly.
    "Would you like one?" she asked the little dog.
    "Yes, please," whispered the dog. "Only not the toffee ones. They make me drool."
    "I thought chocolates weren't very good for dogs," she said, remembering something Miss Forcible had told her.
   "Maybe where you come from," whispered the little dog. "Here, that's all we eat."
    Coraline couldn't see what the chocolates were, in the dark. She took an experimental bite of one which turned out to be coconut. She gave it to the dog.
    "Thank you," said the dog. 
    "You're welcome," said Coraline. 
     —from Coraline, pp. 42-43

Of course, dogs may only eat chocolate and say "thank you" in an alternate reality, but they do get to sit on the furniture wherever they are in the space-time continuum.


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