CoralineIf Neil Gaiman had a Klout score, he might just break a hundred.

But then maybe Neil Gaiman does have a Klout score. He seems to be everywhere else on the Internet these days.

As, for example, in “A Beginner’s Guide to: Neil Gaiman” a feature in this week’s Time magazine. (For those who haven’t a clue who Neil Gaiman is, this article in Time is a good, short place to start.

I’m someone who spends a good amount of time in the children’s entertainment space on the Internet, and I’ve been struck more than once by the reverence accorded to Gaiman’s work. His famous (or perhaps infamous) commencement address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 is perhaps not yet as culturally iconic as Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford University commencement address, but it’s up there. A mantra from that speech, “When things get tough, make good art,” struck a chord with me. And generally I have been inspired by the prodigiousness of Gaiman’s imagination, the versatility which allows him to write in widely different genres, and the fluency with which he does it all.

And yet, until recently, I had never read a complete work by Neil Gaiman. I had dipped into this or that and read various things about his work, including his own blog. But I had never committed myself to anything, being put off, I suppose, by the darkness and edginess of my first impressions of his work.

Now, however, I have read Gaiman’s Coraline, published in 2002. I started with Coraline because it is arguably the best known of his works, has been made into a well received movie (which I haven’t seen), and because Gaiman, in a charming audio interview he gave to his daughter, calls it his favorite work.

I came away fairly disappointed.

Coraline is a creepy story with plenty of disturbing images, a book that I would recommend only to the upper segment of the middle grade demographic (say, ages 11-12), and even at that only with close parental supervision. The eponymous heroine is a young girl who has just moved with her parents into a very old house broken up into flats. The flats are mainly inhabited by a cast of eccentrics, but one holds a very dark secret. Venturing into it one day, Coraline discovers her “other” mother and “other” father, ghastly versions of her parents who beckon her to leave her home and come live with them.

It’s not that I was bored by the story–at least not until the tedious chase scene of the “third act.” Gaiman writes a strong thriller, and for the most part he had me doing what a good thriller writer wants his reader to do: stay up late turning pages by the light of a tiny clip-on reading lamp.

But I was expecting something more substantial than a creepy thriller, even a very good creepy thriller. Gaiman’s reputation had long preceded my reading of Coraline, and so I thought the story would have greater depth. The “other” mother turns out to be a kind of witch who snatches the souls from those whom she lures into her lair, but there is no intellectual heft to this focus on the “soul” such as one finds in the dementors and horcruxes of the Harry Potter books. This, now that I think of it, is an interesting comparison: Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling. When it comes to writing a good thriller Rowling is every bit Gaiman’s equal. And she strikes me as by far his superior when it comes to creating a richly symbolic world. Her characters are also far more engaging.

Coraline, in fact, is oddly disaffected, showing only minimal emotion when she finds herself alone for days without her real parents and then when she is being chased by the witch. And I wonder what is the point of Coraline’s battle with her “other” mother? Is she supposed to learn the value of her real parents? Perhaps. Her real parents are somewhat preoccupied and out of touch with Coraline when presented at the beginning of the book, but they are hardly bad parents. And Coraline’s reunion with them at the end of the book doesn’t manifest much change in any of them.

Gaiman’s imagination strikes me as more vivid than it is disciplined. Coraline takes us through a series of sometimes strikingly creative thrilling episodes, gives us a plucky and resourceful if rather cold heroine, but more than that it does not do.

I am sufficiently intrigued by Gaiman’s work, however, to proceed to his more recent, The Graveyard Book.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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