[(essay date winter 2008) In the following essay, Gooding gives a psychoanalytic reading of Coraline in the context of children's literature.]
When Coraline appeared in the spring of 2002, Neil Gaiman had already written one book for young readers, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, but he was best known as the author of American Gods and the adult graphic novel series The Sandman. Early reviews of Coraline heralded Gaiman's emergence as a major writer for children, noting the novel's similarity to the Alice books while emphasizing its gothic effects. Foremost among the preferred adjectives were "creepy" (Berry, Pullman, Zipp, Ivey, Burkam 755, Roback et al., Rev. of Coraline) and "eerie" (Austin, Garza, Svirin, Rev. of Coraline). Other terms included "surreal" (Pratt, Ivey), "nightmarish" and "odd" (Shook 184), "weird" and "unsettling" (Geras), "ominous" (Roback et al.), and "macabre" (De Lint 30). The possibility of a psychoanalytic reading, already implicit in many of these terms, was raised almost immediately in Adèle Geras's brief Times Educational Supplement review. Soon after, Philip Pullman noted that the book "occupies a territory somewhere between Lewis Carroll's Alice and Catherine Storr's classic fantasy of warning and healing, Marianne Dreams," while Anita Burkam, in Horn Book Magazine, referred to the "charged and often horrific flotsam from the subconscious" (755).
A second pattern in the early reception of Coraline can also be detected. Anxiety that the book might prove too frightening for younger readers appears among customer reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, at such online sites as Amazon.com and Bookcrossing.com, and occasionally among professional and trade reviews (for example, Zipp; Leung). Almost from the moment of Coraline's publication, Gaiman can be detected guiding the reception of his novel and deflecting criticism that the story is too scary for youngsters. In a May 2002 interview with Booksense.com, Gaiman claims a double audience for the novel. Adults, he reports, "found it really scary and disturbing, and they're not sure it's a good book for kids." Children, by contrast, "read it as an adventure. ... They don't get nightmares, and they don't find it scary." He then identifies a cognitive gap between adult and young readers: "I think ... that kids don't realize how much trouble Coraline is in--she is in big trouble--and adults read it and think, 'I know how much trouble you're in.'" It is a position that worms its way into subsequent reviews, particularly those that treat the novel as fantasy rather than writing for children (for example, C. White; Speer). Even more tendentiously, Gaiman remarks: "The thing I find oddest ... is those people who, after reading it, tell me that it seemed really familiar. ... familiar in that the shapes, once they've read them, just sort of assimilated into the way they saw the world. They felt they'd always known them." It is at about this point that one begins to suspect that the author of the Sandman series has been reading Freud.
Criticism from D. H. Lawrence, to...