Our first contact with literature is usually through fairy tales read at the foot of the bed by parents or grandparents. More than fables, these stories serve the purpose of cautionary tales, to educate children about the dangers of the real world.
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is about a girl who moves to an old building and discovers that a magical door leads to a parallel dimension similar to ours, but with evil versions of her parents. Here are 12 dark fantasy books similar to Coraline–or that inspired Gaiman to write his story–all perfect for adults whose childish side refuses to die.
1. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
In the magical universe of Stardust, there is an old wall that separates our world (or rather, rural Victorian England) from Faerie, the world of fairy tales. Young Tristan, who lives in the “real world,” promises a shooting star as a gift to the young woman he’s in love with. To get the prize, he needs to cross the wall to Faerie. That’s when Tristan discovers that the star is, in fact, a beautiful young woman. Together, the two live incredible adventures that mix elements of fables with dark humor. Different characters–like an evil witch trying to maintain her longevity and princes competing for the throne of their dead father–are also looking for the star. There’s some sex and violence along the way, but Gaiman is very skilled at creating a magical universe capable of delighting adults and young adults without sounding silly or naive.
2. The Thief of Always, by Clive Barker
English writer Clive Barker has a trajectory similar to Gaiman’s. Although he is best remembered for his horror stories (such as the infamous Books of Blood), Barker also wrote some dark fantasy. Published in 1992, The Thief of Always is a sometimes magical, sometimes terrifying fable about the importance of time. The book tells the story of a 10-year-old boy tired of childhood and eager to grow old and become an adult as soon as possible. He meets the mysterious Mr. Hood, who invites the boy to visit his house “where all wishes are fulfilled.” But Hood is an evil being who feeds on the life force of children, and each day spent in his house is equivalent to a year in the real world. Barker illustrates the book with incredible (and sometimes a little frightening) drawings that help the reader to understand how to value both the time already lived and what is left to live.
3. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
This beautiful story uses fantasy elements to talk about grief–a topic often difficult to discuss with young children. A Monster Calls is about Conor, a little boy whose mother has been struggling with painful, terminal cancer. Every night, just after midnight, Conor has nightmares about a monster who becomes his friend. It’s an escape from the far more frightening tragedy that the boy experiences in the real world. This monster will help him face grief and will convey an important message for all ages: sometimes, it’s necessary to let go. Because life imitates art, the book was born of the original idea of an author (Siobhan Dowd) who died of cancer before writing it, but encouraged colleague Patrick Ness to do it instead.
4. Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
Published in 1871, Through the Looking Glass is the sequel to the famous Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). At the time, it was much more successful than the original book. In her new adventure, little Alice decides to go through a mirror to find out what is on the other side. She is faced with a bizarre world where everything is inverted (a situation repeated by Gaiman in Coraline). The theme dialogues with one of our first curiosities as children: what if the reflections of the image in the mirror are an independent world? Alice’s journey is based on the moves of the game of chess. It’s an eccentric and bizarre ride, with no villains or a big goal to be achieved. Thus, the book will likely be one of the first contacts of young adults with surrealism.
5. The New Mother, by Lucy Clifford
English author Lucy Clifford is best remembered for the fairy tales she wrote for her own children. One of them, “The New Mother” (1882), became a classic and is one of the 20 Victorian fables present in this anthology. Neil Gaiman confessedly took inspiration from The New Mother to create the “Other Mother” in Coraline. Clifford’s original story is about two sisters named Blue-Eyes and Turkey. One day, they are persuaded to play mischief to get a gift. The girls’ mother warns that if they don’t behave, an evil New Mother with glass eyes will replace her forever. Like the other stories in this volume, The New Mother is a chilling cautionary tale that seems more like a horror tale than a fairy tale and should work better with older readers.
6. Strange Birds, by Judith Gilliland
This debut novel published in 2006 chronicles the adventure of Anna, a girl whose parents got lost in the ocean. Enter Aunt Formaldy, the traditional mean aunt of this kind of story, who begins to treat Anna as her prisoner and servant. But soon the girl discovers a magical tree where there’s a miniature world, inhabited by fantastic creatures shaped like horses. Author Gilliland references several classics, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Here, too, there are fruits (not mushrooms) capable of making you smaller or larger. Strange Birds is an amazing story about how children can overcome tragedy, filled with colorful stereotypes representing Good and Evil.
7. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter
If you think heroines should try to save themselves instead of waiting for Prince Charming, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is for you. Angela Carter was a gifted English fantasy author whose work inspired names like Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling. This collection of 10 short stories was published in 1979, but they all remain remarkably current. Carter mixes elements from fairy tales with sensuality and a strong feminist content way ahead of their time. Well-known situations taken from stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Beauty and the Beast” are completely subverted in incredible new fables for adults (although the author hated the term). One of the stories is “The Erl-King,” in which a young girl has to rescue children turned into caged birds by an evil spell. Gaiman confessed that this was another of his inspirations when writing Coraline.
8. Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville
This 2007 fantasy novel is also about children discovering an alternate version of our world. It’s a kind of “London through the Looking Glass,” nicknamed “UnLondon.” This mysterious magical kingdom is populated by all things lost, discarded, or destroyed by the residents of the “real world.” Zanna and Deeba, two young girls, discover a bridge between the worlds and cross to the other side. Important themes, such as pollution and the overuse of natural resources, are treated in a fabled tone, in a story full of eccentric characters built from junk and lost objects.
9. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum
Another classic that, like Coraline, narrates the adventures of a girl in another dimension as fantastic as it is frightening. Published in 1900, it’s the first of L. Frank Baum’s books about the magical land of Oz. Although it’s a book little read by new generations, practically everyone knows it because the story is already immortalized in popular culture. Little Dorothy is swept by a tornado from Kansas to Oz. Like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s classics, Dorothy and her dog Toto live a magical adventure between evil witches and fantastic creatures (including the famous trio Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz continues to delight readers of all ages, although adults are better able to see the less-than-subtle metaphors behind some of the story’s magical elements.
10. The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub
The Talisman is an epic 1984 fantasy novel written by two popular horror authors. This is quite evident throughout the adventure, which balances more “magical” moments worthy of fairy tales with others full of mature content and explicit violence. King and Straub tell the story of Jack Sawyer, a 12-year-old boy whose mother is dying. Sawyer discovers that he can cross the barrier between our world and a parallel universe that stopped in the Middle Ages, populated by wizards and magical creatures. There lies a mythical talisman that can save his mother and the whole universe. To find it, Jack embarks on a 900-pages-long journey that unfolds between the two worlds. Ironically, the dangers of the real world are far worse, including pedophiles, religious fanatics, and child slave labor exploiters.
11. The Mostly True Story of Jack, by Kelly Barnhill
Little Jack has always been “invisible” through life. After his parents’ divorce, he goes to live with his uncles in a small town in Iowa. Suddenly, everything changes: Jack starts to get noticed, makes friends for the first time in his life, and feels important and loved by the community. Of course, there is a terrible secret behind all this. Part horror, part dark fantasy, this 2011 debut novel is another book straight out of the mind of an author who has probably read too many fairy tales. Important themes such as bullying, friendship, and sacrifice are mixed with magic and mystery. The Mostly True Story of Jack is a curious tale that encourages young readers to understand that they have a role to play in their own lives.
12. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This classic 1911 book is still a must-read for fans of fantasy and fairy tales. At the turn of the 20th century, a little girl named Mary loses her parents to cholera and is adopted by a wealthy uncle who lives in a grim castle. Soon Mary will discover a mysterious garden, walled and locked, whose origin is linked to a tragedy that she will try to unravel. Mary will also discover that her uncle has a son who never leaves his room, victimized by a serious illness. The Secret Garden is a beautiful story about the power of love and friendship. It’s also one of those books that have the power to awaken our inner child.