A critical analysis of uncanny characters in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book.
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In this dissertation I examine uncanny characters in Neil Gaiman’s novels Coraline (2002) and The Graveyard Book (2008). I explore what constitutes uncanny characters in his narratives and the consequent effects these characters have on protagonists’ identities: their self-awareness and acknowledgement of alterity. Both novels have been classified under an experimental genre, Children’s Gothic, known for negotiating identity, making use of elements of horror and using allegorical versions of contemporary cultural debates (Jackson 2017). While critics like Richard Gooding (2008) and David Rudd (2008) have explored the uncanny in Coraline for its adolescent maturation and identity formation, dependent on traditional psychoanalytic paradigms of separating the child from the mother figure, I rely on contemporary re-readings of Sigmund Freud’s “uncanny” (1919) in conjunction with Carl Jung’s notion of “the shadow” to reveal how protagonists in Gaiman’s two novels gain self-awareness and an acceptance of ‘the other’. Through an analysis of the ghost-witch-child, Liza Hempstock in The Graveyard Book, and the beldam or Other Mother in Coraline, I reveal how their uncanniness (ambivalence, uncertainty and unhomeliness) blurs binarist notions of good/evil as well as hegemonies of gender, race and religion. As a ghost from the Elizabethan era, Liza reveals the presence of the past and forms of persecution and violence that are transhistorical (witch-hunts, child oppression and Antisemitism). Not dissimilar to Liza, I argue that the Other Mother’s doubling and ambivalence (good/evil, mothering/malign, human/monster) provides a powerful, transgressive alternative to limiting patriarchal definitions of the feminine. Both the Other Mother and Liza thus challenge oppressive forms of thinking and become catalysts for positive change in the protagonists’ sense of self. An understanding of how the uncanny works will assist readers in coming-to-grips with social anxieties involved in living in a multiple society, in which one is constantly confronted by alterity. Gaiman’s novels teach lessons in transforming the fear of the other into a moment of possibility. For this reason, I argue that Gaiman’s novels are relevant to the South African milieu, and share similarities with certain South African Children’s (or Young Adult) Gothic novels, such as Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now (2013). Through a comparison of uncanny characters in Human’s and Gaiman’s novels, I argue for a space for Children’s Gothic in the South African literary landscape. Through uncanny characters, Gothic has the unique capacity to co-opt young readers into the process of disrupting borders, renegotiating identities and bringing about individual and cultural transformation.