‘Coraline’ Was Inspired By A Folktale That's Even Creepier Than Neil Gaiman's Version
She looks like your mother. She looks just like your mother. Except she has big, black buttons for eyes. Or else she has glass eyes that glint in the dark. Or maybe a tail made of heavy, dark wood. And if you're not careful, she'll keep you for good. Of all the nightmarish monsters in the literary canon, few are more adept at reducing one's limbs to a quivering jelly than the Other Mother from Neil Gaiman's Coraline.
The story follows young Coraline Jones. While exploring one day, she finds a bricked up door in her family's new apartment. Only, it's not bricked up when Coraline opens it — and through the door she finds an Other World, almost exactly like her own world. In her Other apartment there is her Other Mother, who has buttons for eyes. This Other Mother is more fun than Coraline's real mother at first... but then it becomes clear that she wants Coraline to stay with her. Forever. And sew buttons over her eyes, too.
I won't spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that Coraline is a brilliantly creepy tale for both children and adults (although, according to Gaiman, adults tend to find it more unsettling). But Gaiman is far from the first to notice that fake mothers have the potential to be monstrous.
The Other Mother was partially inspired by "The New Mother," a strange, strange story by Victorian author Lucy Clifford. Clifford's tale has been retold in folklore collections as "The Pear Drum," and Alvin Schwartz renamed it "The Drum" for his book, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
So the story's been around for quite some time. Here's how it goes:
There are two sisters, Blue-Eyes and Turkey. (Blue-Eyes, in every version of the story, has blue eyes. Turkey's name is more contested: in Schwartz's version she's named after her red dress, but in Clifford's she just loves turkeys).
While out one day, the sisters meet a strange girl with an even stranger instrument. She calls it a "peardrum," and she says there is a little man and a little woman inside. If she plays the peardrum, they come out and dance, and the woman tells a secret.
The sisters want to see the little people dance, but the girl says that she only shows them to naughty children. In "The New Mother," Clifford writes:
“'Oh dear, no!' the girl answered. 'I only show them to naughty children.'
'To naughty children!' they exclaimed.
'Yes, to naughty children,' she answered; 'and the worse the children the better do the man and woman dance.'
She put the peardrum carefully under her ragged cloak, and prepared to go on her way."
So Blue-Eyes and Turkey go home to their mother and their baby brother, and start crying because they want to see those little people so badly, but they don't know how to be naughty. (In the Schwartz version, they just get straight to misbehaving.)
When their mother hears that they plan to be naughty she has a rather... strange response:
“Then,” said the mother sadly — and while she spoke her eyes filled with tears, and a sob almost choked her — ” then,” she said, ” I should have to go away and leave you, and to send home a new mother, with glass eyes and wooden tail.”
The sisters are freaked out, but they're also pretty sure their mother is bluffing, so they go check in with the strange girl and her peardrum again. The girl confirms that there is no such thing as a mother with glass eyes and a wooden tail because "they would be too expensive to make."
So Blue-Eyes and Turkey resolve to be naughty. They go home once again, and break all their mugs and throw their bread and butter on the floor. Their mother is distraught, and sends them off to bed. But when they return to the peardrum girl the next day, she's not all that impressed:
“'Why, we were sent to bed!'
'Just so,' said the girl, putting the other corner of the shawl over the peardrum. 'If you had been really naughty you wouldn’t have gone; but you can’t help it, you see. As I remarked before, it requires a great deal of skill to be naughty well.'"
So naturally, the scenario is repeated twice more, until the sisters are so unspeakably naughty that their mother calls it quits (in the Schwartz version they achieve this by beating their baby brother with a stick).
The sisters run after their mother, begging her to stay, but she walks away across the fields and vanishes from sight. So they return to the peardrum girl for one last time... and they still have not been quite naughty enough. Besides, the little people are gone now:
"'The little man and woman are far away. See, their box is empty.'
And then for the first time the children saw that the lid of the box was raised and hanging back, and that no little man and woman were in it."
The peardrum girl leaves too, and the children are left alone in their empty house. They wait and wait, but their mother doesn't come back. They wait a long, long time.
...and then there's a knock at the door.
"So in fear and trembling Blue-Eyes put her back against the door, and the Turkey went to the window, and, pressing her face against one side of the frame, peeped out. She could just see a black satin poke bonnet with a frill round the edge, and a long bony arm carrying a black leather bag. From beneath the bonnet there flashed a strange bright light, and Turkey’s heart sank and her cheeks turned pale, for she knew it was the flashing of two glass eyes. She crept up to Blue-Eyes. 'It is — it is — it is!' she whispered, her voice shaking with fear, 'it is the new mother! She has come, and brought her luggage in a black leather bag that is hanging on her arm!'
“Oh, what shall we do?” wept Blue-Eyes; and again there was the terrible knocking.
“Come and put your back against the door too, Turkey,” cried Blue-Eyes; ” I am afraid it will break.”
In Clifford's story, the New Mother breaks down the door and the children flee through the back of their cottage, into the dark of the woods, where they still live to this very day.
"Now and then, when the darkness has fallen and the night is still, hand in hand Blue-Eyes and the Turkey creep up near to the home in which they once were so happy, and with beating hearts they watch and listen; sometimes a blinding flash comes through the window, and they know it is the light from the new mother’s glass eyes, or they hear a strange muffled noise, and they know it is the sound of her wooden tail as she drags it along the floor."
"They look down at the end of the road, in the dark, where they see coming toward them the flames of their new mother’s eyes and hear the swish, swish, swishing of her wooden tail. That definitely stuck with me. Here was somebody writing children’s fiction, at the same time Alice was written, who was willing to go all the way, into something really disturbing and primal."
Regardless of which story you read, however, one thing is clear: you fear the "new" mother with the glass eyes and the wooden tail. You fear her the same way you fear the Other Mother. Because she is almost your mother—but not quite. She is almost entirely human—and yet she isn't. She is right in the uncanny valley, a horrible facsimile of love.
But the good news is, in Coraline, she can be defeated.
In "The New Mother," though... you're stuck with her for good.