Sometimes we speak of writers “weaving a web” or creating a “web of story” — a metaphor that suggests not just interconnections of plot, character, theme, imagery, but also suggests something that gets caught. Webs are more than complex, elegant designs; they are traps. Traps of attention, of imagination. Readers, in this metaphor, are flies.
The metaphor is given life in “24 Hours” right from the first words: “Hour 1: The flies walked into the web.” John Dee, sitting in the darkness of himself at a back corner of a diner, thinks of the patrons as flies. The power of the ruby gives him the ability to shape people’s lives any way he chooses. The power he has stolen from Dream is the power of the storyteller.
“Passengers” ended with Dee at the diner in rain and darkness. He said he was waiting for the end of the world. “24 Hours” begins with the diner in clear daylight, and it begins with an aspiring storyteller: Bette, a waitress who writes stories about the people she meets at work. She makes sure all of her stories have happy endings. Bette gets through her drab days by thinking about being a writer as a kind of secret identity — being a waitress is just a disguise, a front she must maintain to be able to do her real work, her writing. All the people she serves are not just customers, they’re raw material for her imaginings. She’s only “really” a waitress in the way that Superman is “really” Clark Kent.
It’s a kind of power fantasy — where the customers may, on the surface, seem to have power over Bette, paying her money to serve them, she has the real power: the power to imagine their lives and shape their stories. She imagines that if she tells anybody she’s a writer, they’ll no longer talk to her (“He’d spoke to her easy as anything, just as if he was really talking to a waitress. Tell them you’re a writer and they shut up tighter than clams.”) If Bette ever did tell anyone she was a writer, she might find the response different from what she imagines — plenty of people do exactly the opposite of shut up in the presence of a writer, and instead offer whatever they consider to be the most interesting elements of their life as something that would, they’re certain, make a wonderful story. But Bette is as committed to the secrecy of her writerly identity as she is to that identity itself — indeed, the secrecy is inextricable from the identity. In the secrecy lies the power.
The narration of “24 Hours” heightens our awareness of this issue being a story, because it uses a technique known to literary critics as “free indirect discourse” (or “free indirect speech”), a technique generally considered to have been especially refined by such writers as Jane Austen, George Eliot, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf — critic James Wood, in his book How Fiction Works, has even gone so far as to say that “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style”. Free indirect discourse gives us a character’s thoughts through third-person narration, but does not use such terms as “she thought” or “she wondered” to foreground the fact that the thoughts are reported by the narrator (which is what defines indirect discourse). The effect is intimate, subjective, and tremendously narrative: we feel, as readers, included in both a consciousness and a story that is told. We are not outside the story, watching it happen, with characters’ actions, speech, and thoughts presented as objects that we observe; rather, the story and a character’s thoughts and words are united in a single narration, with the story told through the character’s point of view but still in third-person.
By using free indirect discourse, Gaiman presents us with Bette’s world through her story of that world. On the fourth page, we learn something especially important about her perception and her stories: “All Bette’s stories have happy endings. That’s because she knows where to stop. She’s realized the real problem with stories — if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.”
Death, to Bette, is sadness, and so her stories must avoid it. Thus, her stories must end before the ending — her stories must never wait for the end of the world.
On the next page, Bette’s attention shifts to John Dee, a grotesque figure of darkness. His ruby begins shining. Bette determines to write a story about this character. “And in her story,” the narration tells us, “she’ll make him happy.”
We turn the page and leave free indirect discourse behind, returning to the more objective presentation of characters through action and reported speech and thoughts. We begin, though, a story about Dee’s happiness. Bette wants to write a story in which he becomes happy, but her conception of happiness is entirely the opposite of his — happiness to her is a world without pain and death. Happiness to Dee is a world filled with both. And that is the story we get next.
Throughout the rest of “24 Hours”, Dee asserts his power as a kind of storyteller, though one very different from Bette. He shapes people’s motivations, turning them into characters who do not desire to leave a diner. He changes plots — a television show for children shifts from giving instructions on what to do for birthdays to instructions on how to effectively slit your own wrists.Narrative pacing is all about the manipulation of the characters’ and readers’ perception of time, and Dee alters that, making what we readers are told is an hour feel to the characters much longer or shorter. Character is defined by consistency — we perceive someone as a character because there are certain behaviors we expect of them, certain thoughts and habits we think of as “theirs”, and Dee changes these, too, making the people around him into blank slates for his whims.
In the end, like most storytellers, he is a narcissist: he wants to know what his characters have to say to him, the all-powerful god of their world; he wants worship and sacrifice, he wants to know what his story means: “Tell me my future,” he says to them, and he keeps asking until they tell him what he wants to hear: that he has stolen the power of dreams and will kill the dream-lord.
He makes his characters suffer. He makes them murder and torture.He begins to think of them as animals in the most basic sense, as a pack with a leader, and determines a clear separation of genders: nervous females and hungry, horny males whose instinct for sex is indistinguishable from their instinct to kill. Then he tells them stories and makes them sing songs. Finally, he makes them worship him. He is their god, and he lets them experience the euphoria of unquestioning belief as they revel in their own blood. He has taken them through horror stories, folktales, musicals, religious pageantry. What else is there? He stands in the silent hours of his characters’ deaths and the only relief to the silence is a fly that he kills and then eats. William Golding began Lord of the Flies with an epigraph from Shakespeare: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods — they kill us for their sport.” Dee adds a coda: And then they kill flies for a snack.
Having exerted his power over everyone, Dee grows bored. What is there left for a storyteller to do when all the characters arrive at what Bette knew to be the real end of stories, death?
Just then, a weak and pallid Sandman arrives, and the promise of another story appears: “Next: Dream’s End.”
Bette was wrong. Death is not always the end.
Bette was wrong, too, in believing that stories are linear, that they progress from point A to B, that certain of those points suggest eternal happiness and the last point, Z, is the sadness of death. Sometimes stories wrap around themselves.Sometimes they metastasize. Sometimes the end is not The End but rather the beginning. And sometimes story is just another word for dream.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.