“A Hope in Hell” feels like a turning point, a moment when the creators of The Sandman took a new step forward in the progress of their work and skills. There is a drama to the story that emanates not from any one element, but from a coordination of structures. We have seen strengths of art and writing throughout the first three stories, but it is not until the fourth that these strengths are both consistent and cooperative enough to create a sense of depth greater than anything that can be pointed to in a single panel or on a single page.
The plot is as simple as the plot of “Dream a Little Dream of Me“, but there is a heft to it here that was lacking in the earlier tale. Partly, that’s because there is more opportunity for imaginative leaps in a story of Dream going to visit the realm of Lucifer than in a story of Dream wandering through the mundane world. Hell is vast, baroque, surprising, and we as readers know that anything could happen there. Many creators need some limits to help their imaginations flower, but Gaiman and his collaborators seem to thrive best, at least in these early issues, when exploring realms of limitless possibility.
Paging through “A Hope in Hell” without even reading it is a pleasurable, exciting experience; each page seems designed to provide its own visual impact. And then we come to the two-page spread that is pages 12 and 13 (the centerfold of the original 24-page issue, I assume). The pages leading up to it have screamed with color (Hell is a vivid place), but these pages are muted: a drab grey background and foreground of muddy red, brown, and grey figures. But what figures they are! Tentacled, many-eyed, mushroom-like demons, each one individual in its grotesquerie, crowd their way toward the central pillar where Dream stands with the three lords of hell, Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Azazel. It’s a scene out of a particular sinister moment in the works of Dr. Seuss or Gahan Wilson, and the sudden lack of color forces us to focus on their forms. Color becomes an element of pacing, pulling us up short and slowing us down. It’s like a musical composition in which a bunch of virtuoso horns suddenly stop and give way to Yo-Yo Ma on cello.
The quest plot is, indeed, simple, but that doesn’t mean the story is not filled with riches. There are hints of political intrigue in the addition of Beelzebub and Azazel as equal partners of Lucifer, who previously ruled Hell alone. The game Dream plays with the demon Choronzon to regain his helm is clever and much more satisfying than a wham-bam fight to the death might have been. The first and last pages hint at mysteries we have only begun to glimpse. This is efficient, creative storytelling; it knows the expectations we bring to certain stories, the narratives we have absorbed through years of exposure to popular culture, and it guides those expectations toward new directions.
All of this is impressive, but what most sticks with me from “A Hope in Hell” are two things Dream says. First, the three words with which he wins the game with Choronzon: “I am hope.” Choronzon can not think of a way to usurp hope, and so he loses the game and is handed over to the twins Agony and Ecstasy. Lucifer then threatens to keep Dream in hell, and says, “Helmet or no, you have no power here — what power have dreams in hell?” Dream’s response is simple: “What power would hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of heaven?” And so he is able to leave, to return to his realm, because the rulers of hell need his realm to give their own realm meaning.
The idea of something needing its opposite in order to possess meaning itself is common to all sorts of philosophies, but I keep coming back to the idea as it’s expressed here because, like the word “hope” in the game, it tells us something about power in this world, and perhaps in our own.
The game with Choronzon is partly predicated on opposites, but unequal ones. Once it moves beyond hunters and prey, it gets larger, even metaphysical: a world is trumped by a nova, the universe is trumped by “anti-life, the beast of judgment … the dark at the end of everything.” Hope, though, has no opposite Choronzon can conceive. We, of course, who are not demons, might conceive of antidotes to hope — the real world seems to offer them up every day — but hope is alien to Choronzon; he lives in its opposite, like air, which, too, can only be seen in certain conditions or with certain instruments. We are defined not only by polarities, but by the limits of what we can imagine.
The realm of Dream is not, we learn here, merely the realm of what is seen by sleepers. It is also the realm of what is imagined and what is yearned for. The realm of desire and, indeed, hope.
Perhaps this offers, too, a moral vision of storytelling. Stories are not merely structured dreams, but items from the land of imagination and desire, and no matter the horror, nihilism, or cynicism of the events and characters within them, those stories originate from the same place as hope. Could it be that the act of telling a story itself is an expression of hope, regardless of what the story contains? Could it be that the act of imagining is, no matter its darkness, no matter its despair, an act that springs from idealism, even joy? The assumption of the storyteller is that someone will hear the story, that someone will receive the tale. The assumption of imagination is that things can be otherwise.
Otherwise. Jane Kenyon once wrote a poem that achieves an extraordinary power from that word (“I got out of bed/ on two strong legs./ It might have been/ otherwise”). Change is a recurring theme in these first issues of The Sandman the fact of it something Dream continues to adjust to, and yet it is also the source of his power and sustenance, his vitality. Change and hope are intimate relations; their power in Dream’s life, and his power over them, remains a central question for the story. He is exploring the limits now — first, in “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, with Rachel, whose imagination had been hollowed out by The Sandman’s sand, her hopes flattened into cliché; then with Choronzon and the demons, whose entire existence requires all that is the opposite of it. In hell, a hope is the worst torture, but so long as it contains that power — so long as imagination maintains its sharp edge — Dream can be free.
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.