A friend of mine told me he first got hooked on The Sandman when he read some of the original Doll’s House issues and found them to be among the creepiest, most disturbing comics he’d read. Much as I enjoyed The Doll’s House, I didn’t really find them creepy or particularly horrifying (which may say more about me than them).
But the two images of Loki at the top of the third page of Season of Mists’s third episode are among the grossest things I’ve seen in the series: Loki bound in his son’s entrails. The idea alone is revolting enough, but then to have it portrayed there on the page takes it into realms of splatter far beyond the killings and tortures of previous issues.
I assume this nasty little punishment is part of Norse mythology, but everything I know of Norse mythology I learned from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and even that I haven’t read in a few years. (Are the entrails in it? I think I’d remember. But then, I’ve thought I’d remember lots of things in life — birthdays, meetings, names, deadlines, keys, to eat, to sleep, to … well, some things are worth forgetting…)
One of the reasons these columns are Sandman “meditations” and not “explications” is that I’ve never much been interested in mythology, and anyone trying to write authoritatively on just about anything by Neil Gaiman needs to have, I think, a better background than I in world mythologies. (Why am I indifferent to mythology? you ask. I could offer various hypotheses, but they’re all just shots in the dark of my unconscious; I’d have just as much trouble explaining why I am obsessively fascinated by such things as the history of comma use in the United States. I sure wish I could control what obsesses me — I’d love to be obsessed with, say, the intricacies of global finance. Alas, I am fated to suffer less useful interests.) Gaiman, of course, isn’t only a magpie of mythologies: his work is filled with references to all sorts of literatures, both the popular and the esoteric, and part of the fun for any reader is in recognizing the wondrous depths of allusion. Everything in the worlds of Gaiman’s universe can be understood if it is understood as a story, as the result of someone, somewhere, saying, “Once upon a time…”
Once upon a time in this episode of Season of Mists there were all sorts of beings clamoring for the land rights to Hell. It’s a lovely concept, really: Lucifer abdicates, and now there’s a scramble. Everyone with a grudge and a history thinks they’re entitled to this bit of real estate. Once again we see that the non-human creatures are just like humans. Human history is a story bursting with territorial disputes, with incursions and turf wars, with bloody soil. The denizens of limbo look toward Azazel as if he’s a union boss or insurgent: “There will be a new Hell. A forward-looking Hell, that recognizes individual worth; in which a daemon can raise its head — or any other important member — high and say: ‘This is my land. And no one is ever going to take it away from me again.’” This is the language of nationalism and tribalism, and it suggests that things are going to get nasty. That these tribal nationalists of Limbo also have control of Nada, the object of Dream’s affections, especially portends something wicked this way coming.
Representatives from many of the major mythologies of Earth arrive on Dream’s doorstep to make claims on Hell. I was especially amused that Lord Kilderkin, “a manifestation of order” appeared as a cardboard box. This seems startlingly humble. (Most Lords would, I expect, at least want to have a ribbon.) It made me wonder what sort of order cardboard boxes represent. When Order was depicted earlier in the issue, it was a kind of black and white Mondrian painting, its speech full of bracketed words and phrases, which perhaps suggests a translation or a bad transmission from one source to another, though I also assume the brackets are a textual representation of the squares and rectangles, the geometric order. A cardboard box would be a three-dimensional incarnation of this, but boxes are also used to bring order to chaos — boxes are tools of organization. Cardboard, though, suggests impermanence. Order is always a symbol, a manifestation, but it doesn’t last.
We get more talk in this issue about the return of the dead, though it hasn’t become an element of the story yet. Dream seeks advice from his sister, Death, who isn’t much help, preoccupied as she is with troubles of her own: “I’m doing what I can,” she says, “but the dead are coming back.” In her dialogue, Death is more contemporary than Dream, a characteristic that has been true of her throughout The Sandman: she calls Hell “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate,” and she suggests, jokingly, that Dream should open a ski resort or theme park in it. Death’s diction is colloquial and of the moment, unlike Dream, who seems more formal, less bound by time. This makes some sense, doesn’t it? Dreams live outside time, while death is always present.
What it means for the dead to come back, though — to become present once more — remains unclear. I doubt it will remain unclear much longer, though…
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.