Playing House – Sandman Meditations

“I bet you’ll like The Doll’s House,” my friend Eric Schaller said to me before I started reading it.  “It’s got serial killers in it.”

Eric knows comics and he knows me and he knows I have a slight fascination with serial killers.  It’s the result, I expect, of having read Robert Bloch’s story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” at an early age.  I loved the story, wanted to know more about Jack the Ripper, and discovered a few books at the library on the subject.  Some of the books put the Ripper in the context of the history and psychology of serial murder.  The information was so bizarre and so obviously not intended for a child of my age that I couldn’t stop reading.  From then on, stories with any sort of serial killers in them would snarl my attention in a second. Eventually, I even discovered that America’s first famous serial killer, H.H. Holmes (real name: Herman Mudgett), was born in my own state of New Hampshire, and that Robert Bloch had written about him, too, in a novel published a year before I was born, American Gothic.

I’ll get to write about serial killers for a later issue, I’m sure, but I wanted to note here the first appearance of what immediately became one of my favorite puns in all literature — on page eleven of the third Doll’s House story, “Playing House”, a small panel shows the exterior of a hotel with a big sign reading, “Welcome Cereal Convention”.  We’ve had hints of some sort of convention in earlier issues, something the Corinthian is attending, but this is the first spot where the nature of that convention is revealed.  (Well, revealed if you get the pun.)

But “Playing House” is only briefly about the Corinthian; mostly, it’s about the painful divide between dreams and reality.  The title is resonant — of children and imagination, innocence and joy.  The story begins with these words: “Lyta is rudely pulled from her revery by the alarm, which echoes and clangs through the dream dome.”  A woman, woken.  What will not be revealed to her until the end of the story is that she is waking into another dream.  She sees her husband as the 1940s/1970s Joe Simon and Jack Kirby version of The Sandman.  It’s clear to us that her husband, Hector, has the brains of a child, and that he’s being manipulated by Brute and Glob, though he thinks they’re his servants.

On the title page, Lyta is linked visually with Jed — her face stares out from a panel at the top of the page, his from the bottom of the page, and both faces dominate the left side of their respective panels.  Jed is being woken from his slumberland into the nasty, brutish reality that is his life with Clarice and Barnaby, who mostly keep him locked in a basement and collect the $800/month the government sends for his foster care.

Jed escapes from his basement and ends up hitching a ride with the Corinthian — he leaves one terrible reality for another that, having once again seen the Corinthian’s viciousness earlier in the issue, we know is even more perilous than the awful existence he had before.  Lyta’s wrenching into a more awful life is the primary focus of this issue, though, because it becomes Dream’s job to truly wake her, to bring her back to the awful existence she has been sheltered from through Brute and Glob’s scheme: an existence in which her husband is dead, and she has nothing but a baby who, Dream declares, “is mine.”

Lyta had not seemed happy before, but now she is wrenched into a new reality.  This gives her a new resolve, though, it seems, for even as she sits in the rain, surrounded by the ruins of her life, she says, “You take my child over my dead body, you spooky bastard…  Over my dead body.”

Such determination is in contrast to the Lyta we had seen before, passive and dull as she wandered through the dreamworld that she knew was not quite right, its time out of joint.  The fourth page offered a haunting bit of narration: “Lyta lives in a pretty house, with her husband, their two servants, and a thousand thousand screens.”  We’ve seen the thousand thousand screens on the first page, their images of mix of histories and icons, and a wall of screens on page 10 resembles the screens in the Threshold of Desire from “The Doll’s House”.  Screens are representations, near-rhymes with dreams.  Both can be shattered.

Lyta and Jed each leave strange and terrible family lives for an independence that seems rich with death.  It’s after Lyta vows to keep her child away from Dream over her “dead body” that we then move to Jed being picked up by the Corinthian, a master of creating dead bodies, who calls the boy “kid” and “kiddo”.  It’s all foreshadowing and cliffhanging, because we don’t know yet if Lyta will survive to give birth, and what that birth will mean; nor do we know if the Corinthian will get to do to Jed what he’s done to so many other people.

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.