The Kindly Ones: Part 2 – Sandman Meditations

neil gaiman

The second chapter of The Kindly Ones develops two stories: the story of Lyta, who has now called the police because of her missing son, and the story of Cluracan and Nuala, who have gained Dream’s permission for Nuala to leave the Dreaming and return to Faerie.

But I’m not going to write about any of that.

We’re still just starting this story, and so I’m going to pause and discuss something tangential, though it begins with this story. Or, rather, it begins with me deciding not to read this story in a particular setting.

It’s final exam week at the university where I teach, and I brought The Kindly Ones with me to my first exam period, where I thought I might reread Part 2, which I first read this weekend, and begin writing a draft of this Sandman Meditation.

The class was one called Writing and the Creative Process; it’s a general education course that introduces students to some of the principles of creative writing and encourages them to be creative in their lives. For the exam period, I had them sharing their final portfolios with each other and writing notes about what caught their attention in the portfolios. While they were doing this, I figured I could be a good model of a creative writer-type person and do some work.

But I chickened out.

Some part of my reptile brain just wouldn’t let me pull a comic book out of my satchel and start reading it during a final exam in a university classroom. Instead, I took out the latest issue of the literary journal Granta and started reading that.

Sure, if somebody said to me, “Are you reading a comic book?” I could have, and would have, said, “Well, it’s actually a graphic novel. I’m just reading it for a writing assignment, actually.”

That would have been a weaselly response, though, one that was trying to appease some assumptions that I loathe, one that was trying to overcome a certain sense of shame. There’s no shame in reading comics in general, and there’s certainly no shame in reading The Sandman.

But by censoring myself, I acted as if there were. I’ve published writings about popular culture for nearly a decade now, I’ve been writing these Sandman Meditations for over a year, and I’ve assigned students to read comics, popular novels, and even movie tie-ins. Just a week ago, I was on a panel discussion at this very university where I exhorted our English majors to read as widely as possible, saying that someone who reads both Dickens and Harlequin Romances is more literate than someone who only reads one or the other. If there is one person who should have no shame sitting in a university classroom with a copy of The Kindly Ones, it’s me. And yet I stopped myself from doing so.

Interestingly, the issue of Granta that I was reading is one with the theme of “Horror”. It offers a quote from Arthur Conan Doyle on the back: “Where there is no imagination there is no horror”. The issue includes a story by Stephen King. I had received this issue not because I subscribe, but because I am on the jury for the Shirley Jackson Awards (an award that Neil Gaiman happened to win last year), and the good people at Granta had been thrilled to send us all copies.

So there I was, an artifact of generous genre mixing in my hands, reading a brilliant essay by the poet Mark Doty about the connections between Walt Whitman, Bram Stoker, Dracula, addiction, and sexual desire — there I was, reading that, and censoring my original intention of reading The Kindly Ones.

I should be ashamed, but not of reading a comic book.

It’s the things we do without thinking that tell a lot about us. It wasn’t until after the class that I realized what I had done. The self-censorship was almost instinctual. If I had actually been conscious of it, I would have laughed at myself, immediately taken out The Kindly Ones, and probably even announced to the class what I was reading, because I think it’s important to overcome noxious norms by denouncing them. But I didn’t think. I looked into my bag, saw The Kindly Ones next to Granta and grabbed the literary journal. It was as if the comic book had been covered in cayenne pepper and cow dung: my hands would not touch it. The oh-so-respectable-looking journal flew to my fingers.

It’s the look that mattered. The Sandman volumes are beautifully designed, with lovely covers that give off no whiff of superhero comics or other lowly things, but what I think caused my shameful revulsion was the idea of being seen reading something with panels of illustration and text. It had nothing to do with the content of the story, but rather the immediate perception a passerby would get from a glance at the page. Panels. Pictures with words. A comic book.

There may be value to having certain things remain taboo and illicit, perhaps even comics. After all, it’s no fun to just color within the lines, to always be safe, to aspire to nothing except normality. How dull! We don’t necessarily want to be marginalized and ostracized for our passions, but at the same time, we don’t necessarily want all of them to be canonized, either. Sometimes it’s fun to be the kid who loves to play in the gutter and get the snooty kids in trouble.

But shame shouldn’t be a part of it. That’s what bothers me about my self-censorship. I have no problem with abnormality, with “unrespectable” reading matter, with gutters. But shame doesn’t belong in our passions. Let other people think who we are and what we read is shameful. Their lives and minds are small, and we can pity and laugh at them. They would be ashamed to be caught reading comics.

We, though, who seek broad experience and wide passions in the world, who seek only to marginalize that which is hateful and corrupt — we shouldn’t feel any shame at all.

I have two more final exam periods this week, and in both of them there will be time for the students to work with each other. I was planning to do some grading of their final papers then, but I think instead I will bring some comics along. I need to atone. I don’t think I’ll even bring The Kindly Ones. That would be too easy. Instead, I’ve got a pile of G.I. Joe comics from when I was a kid. (They were the only comics I was allowed to read.) A few of those ought to do the trick.

I have to admit, though, I’ll be disappointed if none of the students notice my reading matter and at least raise an eyebrow. What I really want is for somebody to scowl, or give me an unintentional look of disgust.

And then I’ll be so proud!

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.