Worlds’ end and words’ ends; end as conclusion and end as purpose. We’ve reached the finishing line of this story arc, and the stories within stories reveal by the last page what seems to be their outer shell.
This conclusion does what the best conclusions do: it ties up some loose ends while heightening the overall sense of mystery. We might say we like stories that have clear, unambiguous endings, but do we? Depends on the we, I suppose. No-one who likes such endings is likely to last through many Sandman volumes.
If I may indulge in utter presumptuousness for a moment, I would bet that most people who like stories (and are there people who do not like stories?) don’t actually like neat and tidy stories, stories without a hint of remaining mystery. Such stories are fine when we just want a quick escape into a never-never land of happily-ever-after, or a utopia where crimes are all solved and order trumps chaos (and voids the laws of thermodynamics), but for me, at least, those are the stories that disappear from memory a few days after I encounter them, because one of the things that is most lasting in a story is the sense of possibility invoked in its final words.
In a screenplay for an unproduced film called The Big Brass Ring, Orson Welles wrote a line that has since gained some renown — indeed, I expect it’s now the most famous line from a movie that was never made: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
There are conclusions to plots, conclusions to events, conclusions to lives — but are there conclusions to stories? There are, as Welles noted, stopping points, and much depends on them. But stories go on; they mingle and echo and proffer and spread. A story that does not, by its end, at least give a quick tip of the hat to this truth is not a story that lingers in the memory and imagination. Stories thrive on all sorts of flights of fancy, but the fantasy that reality is a closed and narrow system is one that offers no story a way to bloom.
Thus it is that Brant Tucker’s insistence on the hardness of reality is a narrow, story-denying ideology. “Reality isn’t fragile,” he says, “it’s — it’s huge and big and solid. I mean, you think reality is fragile, you should try banging your head against a brick wall. Huh? That’s reality.”
Brant Tucker there reminds me of Samuel Johnson. Boswell famously wrote:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”
There are more things in heaven, Earth, and the realms of the Endless than are dreamt of in Johnson’s or Brant Tucker’s philosophies. (Indeed, Bishop George Berkeley’s philosophies of perception and reality are more interesting than a reader of Boswell or Johnson might assume. It’s also worth noting that the city of Berkeley, California was named in his honor, and that the city can number among its notable citizens such explorers of reality as the poets Jack Spicer and Allen Ginsberg, and writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick, who graduated together from the high school there, though they did not know each other at the time.)
The explanation for the Inn at Worlds’ End is, in fact, a reality storm. The inn is a sort of harbor in that storm, a single place outside all other realms and realities, a place to weather the most monumental metaphysical meteorologies.
The cause and import of the storm is more observed than explained. We watch along with everyone at the inn as a funeral procession marches across the sky. The moment is the most sustained in visual drama of any in The Sandman so far — the panels go away, and we watch the procession across multiple multi-page spreads. The power of the rift in reality is mirrored in the amount of space given to the event, and its power to affect all worlds and realms is demonstrated through the unity of pages that are not disrupted or fragmented by panels. All eyes are on this sky, all events are this event.
Who has died, we do not know, though we can make an educated guess. We see in the procession many characters we’ve seen before, but one is notably missing: Dream. If he is there, and if my eyes are not fooling me, he is not conspicuous, but I can’t think of a reason why he would be hiding. Given how dramatic the moment is purely in its form, it makes sense that it would be the Sandman himself who is here memorialized.
But we don’t know, because we do not join the bereaved. Instead, we exit a story-within-a-story for the last time in this tale, ending up in a bar with Brant Tucker telling it all to the bartender before she closes up for the night. Our story ends up in the sort of place that Charlene Mooney wants to hear more stories about, a place outside of myth and fancy, a place more ordinary. (She, the determined realist, stays behind in the inn, waiting for a reality that compels her into its story.) The colors of these last panels are variations on the colors of the last pictures of the procession: the cold grey-blue of Death and the red of the bloodied moon here become the deep blue of a city at night and the pink of a neon sign.
Who has died and who has lived? We do not know, we cannot know. All we know are the stories — the worlds, the words — and their ends.
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.