Fear of Falling and Three Septembers and a January – Sandman Meditations

I’ll admit it: I’m cheating. This iteration of the Sandman Meditations will discuss two Sandman episodes instead of the regular one.

Fables & Reflections collects a group of Sandman stories that appeared in a variety of venues over a fairly wide range of time. Having read only the first two at this point, I don’t know if there are linking threads, themes, or threnodies among the stories, but we can revisit the idea at the end of the book.

The reason I’m tackling two stories today is that the first, “Fear of Falling”, is very short. If I wanted to get all deconstructive (sometimes, after all, I do…) I could perhaps write 800-1,000 words on the implications and imbrications of particular words and panels within this one very short Sandman story, but sometimes restraint is an desirable quality in a writer. Perhaps if I practice restraint, one of these days I’ll get it right.

“Fear of Falling” is placed as a prologue in Fables & Reflections; it is followed by a table of contents. It’s a nice little story, which perhaps sounds condescending, but I mean it in a purely descriptive way — as per this volume’s title, it’s a fable, complete with a moral at the end (to risk failure is to avoid defeat). What I most like about it is the art by Kent Williams and Sherilyn van Valkenburgh, which has a beautiful roughness rare to the series so far. The pages depicting Todd’s dream are particularly powerful, full of empty backgrounds and figures that look like they’ve been drawn with an ink-soaked razor blade.

I’m amused, too, by the sly reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo at the beginning (the reference to Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak) — particularly clever given that this story first appeared, at least according to the table of contents, in the first Vertigo Preview, which, I assume*, gave readers in 1992 a preview of what to expect from D.C.’s new Vertigo imprint.

Hitchcock’s film is one of his greatest, a cinematic poem of color and menace, one of the strangest films he ever made and, in some ways, one of the strangest films anybody has ever made. It’s a movie about dreams and obsessions, reality and fantasy, and so an ideal item to enter the Sandman universe.

“Three Septembers and a January” is a more substantial story than “Fear of Falling”, and seems to me more reflection than fable, though Dream does suggest to Delirium that the events have provided a lesson. The art in this issue is quite different from that of “Fear of Falling”; Shawn McManus’s work is detailed and evocative, and while lines and shapes and shadows crowd each panel, it all feels full, not cramped, because each line and object is carefully placed in relation to the others. They are panels full of movement, gestures, countenances, color (the red clothing on the King of Pain is thrilling, and the muted hues of the pages after he leaves convey as much emotion as the words). Even in some of the smallest panels, there are not just foregrounds and backgrounds, but midgrounds. Like the vasty sea, these are panels to plunge into.

The content of the panels is as rich as their forming. For instance, our introduction to Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain in this story is amusing not just because of the particular historical personage portrayed, but because of the manner of the introduction: Clemens founding an entire language by repetition of the word “damn”. (The panel showing the Morning Call’s headquarters with a series of “Damn” bubbles bounding down the stairs is among my favorite single panels in any Sandman story yet — simple and efficient in conception and execution, and all the more amusing for it.) This use of a single bit of vernacular to utter a world of emotions reminded me of that marvelous early episode of The Wire where Detectives McNulty and Moreland conduct a crime scene investigation entirely in the key of “fuck”. Great writing does not always require a lot of words.

The realms of Dream and Delirium seem to overlap a bit in the character of Joshua, the first Emperor of the United States. Dream saves Joshua from Despair first by walking with him in his dreams, then by giving him a new dream: a dream of being a ruler, the most significant man in the country. Delirium shows up eventually, but she doesn’t really know what to make of all this: “He’s so sane,” she says. “Except about being emperor, of course… And I’m not even sure about that.”

What was perceived as madness, then, saved Joshua from despair, but it was more dream than delirium. He gains adventures in life, and his dream serves to protect him from some of the more painful realities of his existence. Dream says to Desire, “He has his dignity, sister-brother. He is, after all, an emperor.” But Desire will have none of it, calling Joshua “a crazy man with a cockeyed fantasy.”

Death, once again, is the sibling most on Dream’s wavelength. She suggests he was of the Tzaddikim, a living saint, one of the 36 people whose existence allows the world to exist. And she likes him. He was, perhaps, a sort of holy fool. A sane man in an insane world.

The story ends with a historical note, one that exudes an air of fact, and so brings us to question which side of reality we want to fall on. Joshua Norton achieved fame in death, and “his burial was marked by an eclipse of the sun.” Even the stars wanted to pay their respects, it seems.

For the terminally despairing, dreams (however mad) may be the richest source of life. And as Emperor Norton’s friendship with Mark Twain shows, dreamers and storytellers have copious qualities in common: they are holy fools who keep the world alive.

*Yes, I could look it up, but I’ve been trying very hard throughout this series to resist the urge to look up even the most humdrum of information, because once you start, where do you stop? Part of the experiment of these meditations is to see what happens when a particular consciousness (mine) encounters The Sandman more or less blind, and so I shall continue to stumble through the labyrinthine corridors of my mind’s darkness.

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.