The fourth episode of Season of Mists, and the twenty-fifth issue of The Sandman, sits as a set of black pages in the middle of the book. We’ve seen black-backed pages before (the first pages of Episode 0, in fact), but not this many at once. The effect is powerful, setting the panels off from the background like framed pictures, like snapshots — moments of the past captured, frozen, eternal.
We begin, though, in something like the present: December 1990. We meet two boys, Rowland and Paine, and then we see six panels of Rowland’s terrors, with Dream behind the panels, arms folded and countenance stern. It’s a Sunday morning, Paine reveals, and he and Rowland are in a chapel. Hymns surround them. Rowland is strangely upset by this. “Chapel?” he says. “But who have they got to pray to? That’s sick…”
What looks to me like a photograph sits in the foreground of the fourth panel on the third page — a photograph or portal, it’s hard to tell, but it shows a group of people who might at first look like a choir, but the members at the front are sitting informally, lounging around rather than standing proud. Like our panels, the picture has a thick black border or frame.
Six days have passed, Paine reveals, since Rowland was last conscious. “It seems like a lifetime,” Rowland says.
We are then whisked back to “Monday, six days ago,” and the empty dining hall of a British boarding school. Everyone has left the school for the holidays except for Charles Rowland, whose father, it is revealed, is in Kuwait. Usually, Charles says to the headmaster, he spends the holidays with his father, but not now. Now, he is the only child in the school, and the headmaster and matron don’t particularly want him underfoot, so he is given free rein of the place.
Kuwait, 1990. Iraqi forces invaded at the beginning of August, and the U.S. launched Operation Desert Shield. Major military action against Iraqi forces in Kuwait began in January 1991. By the end of February 1991, Coalition forces had gained control of Kuwait and begun to enter Iraq; President Bush ordered a cease fire on February 28.
No wonder Rowland couldn’t join his father for the holidays. Rowland shows no apparent knowledge of his father’s situation, no fear for what could be happening to him (reports of Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses were circulating widely then and the invasion was imminent). He is sad and lonely, and salves his loneliness in the school library, reading The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Aside from the electric lamp on the library table, the scene could be one from any time in the last few hundred years. The school, we are told, was founded in 1802 as a place for the sons of army officers, but now it “offered education to anyone who could afford it; particularly to those who lived abroad, but wanted their sons educated on British soil.”
As Rowland reads, we discover he is not quite alone. Shadowy children watch him. When he goes to sleep, we look down on him, a single body in a small bed surrounded by other empty beds. Walking down the corridors of the school, Charles had sensed that he was not alone, that, in fact, “You’re never alone in a school. It belongs to all those dead people. All the other kids. The ones who sat at your desk, or slept in your bed, or rand down the corridors a hundred years ago. They never go away.”
Watching Charles in bed, we discover how literally true this is. Ghostly bodies appear on the beds opposite his.
Boarding schools are especially ghostly places when not filled with the lively bodies of children and adolescents. In 1990, I was two years older than Charles and in my first year as a day student at a local boarding school. My first job after college was as a teacher at that same school, where I remained for nine years. For the first three years of my teaching career, I lived in an apartment in a large, four-storey brick dormitory that had been built in the early 19th century. During breaks, the dorm emptied out, and what had been a noisy, crowded, vehemently alive environment suddenly shifted into a being a cave of echoes and creaks. I am a fierce materialist, a devout skeptic, but even someone as determined as I to believe that there is nothing supernatural out there could not help, now and then, feeling the shadowy shiver of ghosts. Emptiness is eerie.
Charles, naturally, discovers ghosts. Or ghosts discover Charles. They are ghosts typical of a certain type of adolescent boy — bullies puffed up with entitlements of age and ego, sadistic creatures who thrive on the torment of ordinary, shy boys like Charles. They name themselves as Cheeseman, Skinner, and Barrow: names that appeared a few pages earlier on a stone memorial for “those boys from St. Hilarion’s who laid down their lives in the Great War (1914-1918).” Apparently, they made good cannon fodder.
As anyone who’s ever encountered macho arrogance knows, its ghosts don’t go away. And so Cheeseman, Skinner, and Barrow remain, haunting the halls, whatever heroics they performed on the battlefield lost to time, their great legacy being, instead, their pleasure at providing pain. There are other ghosts, too, a whole school of them.
But it’s the bullies who command the most attention. Their ghosts are corporeal enough to force hot forks through Rowland’s nipple, to torture him and leave him on the kitchen’s tiled floor, where Edwin Paine (1901-1914) finds him. It is as if Charles’s sufferings have left him and gained their own ghost, or a container at least. Pain reveals a timid companion, Paine.
In the foreground of the last panel of one of these pages, we get a closer view of the photograph glimpsed at the beginning of the issue. It is clearly a photograph in this panel, though we only see a corner: boys’ faces, staring dispassionately out at the years.
Death (dressed very early ‘90s) enters to claim Charles, but he wants to hang out with Paine a while longer, and Death must run off to other things, so he gets some extra time. Charles convinces Paine to skip out of the chapel with him, to wander off into the world. The black background of the pages dissolves into blue, then, on the final page, white. The world is vibrant and alive for these ghosts now. Hand-in-hand they escape the torments of their past and plunge into the paradox of dead living.
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.