We have reached a sort of middle: the sixth part of The Kindly One’s thirteen parts. Thirteen, of course, being an odd number does not split evenly in two. Fans of Part 7 might find it more comfortably middle-ish, being for all intents and purposes the beginning of the second half, while fans of Part 6 might argue fervently and ferociously that their part is really the middle because it’s the end of the first half. Fans of Part 8 might then dispute the fans of Part 7 for the title of Beginning of the Second Half, invoking all sorts of ancient statutes requiring that second halves be shorter than first halves if the halves are not equal halves.
So there you halve it: the halves and halve-nots.
Perhaps you’d rather I write about the half-time show at the Superbowl. My entire family watched it, most of my friends watched it, but I did not. Instead, I watched, for the umpteenth time, Fritz Lang’s marvelous movie The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the second of three or the third of four films Lang made about the eponymous übermenschy crime lord. Its exact number within Lang’s Mabuse sequence depends on how you count the two parts of Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, which were made together but originally released as separate films. Most people consider The Testament of Dr. Mabuse to be the second of three. And thus, it is the middle of the trilogy.
Speaking of trilogies, in Part 6 of The Kindly Ones, everything seems to come in threes.
What do all the threes (that is, half of six) mean? I could venture guesses and throw darts toward obvious answers, but there’s no need yet, here in the middle of things. Just note they’re there. (“There” is an anagram of “three”.)
In the middle of this middle-ish (not middling!) story sits another story, a tale told by one of the three old women, a tale told to her by her mother. Consumed with curiosity, I broke my own rules and looked up a reference, wondering if this story-within-the-story that felt so much like an old folktale was something Neil Gaiman had come up with himself, or, as all the best writers do, appropriated from elsewhere. It’s apparently a variation on a story in The Penguin Book of English Folk Tales, a book that I don’t happen to have, nor does my local library, so for now I’m going to have to continue on in ignorant bliss.
This middle chapter is a kind of pause, a tangent, a bit of a breather. The art is not by Marc Hempel, who has done the very distinctive and stylized work that makes up the majority of The Kindly Ones, but rather by Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, and Dean Ornston. The story of Rose is depicted in a fairly traditional comic book style, similar to when we first met her in The Doll’s House. The story told to Rose, though — the folktale in the middle of the chapter — is in a wholly different style, more like an illustrated book, as befits it.
A chapter with, then, a good claim on being in the middle of The Kindly Ones stands distinct from the chapters around it in both its content and form; and in the middle of this chapter stands a story that is distinct in content and form from the rest of the story around it.
Stories within stories, forms within forms. We ought to be used to this now in The Sandman, but I’m a sucker for it all, these labyrinths of nested dolls.
Today I was delighted to learn, for instance, that when planning his early film Der var engang (Once Upon a Time), the great Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer wanted to try to keep costs down by building all the sets within each other: the largest set would be built first, then the next-largest inside it, and so on, until the smallest and most intimate set was built last. The plan fell apart when some of the actors had changes in their schedules, but it is nonetheless a lovely concept for a movie that is the story of a princess in a kingdom called Illyria.
It is a movie that is incomplete, and likely will remain incomplete forever. Nitrate film disintegrates if not stored in cool and dry conditions, safe from air. It also explodes. The oldest movies are like self-destructing messages in Mission: Impossible, or bombs, or books in the library of Alexandria. Most of what was ever filmed is gone. (Perhaps Dream’s library also has a media wing, a place where all those lost old movies live.)
Part 6 offers echoes with its nests. It’s full of panels that hark back. The last pages take us all the way back to the first Sandman story.
The first Sandman feels so far away to me now.
The people we were when we read that first issue no longer exist. But they leave traces. Like memories and stories and middle things, our past reading experiences nest inside us. They haunt each new word we read and shadow even the youngest stories.
And I expect that, like old nitrate film, those past stories are just waiting to explode.
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.