Passengers – Sandman Meditations

In 1969, Robert Silverberg won a Nebula Award for a story called “Passengers” that begins with these sentences: “There are only fragments of me left now.  Chunks of memory have broken free and drifted away like calved glaciers.”

Silverberg’s story is quite different* from the Sandman story Neil Gaiman named “Passengers”, but those opening sentences have resonance here.  Dream is still trying to recover from his imprisonment, still trying to gain strength, still trying to find the artifacts of his power.  Perhaps more than Silverberg it is T.S. Eliot we should invoke, one of the last lines of “The Waste Land”: These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

Eliot’s complex allusions, his collage of high and low art, offers some parallel with Gaiman’s “Passengers”, for once again we have a story rich with references.  The magpie impulse of “The Waste Land” plucks items from a wide landscape of Western textuality; “Passengers” is more focused, plundering the history of D.C. comics more than anything else, though that history itself sought resonances — John Dee, the alter-ego of Dr. Destiny, is also the name of an astrologer, occultist, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, a man who has appeared in all sorts of literatures through the centuries, and who was named by H.P. Lovecraft as a translator of The Necronomicon.  It’s appropriate, then, that D.C.’s Dee was imprisoned in Arkham Asylum, since it was Lovecraft who created Arkham, Massachusetts.

“Passengers” opens with views of the exterior and interior of Arkham Asylum, where guards are watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  It’s a nice touch, as if Lovecraft’s dour vision has been infected by Hitchcock’s morbid wit.

There’s no need to go over all the Justice League references, but it’s good to know they’re there. For someone like me, mostly ignorant of the characters and their history, the effect is to create a sense of a vast world beyond the pages of this particular Sandman issue.  I know enough to know there is something out there, but not enough to know what it all is.  This is not a complaint; indeed, I think the haziness of my knowledge is helpful because it creates an impression of a world beyond the borders of these pages, but it does not distract my focus on this particular story with lots of thoughts of details from decades of D.C. history.  It’s a different feeling than I had when reading “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, where my ignorance of the history of John Constantine felt like a handicap — with “Passengers”, Gaiman presents a story that can be enjoyed by both the ignorant and the informed.

“Passengers” sets up two parallel stories with four pages each: John Dee escaping from Arkham Asylum to search for the ruby that will, he thinks, allow him to make everyone in the world insane and let him become the ruler of everything; a flashback/dream of Scott Free, who seeks a real name rather than a joke name created by his grandmother.  At the end of the fourth page, each story gains its second main character.  For Dee, it’s a woman named Rosemary, who drives the car he’s hijacked.  For Scott, it’s Dream.

The passengers of the title are mostly literal: Dee is a passenger in Rosemary’s car, The Sandman is a passenger in people’s dreams.  It’s this last concept that is, for me, the issue’s greatest concept, a sense-of-wonder bit of wow that lightly echoes the game Dream played with the demon Choronzon in the previous issue.  There’s a similar surreal flow to the movement of the logic: as Dream and Choronzon danced from idea to idea, so Dream now travels by wending his way not through the solid geography of the woken world, but through the associative maps in dreamers’ minds.  The illustration of this movement on page 18 is colorful and dynamic, shaped like the blades of a fan, scored with blurs, as if everything is ethereal or plasmic — swelling and surging, never static, never still.  (It makes me want an entire story devoted to dream travel.  Is it possible to get everywhere?  Is any location undreamed?)

Dee’s drive with Rosemary provides some exposition and some movement, but one panel in particular sticks out to me.  Page 12 offers six rectangular panels of equal size, and in the fifth panel, Rosemary asks Dee about why he looks the way he does: emaciated, hollowed out, more skeleton than person.  “Look, John,” she says, “I’m a nurse.  You can tell me, I don’t freak.  Is it the Big A?”  “Big A?” he asks.  “AIDS,” she says.  The panel depicts the car on a road and behind it a large, dilapidated sign for a movie theatre.  The sign, its letters falling off, proclaims “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” and, in smaller letters, “PLUS CO-HIT: ZOMBY WOOF.”  It’s as if the horrors of the past, both serious and silly, have been left behind, left to rot, and Rosemary’s suspicions hint at the new horrors of the real world.  But those horrors are unknown to John Dee, who has never heard of them, and who is ravaged by something much more metaphysical, though its basic source is the traditional devil of greed.

As Dream and Dee get closer to the object of their shared desire, the ruby, the colors of the pages grow ever more rich and red.  Dream is surprised, though, for unlike the tools he has sought previously, the ruby has been tainted by its time away from him.  Once again, Dream encounters unanticipated changes in the world, and it nearly kills him.

The final page of this issue is, as before, preparation for the next.  Dee, now reunited with the ruby, enters an all-night diner and orders a cup of coffee.  The waitress asks him what he’s waiting around for, and he says, “Oh, you know.  The usual.  The end of the world.”

An all-night diner seems like an appropriate spot to wait for such a thing — a place out of time, a place where the landscape is banal even in dreams.  The end of the world.  No big deal.  Time for another cup of coffee, or maybe a slice of blueberry pie.

* Silverberg’s is a story of alien abduction, or rather alien inhabitation: humans become hosts to aliens who take over their bodies and minds for a little while, making them do all sorts of things.  In the end, the narrator can’t go home with a woman because he’s suddenly gained a passenger who makes him go home with a man.  The story can be read, perhaps (and among other readings), as a kind of allegory for the decades when homosexual behavior was thought to be something in need of a “cure” — as if homosexuals really wanted people of the opposite sex, but the “passenger” of their disease took control of the wheel and drove them in another direction.

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.