The fifth episode of Season of Mists is a transitional one — the various contenders for Hell arrive in The Dreaming to make their case to The Sandman for why they should be the rulers of Hell now that it’s been abandoned by Lucifer and emptied of its denizens. There’s a banquet, and Dream meets with various folks who want to bribe or threaten him to favor them. At the end, he seems to remain undecided.
I was completely unaware of The Sandman when it was originally released, and so I did not suffer the pain of waiting between issues for the story to continue. If I wanted to, I could read the rest of Season of Mists right now and be done with it. For the experiment of these Meditations, I have kept myself from reading ahead, but nonetheless, I could. And because we now read The Sandman in multi-issue collections, our perception of the whole is somewhat different, perhaps, than that of the original readers. (I say “perhaps” because, obviously, I don’t know. I could move a little ways beyond that “perhaps” by calling up friends who did originally read it issue-by-issue, but I’ve never allowed evidence to get in the way of my speculations, so why start now?) Having the story drawn out over so many months must have been excruciatingly painful for the many folks who were addicted, and I wonder how an issue such as Episode 5 was read then, because it doesn’t offer any extraordinary drama, any breathtaking plot twist, or any sting of new suspense. It’s a bridge, and an efficiently-written one, but a bridge nonetheless.
With Season of Mists, we’ve just finished with a fairly self-contained episode, and now are back continuing where Episode 3 left off. I expect the events of Episode 4 will prove consequential later, but that episode’s most immediate function proves to have been as an interlude. It gave us a bit of a breather. Putting Episodes 3 and 5 together would have been a more conventional, predictable move, and probably a safer one — the danger of an interlude is that it will sap the other story of some of its urgency and power. And that may happen a bit here, depending on the reader, but the risk is worth it in this case, I think, because it reminds us that the question of who gets Hell is one that affects more than just the people at the banquet. The interlude may also have reminded us that there are other questions in the world, other stories of consequence (at least, of consequence to the characters caught up in them). There are also stories beyond the central story arc of Season of Mists — we’re far enough into The Sandman now to be sensitive to its polyphonies. Interrupting a main story with what appears to be an ancillary story is one way to keep the polyphonies humming.
Episode 5 is a nice bridge between the introduction of the banquet in Episode 3 and whatever resolution the story takes in the final two episodes, but I am wary of saying more about it, because much of its meaning and purpose depends, I expect, on the future episodes. We shall see.
However, I want to take a moment here to note a grammatical oddity.
Thor, the apotheosis of an obnoxious drunk, has been bothering Bast, and Dream apologizes to her:
DREAM: Where is Thor now?
BAST: I left him laying under the table, chanting some song to himself.
The words lie (to recline) and lay (to place) are terribly confusing, and I expect the differences between their forms will disappear in a generation or so, because few of us use them correctly 100% of the time anymore. (I always have to double-check them in the past tense.) I’m not even sure the difference between the words is a useful one to preserve, because it’s rare that we confuse them. So the difference is hardly one to get all pedantic about.
But it is a pet peeve of mine, and I was surprised to see Lady Bast use the present participle of lay where she clearly meant the present participle of lie — “I left him lying under the table.”
Although, really, nobody would be surprised to find Thor doing some laying under that table…
Even native speakers who know the difference make mistakes with lie and lay, and I doubt Bast is a native speaker of English, so I do not mean to chastise her for the error, especially where I doubt it will remain an error for much longer in our language. But I must note it, for the sake of my ancestors. I am the grandson of a newspaper editor who beat the difference between those words into his children, and my mother consequently beat the difference into me, and so no matter how much my inner descriptive linguist screams that caring about this distinction is a futile waste of energy, nonetheless, it is not a difference I will ever be able to ignore.
Such is the nature of grammar peeves. They are irrational and deeply held, and all evidence of the capricious variety of the English language does nothing to assuage them — for instance, I loathe the word normalcy (it’s normality, dammit!) despite the fact that it dates back at least to 1857 and is now, according to my beloved Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, “a perfectly reputable word, recognized as standard by all major dictionaries.” I want to scream out, “The dictionaries have devolved! The language is doomed!” but I know this is a silly thing to say, and only the most conservative and reactionary sorts of people say it — the sorts of people who care not about language itself, its beauties and wonders, but about a narrow idea of “correctness”. The sorts of people who yearn to rap you over the knuckles for little errors, and who probably lack any ear for poetry. The pedants and prescriptivists.
The sorts of people who should, in fact, inherit Hell.
But anybody who cares about language has a bit of a pedant in them, I suspect, whether the knuckle-rapping sort or the kind that wants to go in the opposite direction and remind us, as the great linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum did in an April 2009 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, that The Elements of Style has provided, for 50 years, advice that “ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.”
I tend to side with the Pullums of the world when it comes to grammar and style, because I’m not much interested in language as a dead artifact, but rather in language as a sort of ecosystem, something full of wonders and surprises, capable of evolution and mutation, filled with as much diversity as a rainforest. A system in which errors can produce marvels.
But I also still rely on The Elements of Style‘s diagram of lie and lay whenever I need to check those words’ thornier incarnations.
And I hate normalcy. And, for that matter, the confusion of disinterested with uninterested. And–
I am sorry, Lady Bast. I have been driven to the distraction of peevish pedantry.
Do you hear that, Lord Dream? I, too, deserve to inherit Hell.
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.