Stories and their tellers, dreams and their dreamers; history, myth, overlapping realities — “The Hunt” is in many ways a prototypical Sandman story.
The layers of storytelling in “The Hunt” are numerous, with nearly every character at least briefly a teller or receiver of tales. The frame story gives us the grandfather as narrator and his granddaughter as audience. She’s not really a stand-in for us, as I expect most readers will not be as impatient as she, for, unlike her, we’ve come to this story deliberately.
I was struck by the granddaughter’s surprise at the end that her grandfather was, apparently, telling a story about himself. I thought she’d figured this out. On the third page, she expressed surprise that the character in the story was named Vassily. “But that’s…” she begins, and we can fill in the rest of the sentence easily enough. Her grandfather responds, “It’s a pretty common name, anyway…” and continues on with his story.
On the last page, as the grandfather makes his way out of the room, he finishes his tale with some first-person pronouns, and the penultimate panel shows the granddaughter’s face in an expression I read as surprise while she says, “Grandfather?” (with the letters in bold). Of course, this could mean many things, as we do not have enough information to interpret her response definitively — it could be that she wants to talk to him about how his medications are interacting with each other, and if any of them have a known side-effect of delusions; or perhaps she wants to warn him about an impending full moon; or maybe she wants to apologize for having been rude and impatient. To my mind, the most likely interpretation, though, is that she is expressing surprise that this story is, to her grandfather at least, more than just a story. She had, at the top of the page, said, “Give me a break,” when her grandfather insisted it was a true story, but it is the personal perspective that seems to throw her into reflection at the end.
Most of the last page is devoted to the granddaughter interpreting her grandfather’s story as a warning to her about a boyfriend her parents apparently don’t approve of, a boyfriend who is not one of them, however they (“the people”) are defined. The grandfather has suggested that the story reveals “where you come from” and “who you are”, but the granddaughter doesn’t see it that way: “It’s sexist,” she says, “it’s insular, and the moral is that The People are happy with The People. Big surprise.”
She has quite fully missed the point.
The granddaughter spends the first half of the story annoying her grandfather by interrupting him (even calling his tale “suspiciously post-modern”) until he threatens to rip her throat out with his teeth the next time she interrupts. She interrupts only once more, with a clarifying question about the realness of the emerald heart of Koschei the Deathless, a moment that allows the grandfather to insert more ambiguity into the story’s realities: “You shouldn’t trust the storyteller,” he says. “Only trust the story.” (And he doesn’t rip her throat out with his teeth, proving that, indeed, he is not entirely trustworthy.)
Within the story itself, ideas of value are of much importance. The old woman in the woods tells Vassily, “Value’s in what people think. Not in what’s real. Value’s in dreams, boy.” A few pages later, Lucien, who is himself quite literally in dreams most of the time, says to Vassily, “Value’s in the mind of the buyer, not the peddler.” These ideas resonate with ones we’ve encountered in other issues of The Sandman, particularly those concerning the destination of souls after death and the power of the Endless over mortals: both are contingent upon human belief and desire, at least to some extent. The old woman is right that value is in what people think (and believe, and want), but she’s wrong that it’s not in what’s real: separating reality and belief is, in the world of The Sandman, a perilous, and likely impossible, task, and what is believed quite often creates what is real.
When Dream discovers Lucien and Vassily in the library, he pays Vassily’s price for book, delivering him to the bedroom of the beautiful maiden. Vassily gives her her portrait and leaves, which causes the grandfather to say, “The Lord of Dreams knew that wishes are sometimes best left ungranted…” Desire is often more pleasurable, more invigorating, than its fulfillment. Reality has a hard time competing with dreams.
All of which brings us back to the value of stories, to their interpretation and meaning, to their power.
The granddaughter’s interpretation of the tale at the end calls to mind something the great satirist Tom Lehrer once said: “Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” The same is true of stories (no surprise there; life and stories are seldom separable). Desire, too, is a necessity for pleasure — the granddaughter clearly didn’t desire her grandfather’s story, and so had no way to value it. Perhaps it was a story she needed, but we often don’t desire the stories we need until too late; thus, we value the stories we need quite wrongly, and miss their points. Without a desire for the story, the granddaughter could never give herself over to it completely, could never find real pleasure in it. Real sympathy with a story requires pleasure as a gateway.
And so she is left to stare into the darkness as her grandfather closes the door for the night. Perhaps she will think about the story more, perhaps she will gain some insight from it now that she has a new way of sympathizing with it. Perhaps she will just go to sleep … and dream.
We, the audience beyond the audience, desired this story, and so it repays us with pleasure.
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.