The Kindly Ones: Prologue and Part 1 – Sandman Meditations

The prologue to The Kindly Ones contains an image that is pure pornography for someone like me: an endless library. A library of books not written, of books that authors and readers have only dreamed. We’ve seen it before in The Sandman, and come to recognize the librarian, Lucien, but it is here in Kevin Nowlan’s art that the wondrous scope of the place is most enticing to me. We see Lucien standing at the top of a library ladder, pillars of shelves all around him, floors of stacks leading to the unseen, infinite horizon. There’s an M.C. Escher quality to the image, given all the symmetrical lines. We might imagine that the stairs of one floor lead in a loop to the stairs of another floor, creating an ouroboric space without entrance or exit. There’s a particularly wonderful detail in the image: the bottom right corner of the panel shows a cluster of books lying as if on the top of a shelf. They’re in the foreground of the picture, tantalizingly close to us, all come-hither look and attitude of, Hey big boy, don’t you just wish you could open me up and have a peek…

The prologue is odd. It is a story of a dreaming person, a person whose name we don’t yet know (I have little doubt, however, that we’ll learn it by the end). He dreams that he gets a tour of the Dreaming, starting at the library. This serves a useful function, especially for new readers of The Sandman, as it allows some of the characters from past issues to introduce themselves and remind us of their place in Dream’s world. We are put in the dreamer’s point of view, and so the characters address us. Reader and dreamer merge. Fitting, then, that we start in the library.

Lucien finds the dreamer’s unwritten book: The Bestselling Romantic Spy Thriller I Used to Think About on the Bus That Would Sell a Billion Copies and Mean I’d Never Have to Work Again.

I know that book. Friends have told me I should write it myself, and I’ve even given it a thought here and there. It’s an amusing dream, much like the one where Jude Law and I– Well, we don’t need to get into that.

I expect there are many similar such books in the library: The Bestselling Young Adult Fantasy Novel I Used to Think About When Reading Articles About J.K Rowling, The Bestselling Religious Business Book I Used to Think About After Seeing the Sorts of Books My Relatives Spend a Lot of Money On, etc. I wonder if Dream’s library has followed the path of most libraries today and expanded beyond print media to include such things as movies on DVD. Then we could get all sorts of additions, such as The Summer Blockbuster I Dreamed of Making for $1,000 That Would Make the Profits from Blair Witch Seem Like PeanutsThe Film I Imagined Jean Renoir Would Tell Me Made Him Jealous of My Genius, and countless others. And just as there are lost books, there are also lost movies, many of them — the complete version of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, for instance. We can dream…

After the teases and hints of the prologue, we move on to the first part of the story proper, though as with most first parts, it’s a whole lot of possibility rather than any sort of resolution. Beginnings are about creating ends and setting them loose. Thus, we don’t know quite who some of the characters are (the strange people of the first pages, especially; given the title of the story, though, I’ve got my suspicions. “The Kindly Ones” is a translation of Eumenides; in other words, The Furies), and multiple storylines are being set up. The general thrust of the tale seems to be clear by the end, though, with the disappearance of Lyta’s son.

The artwork by Marc Hempel is worth commenting on, though I am far from the best person to do the commenting — someone more knowledgeable about art and comics would have much more to offer. But no-one who has read through The Sandman could fail to note the change from the more typical comics style to a somewhat more, well, stylized style. This is artwork that draws attention to its own form through the abstraction of its technique — it’s what South Park does to an even greater degree, creating an artful reality rather than a reality reflected by art. It creates a sense of a world unto itself, a world that corresponds to shapes and images we are familiar with (otherwise it would be purely abstract), but that transmutes those shapes and images for its own purposes. We’ve seen such approaches in individual issues of The Sandman before, and certainly in many specific images, but I just flipped through The Kindly Ones to see if the style was a single moment or if it carried through the whole book, and it seems to be there for the majority.

I’ve enjoyed all of the artwork for The Sandman so far, and noted some particular examples that seemed to stick out to me, but my tastes run toward the unconventional. As someone who can barely draw stick figures, I’m in awe of the skill of even the most mediocre realistic artists, but the thrill of art for me comes from work that is not concerned with making us believe it is real, but rather wants to show us a new perception of reality. This is the strength of Dave McKean’s Sandman covers (about which art historians and academics should be writing many monographs!), and it is the strength of Marc Hempel’s work in The Kindly Ones. I’m sorely tempted to plunge ahead and devour the whole book not only to find out what’s happening in the story, but to fill my eyes with Hempel’s visions. The book provides us with a glutton’s problem: we want to savor what we see, yet we want to turn the pages for more, more, more…

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.