Figuring out what to do with Hell was not just a problem for The Sandman, but also for Neil Gaiman, because significantly altering the meaning and purpose of a common cultural concept might pose problems later in the story. Though there are, of course, all sorts of theological disputes about what exactly “Hell” means, in general usage, Hell is the fiery place full of sinners and at least one devil. (Unless you’re Jean Paul Sartre, in which case Hell is other people.)
As we’ve seen previously in The Sandman, the particulars of Hell can be altered in interesting ways, but completely removing it from Christian mythology could make for all sorts of storytelling problems later on. Thus, the challenge for Dream is to save Nada and figure out what to do with Hell — but the challenge for the story is to figure out a way for Dream to get Nada back and to return Hell to something mostly resembling its common meaning.
And so we get a sort of deus-ex-machina (or at least angeli-ex-machina) solution, with the angels Remiel and Duma commanded by their god to take over Hell. Dream accedes to this because, after all, their god apparently created the place. The solution fits nicely with the portrayal of Hell in earlier issues of The Sandman, too, because as Remiel points out, they didn’t do anything wrong. They’re not angels who deliberately rebelled against Heaven, they’re not evil demons of any sort — their god just wants them to take over the place, because it’s a place that needs to be ruled by fallen angels. So they’ve got to fall.
This could all lead to some interesting stories later, because Remiel seems awfully angered by the deal. The pain of eternal exile from Heaven is, apparently, extreme, so we can’t really blame him, but it does seem that their god has chosen the right angel, since it wouldn’t do for the leader of Hell to be blasé about it all. Maybe, like Lucifer, they can get blasé after a few millennia, but not right off. Anger and resentment are pretty much job requirements for beginning work in Hell.
In an issue with many striking panels, some of the most striking are those showing Remiel’s struggle with his new assignment. He tells Dream of the command in panels where Dream is small (and mouthless) in the left background, with Duma slowly descending, his feet touching the ground on the next page (indicating he is no longer an angel, for we learned in Episode 5 that “the feet of angels never touch the base earth, not even in dreams.”) The foreground of the right side of the panel is filled with Remiel’s face, which changes not only its expression, but shape — in the top panel, shadows make the face look rounded, baby-like. It is more bony and sad in the next panel, and then in the middle panel it is angular and strong, with eyes looking up to Heaven. In the next panel, Remiel looks down and to his right, and the expression is tinged, it seems to me, with malevolence — but it is also the least-shadowed moment in any of these panels. The shadows return in the last panel, with a face that is lowered, chin to chest, with features hidden in darkness and right hand raised in a fist.
“Hell is for the Evil,” Remiel protests. “Hell is for those who have offended against his love.”
We know better, having been to Hell in previous issues. Hell is for the folks who think they belong there, or want to belong there. Perhaps the angels need to believe differently. Perhaps they need to believe that their privilege is a reward for their virtue.
I’m curious now to see if these ideas are developed in later issues of The Sandman, curious to see if we learn more about the Silver City. Could it be that the citizens of that city are not really the most virtuous people ever to live, but rather the people who think they belong there? The thought of an entire city of such people is actually rather repulsive. A city of people who think they deserve Heaven. A city of sanctimonious and self-righteous souls. That sounds worse than Hell to me…
Before he learns of his new job, Remiel tells Dream that Hell must continue to exist in something resembling its previous form because without Hell, Heaven has no meaning. Apparently, Heaven can’t just be another realm, because Heaven has a specific purpose: to reward the pure and virtuous. For the pure and virtuous to know they are pure and virtuous, they need to see that everyone who is not pure and virtuous is punished. Not just lacking in reward, which is, presumably, what would happen to them were there no Hell (they’d be barred from the Silver City, but they could hang out in the Granite City if they wanted). But that’s not enough. The pure and virtuous (or sanctimonious and self-righteous, take your pick) need to know that all those lesser people are suffering for eternity.
Or think of this way: Heaven is for sadists, Hell for masochists. The masochists need Heaven to exist so they can feel the exquisite pain of its distance. The sadists need Hell to exist because their pleasure requires that other people suffer horribly.
Dream, being the thoughtful and compassionate fellow that he is, gives the key to Remiel and ensures that, for the forseeable eternity at least, the sadists and the masochists will both have all the pleasure they can bear.
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.