Sandman Meditations – Season of Mists

Season of Mists: Prologue

One of the most famous stories by the great 20th century Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is, it seems to me, echoed via allusion in the first two panels of the prologue to Season of Mists. “Walk any path in Destiny’s garden, and you will be forced to choose, not once but many times. The paths fork and divide.”

season of mists

The first Borges story to appear in English was “The Garden of Forking Paths”.

It was published in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in a special “United Nations Issue” of the magazine. It has one of the more remarkable tables of contents of any magazine issue I know, with stories by Cornell Woolrich, Ferenc Molnár, Georges Simenon, Karel Čapek, and Anton Chekhov.

The EQMM “Garden of Forking Paths” appeared in a translation by Anthony Boucher, which means that Boucher was not only a well-respected writer of mysteries and science fiction, not only an important and influential reviewer of mystery fiction, not only the man whose name is honored by the annual World Mystery Convention (Bouchercon) and its awards (the Anthonies), not only the man who co-founded The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, not only an important mentor to many writers, including Philip K. Dick — he was also the man who first brought Borges’s work to the United States. Later translations would become the standard ones (as far as I know, Boucher’s has rarely been reprinted), but Boucher was first.

What does any of this have to do with The Sandman? Everything and nothing.

Borges is one of the incontrovertibly great writers of the 20th century. When discussions of the Nobel Prize for Literature turn to listing the major writers who never received the award, Borges’s name comes quickly to mind. And yet it was not in the pages of The New Yorker or even of a small, prestigious literary journal that he made his U.S. debut. No, it was in the pages of a saddle-stapled digest mystery magazine. It appeared between a story called “Being a Murderer Myself” (by Arthur Williams) and a story called “Killer in Khaki” (by Edgar D. Smith).

One of the strengths of The Sandman — though it is something I must admit it took me a bit of time to get used to — is the fertile and fervent mix of material from all sorts of cultural influences. There are the reimagining of characters from a panoply of past comic books, both familiar and esoteric. There are the mythological and religious and occult references, some from known history and some from Neil Gaiman’s imagination. There are the allusions to literatures of every type and era. There is the realism and the fantasy, the humor and wit and slapstick, the pathos and tragedy. It’s a smorgasbord and a collage, and yet the basic concept of the series, the foundational premises of the world the stories depict, links it all together and keeps it from feeling, so far, to me at least, random or thrown together. It’s a grand narrative made up of every other narrative. It’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” — a story about coincidences and infinity and so much more — and it’s Boucher’s Borges in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in August 1948, appearing beside stories by the greatest short story writer of them all, Chekhov, and one of the great pulp mystery writers, Cornell Woolrich, and the man who coined the word robot, Čapek — a slumgullion stew of languages and references, a crazy-awkward gem, an oh-so-unique Frankenstein’s monster of the high and low and in between. Everything. Nothing.

Destiny’s garden suggests this, as does his book. They contain all possibilities. But on reflection, any life’s twists and turns (paths, destinies) seem coherent because they are unified within the thing we call the person or the self. As the narrator tells us on the first page, “At the end of a lifetime of walking you might look back, and see only one path stretching out behind you, or look ahead, and see only darkness.” Our sense of selfhood comes from the coherence of the story we tell to bring order and sequence to the discrete moments that compose a life.

Perhaps this is why the Endless — Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Dream, Death, and the one that is missing, that has gone away for reasons we don’t yet know — have such human responses to each other. Perhaps humanness comes as much from a certain type of almost banal coherence as it does any other trait. (Is that what we mean by “consciousness”?) In conversation, the Endless hardly seem like the far-more-than-human beings they are. They have their alliances and grievances, their loves and pettiness. They taunt and bait each other. They seem like siblings of some sort, and they refer to each other as such. We might assume they would not need to appear to each other in forms that mimic those of humans, but they do nonetheless. They even have a sense of what is or isn’t appropriate couture — Destiny chides Death for her clothing when she first appears.

And then there is love. What does it mean for one of the Endless to have emotion? The prologue prepares us for what will be, it seems, an Orpheus & Eurydice quest to bring Nada back from Hell. Dream’s siblings, particularly Desire and Death, convince him that he treated Nada unjustly, that he must right his wrong. Beyond this sense of justice, he still seems to love her.

The Endless are not human, though, and their sense of morality and emotion has not, in previous stories, always been predictable or humane. Here, prologued, we don’t know yet where the paths will lead, or even which ones we might follow. The story stands on the precipice of possibility, about to begin.

We might as well end, then, for now, with a moment from another labyrinth: a bit of Borges via Boucher: “Everyone thought of two undertakings; no one imagined that the book and the maze were one.”

Season of Mists Chapter 1

The first panel of this issue sets up Hell not as a definitive place, but as “a place that wasn’t a place”.  Hell is as much part of a story as part of a reality: “Once upon a time…” Yet there is something stable to it, because though it has had many names and though it is not a place and though it is part of a story, there is still an “it” for the narrator to refer to: “We’ll call it Hell.”

(I’m just going to pause for a moment to point to the poetry of that sentence: look at all the double-l’s! And it’s a sentence of four words, three of which have four letters!)

I am not a religious person, and have never given much thought to Heaven or Hell, since both places seem, in their popular conception, at least, rather tedious.  Of course, Heaven is generally said to be the place of eternal bliss, the reward for having a good soul, a place without pain or suffering or unhappiness, yadda yadda yadda. Hell is the place of eternal suffering, punishment, damnation; your body always being ripped apart or burned up or generally savaged.

These views don’t really make much sense, because, even if we overcome the fact that an ethereal thing like a soul doesn’t possess a central nervous system, doesn’t eternal anything get dulled after a while by its eternality? I don’t doubt that — to choose a random example — having your intestines pulled out through your nose by a demon is painful; but is the 1,234,429,392nd time as painful as the first?

As for the nice place upstairs, I encountered the Talking Heads song “Heaven” at a young age, and its chorus seems to have had an effect on my perception of eternal bliss: “Heaven is the place where nothing ever happens.” (Is Hell, then, the place where everything happens?) When it comes to storytelling, too, Heaven is a big bore, but Hell can be quite interesting — lots more people read all the way through Dante’s Inferno than his Paradiso.

Believers say the real pleasure of Heaven is being close to God, and the real pain of Hell is* God’s absence: Hell is a place of eternal mourning. That makes more sense to me than the idea that Hell is a place of eternal physical pain. If God is everything beautiful, everything good, everything worth valuing and loving, then the absence of that is, indeed, something I can imagine being eternally painful — or it is, at least, something I can more easily imagine being eternally painful than just about any other thing. But even the utter lack of all goodness and beauty and love, while I can conceive of it being painful for days and weeks and even years … eternity? Wouldn’t your brain just shut down and enter a vegetative state? (I know I know I know: you’re dead, you don’t have a brain. No brain, no body. The suffering is of the soul, which, apparently, is different from a brain and therefore doesn’t have the ability to enter a vegetative state.)

This is why I should not think about religious questions. Far too much of a rationalist.

Lucifer tells Cain about the Gnostic sect that said he, Cain, was the wronged one, not Abel. They were hedonists, too. “And,” Lucifer says, “no greater percentage of them turned up here than of any other religion. Amusing, isn’t it?”

Eternal suffering, then, is, in the world of The Sandman, apparently a pretty random thing. Or, to look at it another way, if Hell is where the bad people go, then badness is not necessarily a matter of behavior or belief. You can believe the opposite of the canonical gospels, you can behave in utterly hedonistic ways … and still get to Heaven. Or, at least, not end up in Hell.

Hell is not necessarily eternal in this universe. Maybe it is for humans, but it is not so for demons or gods — Lucifer tells of the minor demons that fight meaninglessly amongst themselves: “they oust each other, and destroy each other,” he says. Perhaps, like Cain or South Park’s Kenny, they return after destruction. Dream seems to think total oblivion is among the perils he faces in traveling to Hell — he could end up trapped in there, or he could be destroyed, which is something different. Oblivion is indeed possible.

Despite all the religious imagery and the generally Christian representation of Hell, the presentation of this realm strikes me as impressively heretical. Not just because Hell is offered as a realm roughly equal to the realm of dreams, but because the mixing of mythologies throughout The Sandman suggests they are all equally valid, in the sense of having equal claims on being real or unreal. Within the Sandman universe, Bible stories are as real as stories from old comic books. Here, as in much of Gaiman’s writing, often what matters most is what is most fervently believed, even if that belief is unconscious, a knowledge that creates itself. Remember what Dream said to Desire at the end of The Doll’s House: “We of the endless are the servants of the living — we are NOT their masters. WE exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist.”

It’s interesting, then, that we have seen no sign of Heaven so far in The Sandman. Apparently, we know deep in our hearts that Lucifer and Hell and eternal suffering exist. God and Heaven and eternal bliss, though? Of that, there’s some doubt…

Season of Mists Chapter 2

Welcome back to Hell.

Of course, we knew we’d get here sooner or later, since we were set up to see Season of Mists as a kind of Orpheus and Eurydice quest, but Episode 2 throws a wrench or two in the engine of our expectations. Quest stories often tend to be structured as a series of picaresque adventures, with each turn of the tale increasing the stakes for the protagonist, like walking up a giant metaphysical staircase. If Season of Mists were that sort of quest story, it would have been much harder for Dream to get to Hell, and he might only have gotten there toward the middle of the full story arc, having overcome various obstacles along the way.

But Gaiman’s got more complex things in mind, and what seemed like a straightforward quest structure gets blown into fractal bits when Lucifer announces he’s quitting his job and closing the gates of Hell.

Because I am not reading ahead in the series, and have for the most part written each of these columns immediately after reading the issue under discussion, I occasionally get to see the concerns and questions I raised about one issue addressed or exploded in another one. That’s exactly what happened here with the second episode, where many of the questions about Hell that I dithered with in my most literal-minded way through the first episode are now both answered and complexified. I love that — I have a fondness for illusions and con games, not because I can pull them off myself (I’m a terrible liar), but because they offer the thrill of performance and misdirection. Tricks keep us humble; they offer a vision of something more complex than what we could, for a moment at least, understand. I am fascinated by how tricks are achieved — whether stage illusions, elaborate heists, close-up magic, or stories — because the secrets are usually so banal that the performance seems even more amazing, the crucible turning base materials into the glitter of magic.

There’s a type of storytelling that has a lot in common with the illusionist’s (and con man’s) art, and these first issues of “Season of Mist” display some of that, beautifully misdirecting our expectations and providing the pleasure of bigger tricks inside the little ones we previously thought were big.

Lucifer reveals that Hell is a not a place to which bad people are sent by some omnipotent judge — Hell is where people who desire punishment go. If he speaks truthfully, then, the realms beyond life are shaped by human yearnings and wants, whether conscious or unconscious. Hell is for the masochists, the people who think they deserve punishment (and who therefore want to be punished) and the people who enjoy pain and suffering.

The character of Breschau, whose torture looks an awful lot like a torture at the end of the marvelous Clive Barker movie Hellraiser, is proud of both the enormity of his deeds when alive and of the suffering inflicted on him in his afterlife. He doesn’t want Hell to end, because his entire sense of identity is tied to the idea of his monstrosity as performance — Lucifer destroys him by telling him that nobody remembers him anymore. The denizens of Hell are not just people who have been monsters; they are people who need other people to know they have been monsters, and who also want people to know that they are suffering for their sins. Their persecution is the necessary, beloved second act of their drama.

Persecution is not always something people want to end. Persecution and suffering offer righteousness, and many privileged people have a powerful sense of being oppressed, one that they would really be reluctant to give up. Populist politicians thrive on just such a universal sense of oppression, but so do elitist politicians — in the United States right now, our kleptocratic overlords work hard to convince the majority of the population that the upper 5% of income earners are persecuted by taxes and government regulations. Everybody wants to be David, nobody Goliath; I’m sure The Man thinks he’s fighting The Man. No wonder Hell is such a vast place.

But Lucifer is not enough of a masochist to want to be stuck with the masochists forever. (Or so it seems … we may be in the midst of another bit of narrative legerdemain.) He says he’s tired and bored, both of which seem to me curiously human feelings. The lords of the various realms often display strongly human psychologies and motivations, the residual effect, perhaps, of being born from human needs.

We end this chapter of the story with Dream chopping off Lucifer’s wings, and Lucifer giving him the keys to Hell, telling him he is now the new, sole monarch.

The last words of the last panel are Dream’s: “I feel cold.” It’s the opposite, of course, of what we expect from Hell’s fires, and there’s no telling what it portends. I’m intrigued by Lucifer’s reference to the dead starting to come back to life — by closing Hell, has he sent them all back to the land of the living? Is the Earth about to get awfully crowded?

Season of Mists Chapter 3

A friend of mine told me he first got hooked on The Sandman when he read some of the original Doll’s House issues and found them to be among the creepiest, most disturbing comics he’d read. Much as I enjoyed The Doll’s House, I didn’t really find them creepy or particularly horrifying (which may say more about me than them).

But the two images of Loki at the top of the third page of Season of Mists’s third episode are among the grossest things I’ve seen in the series: Loki bound in his son’s entrails. The idea alone is revolting enough, but then to have it portrayed there on the page takes it into realms of splatter far beyond the killings and tortures of previous issues.

Entrails. Yum.

I assume this nasty little punishment is part of Norse mythology, but everything I know of Norse mythology I learned from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and even that I haven’t read in a few years. (Are the entrails in it? I think I’d remember. But then, I’ve thought I’d remember lots of things in life — birthdays, meetings, names, deadlines, keys, to eat, to sleep, to … well, some things are worth forgetting…)

One of the reasons these columns are Sandman “meditations” and not “explications” is that I’ve never much been interested in mythology, and anyone trying to write authoritatively on just about anything by Neil Gaiman needs to have, I think, a better background than I in world mythologies. (Why am I indifferent to mythology? you ask. I could offer various hypotheses, but they’re all just shots in the dark of my unconscious; I’d have just as much trouble explaining why I am obsessively fascinated by such things as the history of comma use in the United States. I sure wish I could control what obsesses me — I’d love to be obsessed with, say, the intricacies of global finance. Alas, I am fated to suffer less useful interests.) Gaiman, of course, isn’t only a magpie of mythologies: his work is filled with references to all sorts of literatures, both the popular and the esoteric, and part of the fun for any reader is in recognizing the wondrous depths of allusion. Everything in the worlds of Gaiman’s universe can be understood if it is understood as a story, as the result of someone, somewhere, saying, “Once upon a time…”

Once upon a time in this episode of Season of Mists there were all sorts of beings clamoring for the land rights to Hell. It’s a lovely concept, really: Lucifer abdicates, and now there’s a scramble. Everyone with a grudge and a history thinks they’re entitled to this bit of real estate. Once again we see that the non-human creatures are just like humans. Human history is a story bursting with territorial disputes, with incursions and turf wars, with bloody soil. The denizens of limbo look toward Azazel as if he’s a union boss or insurgent: “There will be a new Hell. A forward-looking Hell, that recognizes individual worth; in which a daemon can raise its head — or any other important member — high and say: ‘This is my land. And no one is ever going to take it away from me again.’” This is the language of nationalism and tribalism, and it suggests that things are going to get nasty. That these tribal nationalists of Limbo also have control of Nada, the object of Dream’s affections, especially portends something wicked this way coming.

Representatives from many of the major mythologies of Earth arrive on Dream’s doorstep to make claims on Hell. I was especially amused that Lord Kilderkin, “a manifestation of order” appeared as a cardboard box. This seems startlingly humble. (Most Lords would, I expect, at least want to have a ribbon.) It made me wonder what sort of order cardboard boxes represent. When Order was depicted earlier in the issue, it was a kind of black and white Mondrian painting, its speech full of bracketed words and phrases, which perhaps suggests a translation or a bad transmission from one source to another, though I also assume the brackets are a textual representation of the squares and rectangles, the geometric order. A cardboard box would be a three-dimensional incarnation of this, but boxes are also used to bring order to chaos — boxes are tools of organization. Cardboard, though, suggests impermanence. Order is always a symbol, a manifestation, but it doesn’t last.

We get more talk in this issue about the return of the dead, though it hasn’t become an element of the story yet. Dream seeks advice from his sister, Death, who isn’t much help, preoccupied as she is with troubles of her own: “I’m doing what I can,” she says, “but the dead are coming back.” In her dialogue, Death is more contemporary than Dream, a characteristic that has been true of her throughout The Sandman: she calls Hell “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate,” and she suggests, jokingly, that Dream should open a ski resort or theme park in it. Death’s diction is colloquial and of the moment, unlike Dream, who seems more formal, less bound by time. This makes some sense, doesn’t it? Dreams live outside time, while death is always present.

What it means for the dead to come back, though — to become present once more — remains unclear. I doubt it will remain unclear much longer, though…

Season of Mists Chapter 4

The fourth episode of Season of Mists, and the twenty-fifth issue of The Sandman, sits as a set of black pages in the middle of the book. We’ve seen black-backed pages before (the first pages of Episode 0, in fact), but not this many at once. The effect is powerful, setting the panels off from the background like framed pictures, like snapshots — moments of the past captured, frozen, eternal.

We begin, though, in something like the present: December 1990. We meet two boys, Rowland and Paine, and then we see six panels of Rowland’s terrors, with Dream behind the panels, arms folded and countenance stern. It’s a Sunday morning, Paine reveals, and he and Rowland are in a chapel. Hymns surround them. Rowland is strangely upset by this. “Chapel?” he says. “But who have they got to pray to? That’s sick…”

What looks to me like a photograph sits in the foreground of the fourth panel on the third page — a photograph or portal, it’s hard to tell, but it shows a group of people who might at first look like a choir, but the members at the front are sitting informally, lounging around rather than standing proud. Like our panels, the picture has a thick black border or frame.

Six days have passed, Paine reveals, since Rowland was last conscious. “It seems like a lifetime,” Rowland says.

We are then whisked back to “Monday, six days ago,” and the empty dining hall of a British boarding school. Everyone has left the school for the holidays except for Charles Rowland, whose father, it is revealed, is in Kuwait. Usually, Charles says to the headmaster, he spends the holidays with his father, but not now. Now, he is the only child in the school, and the headmaster and matron don’t particularly want him underfoot, so he is given free rein of the place.

Kuwait, 1990. Iraqi forces invaded at the beginning of August, and the U.S. launched Operation Desert Shield. Major military action against Iraqi forces in Kuwait began in January 1991. By the end of February 1991, Coalition forces had gained control of Kuwait and begun to enter Iraq; President Bush ordered a cease fire on February 28.

No wonder Rowland couldn’t join his father for the holidays. Rowland shows no apparent knowledge of his father’s situation, no fear for what could be happening to him (reports of Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses were circulating widely then and the invasion was imminent). He is sad and lonely, and salves his loneliness in the school library, reading The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Aside from the electric lamp on the library table, the scene could be one from any time in the last few hundred years. The school, we are told, was founded in 1802 as a place for the sons of army officers, but now it “offered education to anyone who could afford it; particularly to those who lived abroad, but wanted their sons educated on British soil.”

As Rowland reads, we discover he is not quite alone. Shadowy children watch him. When he goes to sleep, we look down on him, a single body in a small bed surrounded by other empty beds. Walking down the corridors of the school, Charles had sensed that he was not alone, that, in fact, “You’re never alone in a school. It belongs to all those dead people. All the other kids. The ones who sat at your desk, or slept in your bed, or rand down the corridors a hundred years ago. They never go away.”

Watching Charles in bed, we discover how literally true this is. Ghostly bodies appear on the beds opposite his.

Boarding schools are especially ghostly places when not filled with the lively bodies of children and adolescents. In 1990, I was two years older than Charles and in my first year as a day student at a local boarding school. My first job after college was as a teacher at that same school, where I remained for nine years. For the first three years of my teaching career, I lived in an apartment in a large, four-storey brick dormitory that had been built in the early 19th century. During breaks, the dorm emptied out, and what had been a noisy, crowded, vehemently alive environment suddenly shifted into a being a cave of echoes and creaks. I am a fierce materialist, a devout skeptic, but even someone as determined as I to believe that there is nothing supernatural out there could not help, now and then, feeling the shadowy shiver of ghosts. Emptiness is eerie.

Charles, naturally, discovers ghosts. Or ghosts discover Charles. They are ghosts typical of a certain type of adolescent boy — bullies puffed up with entitlements of age and ego, sadistic creatures who thrive on the torment of ordinary, shy boys like Charles. They name themselves as Cheeseman, Skinner, and Barrow: names that appeared a few pages earlier on a stone memorial for “those boys from St. Hilarion’s who laid down their lives in the Great War (1914-1918).” Apparently, they made good cannon fodder.

As anyone who’s ever encountered macho arrogance knows, its ghosts don’t go away. And so Cheeseman, Skinner, and Barrow remain, haunting the halls, whatever heroics they performed on the battlefield lost to time, their great legacy being, instead, their pleasure at providing pain. There are other ghosts, too, a whole school of them.

But it’s the bullies who command the most attention. Their ghosts are corporeal enough to force hot forks through Rowland’s nipple, to torture him and leave him on the kitchen’s tiled floor, where Edwin Paine (1901-1914) finds him. It is as if Charles’s sufferings have left him and gained their own ghost, or a container at least. Pain reveals a timid companion, Paine.

In the foreground of the last panel of one of these pages, we get a closer view of the photograph glimpsed at the beginning of the issue. It is clearly a photograph in this panel, though we only see a corner: boys’ faces, staring dispassionately out at the years.

Death (dressed very early ‘90s) enters to claim Charles, but he wants to hang out with Paine a while longer, and Death must run off to other things, so he gets some extra time. Charles convinces Paine to skip out of the chapel with him, to wander off into the world. The black background of the pages dissolves into blue, then, on the final page, white. The world is vibrant and alive for these ghosts now. Hand-in-hand they escape the torments of their past and plunge into the paradox of dead living.

Season of Mists Chapter 5

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–

But no.

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.

Season of Mists Chapter 6

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.

Season of Mists Epilogue

The end of Season of Mists sends stray characters on mostly separate ways, cleaving them from their pasts and their partners. The only pair that survives this chapter intact is that of Remiel and Duma, the “winners” of Hell (though Duma seems to have gone mute). Nada gets new life, Loki is given indebted freedom, Nuala is cast out of Faery and consigned to the Dreaming, Lucifer is briefly befriended alone on a beach in Australia before he is left to himself and the sunset, and Destiny, alone in his Garden of Forking Paths, reads the tale and closes the book.

We can look back, then, at Season of Mists and see it as a series of meetings and partings, a search for knowledge and power and forgiveness and contentment. In the Prologue, the Endless congregated, and at the gathering, Dream gained a quest and left early, heading to Hell on his own. In the first chapters, Lucifer gathers everyone in Hell and reveals his abdication, sending them all away. Dream returns to his realm and summons all those who desire to rule Hell to a banquet. In Chapter 4, which at first seems disconnected from the others, Charles Rowland begins alone at St. Hilarion’s School for Boys, then is joined by ghosts, and, at the end, flees with one friend toward a new fate. The patterns of gathering and leaving, of gaining new destinies, are therefore shown to be patterns common to the living and the dead, the ending and the Endless. The next chapters return us to Dream’s banquet, and we see pairs and small groups of petitioners pleading for power over the province of Hell. The decision of who gets to rule there is made by the monotheists’ god, and the place is given to a pair of angels commanded to fall. In the Epilogue, this duo ushers back the two types of denizens: demons and the damned.

One becomes two, two becomes one. Group disperse and reconfigure. Yin and yang dance solo and together.

The doubleness of some of the characters is stripped away. Nuala must discard her glamour; Loki must reveal himself beneath his disguise. Dream talks with Nada in the form she has known him in, that of Kai’ckul, and he gives her a new form, resurrecting her as a male baby in Hong Kong.

We die alone and are reborn alone. To go down a different path in the garden, we must shed the clothes we traveled in on our way to the crossroads.

The necessity of individuality does not preclude the possibility of later community. The gates of Hell opened, the residents scattered their separate ways, but they were able to return. No return is simple, though. This is a new Hell, with new rulers and new rules. Remiel discovers and inflicts punishment for the demons and damned: he enforces small bits of goodness, self-sacrifice, and love on creatures for whom those are the only true horrors, the only source of unpleasurable pain.

Nada’s return to life may be more pleasant than the new pains suffered by the creatures of Hell, but birth is certainly no guarantee of happiness or pleasure. She has an advantage, though: Dream tells her she is always welcome in the Dreaming. She is reborn as a he in a bright, clean hospital to a smiling mother; the traditional miracles of the world she was first brought into have been replaced with the miracles of modern medical technology, and Nada now has as strong a chance of prospering as history has yet offered. And the dreams are likely to be sweet.

Just before she consented to rebirth, Nada asked Dream if she could have walked out of Hell. He responded with one word: “Perhaps.”

Story by story, The Sandman has offered tantalizing glimpses of the power of free will and desire within the realms of the Endless. Do believers breathe life into the gods with their belief? Is any fate entirely unsought? Where are the crossroads of will and action? What are the lineaments of gratified desire?

Could Dream have defied the deity and given Hell to someone other than the angels? Perhaps. Could the inhabitants of Hell wander elsewhere? Perhaps. Could the story have been a different one? Perhaps.

The garden has many forking paths.

Season of Mists ends with a quotation from an unwritten book by G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was October, a sequel, perhaps, to The Man Who Was Thursday. Happy endings, it asserts, are easy enough to acquire, if one can find “a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.” Happy endings, then, are a matter of will and desire. To reach a happy ending, the reader need merely stop reading and accept contentment. Tales themselves, which thrive on conflict and agony, offer only discontent.

Destiny stands amidst the forking paths and holds a closed book in his hands.

We then close our book and stand on the path of everyday life. Where I stand, it is night and the garden is buried beneath mounds of snow and ice, but I know there will be golden light one of these days, and the ice will melt and the grass will return, reborn, like we readers are reborn, along with our delighted discontent, on the first page of every book we open.