The Doll’s House” begins the story arc of the Sandman issues also called The Doll’s House, and the colors on the first page feel like an inversion of the colors on the last pages of the previous issue: the prologue that was “Tales in the Sand“. “Tales” ended with two horizontal panels, a diptych that seemed like windows on a landscape where pastel yellow and blue filled the sky and white covered the bottom third of the image.
An androgynous, spike-haired figure of predominantly yellow and black fills the first page of “The Doll’s House”: Desire, Dream’s younger sibling. Or, rather, not Desire per se but Desire’s fortress, the Threshold, built as a giant statue in Desire’s image. On the first page, the Threshold looks to me a bit like Annie Lennox in some of her 1980s permutations, and immediately I thought: Sweet dreams are made of this. And then, turning the page to see the strange image of a face created from sixteen screens, I thought of the Eurythmics video for “Sweet Dreams”, which begins with Lennox in front of a movie screen and behind a computer screen. This is not to say that I think these first pages of “The Doll’s House” are all about The Eurythmics — especially since so many of the 1980s videos I remember had some sort of screen in them (who can resist TV-type images on TV? it was the early days of MTV, and metacommentary was unavoidable) — but that in a work as wide-ranging as The Sandman, personal resonances are bound to scurry through each reader’s mind. MTV was a powerful influence on my early perception of the world, because my parents didn’t really want me to watch it (it was, like comics, supposed to rot your brain, and so my exposure was severely limited; my brain rotted anyway, apparently: here I am writing about comics and MTV!). Nonetheless, I was able to sneak glimpses, and vividly remember first encountering, in addition to “Sweet Dreams”, videos by the Talking Heads and They Might Be Giants that made me a lifelong devotee of surrealism.
The fourth page’s panels fascinate me. Desire looks at a gallery of sigils for the Endless, with each item displayed on a white square against an apparently infinite black background. At the top of the page, the white backgrounds are like comics panels, but really it is one image: Desire looking at the sigils. Below that runs a strip of four panels: Desire’s face, Dream’s helmet (looking like an African mask), the lower part of Desire’s face, and a side view of Desire kissing the helmet after twisting some Orwell: “Big brother … I’m watching you.” Below this, another single image of Desire looking at the gallery, and then below that another set of four panels. The effect is similar to that of optical illusions, especially because the white squares of the gallery in the top image are closely aligned with the panels below. Our perspective shifts and shifts, and if your eye has grown accustomed to interpreting squares with images inside them as panels, it requires almost an act of will to see the two single images of Desire looking at the gallery as single images and not as strips of panels.
The illusion is not simply clever. It performs a few purposes: like everything that we have seen in this issue so far, it unsettles us, providing a realm in which it’s difficult for us to get our bearings. The idea of the Threshold alone does this. Desire lives within the heart area of the Threshold, and the heart on the first page looks like a giant celestial object. Certainly, many myths and legends have located feelings of love, compassion, and desire in the heart, but, in a kind of narcissistic feedback loop, the anthropomorphized Desire of The Sandman lives in a representation of its own heart.
The fifth page presents fifteen panels that portray a dialogue between Desire and Despair. (Were the middle panel of the third row not double-sized, this page would have an equal number of squares as create the face-made-of-screens on the third page.) There’s a yin-and-yang quality to the page, most explicitly in the fourth panel, in which Desire’s face is a kind of bisected mask, half absolute black and half absolute white; significantly, it is the panel in which she says, “No, I speak of Dream.” The dominant colors on the page are all variations of white and black, red and blue. Desire is a mysterious and andogynous beauty, Despair a sort of child-creature, referred to as a “queen” and so more specifically gendered than Desire.
The topic of their conversation is the dream vortex that has opened. We do not know yet what this is, only that it is something that happens now and then and is special this time because it is a woman. Now is the time to remember the last words of “Tales in the Sand”: “But then, that is a women’s tale, and it is never told to men.” We moved from that into the androgyny of the Endless, and now we discover that the new dream vortex — which will clearly become a central concern of the story — is a woman.
And then the next page gives us a specific, and female, narrator: Rose Walker, who is flying with her mother to England at the summons of a mysterious, and apparently very rich, stranger. We have entered a women’s tale.
During the ride from the airport to the first meeting with the stranger, Rose falls asleep, and everything makes a 180-degree turn. Literally — the panels now move across the long side of the page, and we are forced to hold the book differently in our hands as we join Rose in her dream. We know immediately that it is not just a dream, or at least not just any dream, because we meet the our old friend Abel there, along with his baby gargoyle, Goldie, as they answer census questions from Lucien, who is taking stock of everything in Dream’s realm, and has discovered that four beings are missing and everyone is spreading rumors of a dream vortex, which Lucien considers irresponsible. Dream tells him otherwise: there is a vortex, and Rose’s dream ends when Lucien and Dream look through the dream at her, with Lucien exclaiming, “Why, you are right, Lord! Quintessential vortex material … and she’s so young…”
The next pages reveal that Rose and her mother, Miranda, have been brought to England by Unity Kincaid, whom we last saw as a sleeper in the second Sandman issue, “Sleep of the Just”, where we were told she had been raped in her sleep and had given birth. When she woke, she had some memory of giving birth to a daughter, and now we see she has used some of her wealth to track down that daughter.
Unity Kincaid lives in a nursing home, and the dominant objects in the room are a mirror and a doll’s house. We know to pay close attention to the doll’s house, because it is not only the title of this issue, but of the entire story arc — though, knowing how meanings spiral, echo, and metastasize throughout The Sandman, we also know there will be much more to the title than just this object. It is, Unity says, one of the few things she saved when her old house was sold decades before. It is a memorial to her lost life, and the opposite of Desire’s Threshold: instead of a universe-sized representation that serves as a dwelling place for the subject of the representation, it is a miniature dwelling place that serves an emotional purpose for a human being who had much of her life obliterated by sleep, and who let go of the full-sized house she once possessed.
“The Doll’s House” ends with a page devoted to the perception of The Corinthian, one of the lost creatures from Dream’s realm, a being referred to by Dream as “not … the most social … of nightmares.” In the panel of Rose’s dream where The Corinthian is discussed, we can see that his eyes are made of teeth, and remembering that helps bring sense to this last page, which begins as if seen through a blue lens. We follow his hands with a wine bottle in them through the first three panels, and so it is clear we are looking through his eyes. The addition of color at the top left corner of the fifth panel is at first confusing, but we see glasses in The Corinthian’s hand in the next panel. His victim, Davy, now gets to see The Corinthian’s eyes. His horror in the last panel may come, certainly, from the knife in The Corinthian’s hand, but the teeth of his eyes are probably what truly horrifies him.
Sight has been a running theme through “The Doll’s House” — Desire stared at the sigils in the gallery; Dream and Lucien looked out at Rose through her dream; Unity Kincaid has Miranda and Rose look at themselves in her mirror for confirmation that they are all related (“Don’t you see it, dear?” — the three of them appear in the same blue that colors The Corinthian’s shaded vision); The Corinthian devours the world with his eyes.
The story, though, is just beginning, and we know there will be much, much more to see…
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.