The Kindly Ones – Sandman Meditations

the kindly ones

The Kindly Ones Part 1

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…

The Kindly Ones Part 2

The second chapter of The Kindly Ones develops two stories: the story of Lyta, who has now called the police because of her missing son, and the story of Cluracan and Nuala, who have gained Dream’s permission for Nuala to leave the Dreaming and return to Faerie.

But I’m not going to write about any of that.

We’re still just starting this story, and so I’m going to pause and discuss something tangential, though it begins with this story. Or, rather, it begins with me deciding not to read this story in a particular setting.

It’s final exam week at the university where I teach, and I brought The Kindly Ones with me to my first exam period, where I thought I might reread Part 2, which I first read this weekend, and begin writing a draft of this Sandman Meditation.

The class was one called Writing and the Creative Process; it’s a general education course that introduces students to some of the principles of creative writing and encourages them to be creative in their lives. For the exam period, I had them sharing their final portfolios with each other and writing notes about what caught their attention in the portfolios. While they were doing this, I figured I could be a good model of a creative writer-type person and do some work.

But I chickened out.

Some part of my reptile brain just wouldn’t let me pull a comic book out of my satchel and start reading it during a final exam in a university classroom. Instead, I took out the latest issue of the literary journal Granta and started reading that.

Sure, if somebody said to me, “Are you reading a comic book?” I could have, and would have, said, “Well, it’s actually a graphic novel. I’m just reading it for a writing assignment, actually.”

That would have been a weaselly response, though, one that was trying to appease some assumptions that I loathe, one that was trying to overcome a certain sense of shame. There’s no shame in reading comics in general, and there’s certainly no shame in reading The Sandman.

But by censoring myself, I acted as if there were. I’ve published writings about popular culture for nearly a decade now, I’ve been writing these Sandman Meditations for over a year, and I’ve assigned students to read comics, popular novels, and even movie tie-ins. Just a week ago, I was on a panel discussion at this very university where I exhorted our English majors to read as widely as possible, saying that someone who reads both Dickens and Harlequin Romances is more literate than someone who only reads one or the other. If there is one person who should have no shame sitting in a university classroom with a copy of The Kindly Ones, it’s me. And yet I stopped myself from doing so.

Interestingly, the issue of Granta that I was reading is one with the theme of “Horror”. It offers a quote from Arthur Conan Doyle on the back: “Where there is no imagination there is no horror”. The issue includes a story by Stephen King. I had received this issue not because I subscribe, but because I am on the jury for the Shirley Jackson Awards (an award that Neil Gaiman happened to win last year), and the good people at Granta had been thrilled to send us all copies.

So there I was, an artifact of generous genre mixing in my hands, reading a brilliant essay by the poet Mark Doty about the connections between Walt Whitman, Bram Stoker, Dracula, addiction, and sexual desire — there I was, reading that, and censoring my original intention of reading The Kindly Ones.

I should be ashamed, but not of reading a comic book.

It’s the things we do without thinking that tell a lot about us. It wasn’t until after the class that I realized what I had done. The self-censorship was almost instinctual. If I had actually been conscious of it, I would have laughed at myself, immediately taken out The Kindly Ones, and probably even announced to the class what I was reading, because I think it’s important to overcome noxious norms by denouncing them. But I didn’t think. I looked into my bag, saw The Kindly Ones next to Granta and grabbed the literary journal. It was as if the comic book had been covered in cayenne pepper and cow dung: my hands would not touch it. The oh-so-respectable-looking journal flew to my fingers.

It’s the look that mattered. The Sandman volumes are beautifully designed, with lovely covers that give off no whiff of superhero comics or other lowly things, but what I think caused my shameful revulsion was the idea of being seen reading something with panels of illustration and text. It had nothing to do with the content of the story, but rather the immediate perception a passerby would get from a glance at the page. Panels. Pictures with words. A comic book.

There may be value to having certain things remain taboo and illicit, perhaps even comics. After all, it’s no fun to just color within the lines, to always be safe, to aspire to nothing except normality. How dull! We don’t necessarily want to be marginalized and ostracized for our passions, but at the same time, we don’t necessarily want all of them to be canonized, either. Sometimes it’s fun to be the kid who loves to play in the gutter and get the snooty kids in trouble.

But shame shouldn’t be a part of it. That’s what bothers me about my self-censorship. I have no problem with abnormality, with “unrespectable” reading matter, with gutters. But shame doesn’t belong in our passions. Let other people think who we are and what we read is shameful. Their lives and minds are small, and we can pity and laugh at them. They would be ashamed to be caught reading comics.

We, though, who seek broad experience and wide passions in the world, who seek only to marginalize that which is hateful and corrupt — we shouldn’t feel any shame at all.

I have two more final exam periods this week, and in both of them there will be time for the students to work with each other. I was planning to do some grading of their final papers then, but I think instead I will bring some comics along. I need to atone. I don’t think I’ll even bring The Kindly Ones. That would be too easy. Instead, I’ve got a pile of G.I. Joe comics from when I was a kid. (They were the only comics I was allowed to read.) A few of those ought to do the trick.

I have to admit, though, I’ll be disappointed if none of the students notice my reading matter and at least raise an eyebrow. What I really want is for somebody to scowl, or give me an unintentional look of disgust.

And then I’ll be so proud!

The Kindly Ones Part 3

The sadness of Hob Gadling is, for me, among the most poignant recurring elements of The Sandman. In the third part of The Kindly Ones, Hob’s sadness stands in counterpoint to Lyta’s growing anxiety and, then, horror and hatred.

Previously, we have learned that all lives are brief, but what we learn now is that the pain of death comes from those lives suddenly losing synchronization. As Hob stands at Audrey’s grave, he says, “I thought we’d have longer.” This is what anyone who loses a loved one is likely to feel. I and some of my closest friends all lost parents when we were at very different ages, and yet our feelings of that experience were more similar than different. Prolonged illness may dull the response to death a bit as we feel grateful that the sufferer is no longer in pain, but even in those circumstances where we feel relieved to reach the end, the combination of death and love collapses time. We always think we’ll have longer.

Hob Gadlin’s curse is not so much that he is practically immortal, but that nobody else in his world is — almost everyone he encounters is destined to die before him. (Hence the comfort of his meetings with Dream.)

Lyta’s confusion and apparent insanity in Part Three, and her anger and grief at the end of it, make sense to me, particularly her feeling of disconnection from herself, of watching herself and narrating her movements and thoughts. Grief shatters time; in grief, we cannot reconcile the loved one’s ending with our own continuing. “How can I still be here?” we ask.

Hob’s curse echoes the fate of a parent who outlives a child. I have never seen a more unassuageable grief than that of the parents I’ve known who have buried their children. Because I have been a teacher for over a decade now, I have known such parents, and sometimes known their children. But it’s a knowledge I’ve almost always had: when I was six, my aunt died, and my grandparents lived on. It was my first experience of death, and it made no sense to me. I have often tried to put together the fragments of memory around that moment, but it’s impossible. They are mostly freeze-frame images, hazy single moments that feel like days, such as my grandfather’s phone call to my parents to tell them what had happened. Almost all of my later encounters with an intersection of love and death have felt similar: the world stops, it breaks apart, it speeds up and slows down randomly, and it takes a while to get back into the rhythm of life, to get back into synch.

I’m not convinced that Daniel is dead, given his strangely worried-but-hardly-panicked expression when he was placed in the fire, as well as the emphasis on the phoenix feather in his hand, but Lyta seems convinced. (Why should she doubt it?) Now she must decide what to do, how to survive.

Regaining a sense of the rhythm of life often requires having a project. It’s a way to structure your continuing days while putting the memories you’ll never escape from to some use. Most of the parents I know who have lost children have tried to create some sort of memorial — not a physical memorial, necessarily, but some action to continue the child’s own interests or passions or concerns. It’s a way of reconciling the difference in lifespans, of not letting death be the end of everything.

Lyta, in her misery and terror, seems to have locked on to a new sense of purpose. “I know exactly what I must do,” she says. She seems to associate Dream with what happened to Daniel, and perhaps to suspect that he was the cause. Her project could become one of revenge rather than memorial. Dream warns Hob, who aches for some vengeance against the driver who killed Audrey, “I do not recommend revenge. It tends to have repercussions.”

That statement feels to me like it might be a bit of foreshadowing. Or it may just be an intelligent warning, something we could jot down in a notebook called The Wit and Wisdom of Morpheus. We shall see.

One thing we do know, though, is that Lyta is not particularly reliable in her narration. When Eric comes to visit her and she pushes him away, breaking his arm, she says, “…I don’t want him touching my neck so I move his arm away and there is a crunching noise…” The phrase moving his arm away is awfully gentle for what she probably did, given the effect. At the least, we know she is not a good judge of her own strength.

A couple panels later, she says, “Then Carla comes back and we have a sort of discussion about things, and she decides not to stay another night and I say that’s fine because I can manage on my own.” If we read that text unaccompanied by anything beyond its words, we would have a very different perception of Carla and Lyta’s “discussion” than we do, because this text is attached to an image of a crazed, screaming Carla, her fists raised, her teeth like broken panes of glass, her eyes wild.

Should we believe Lyta’s narration or the image accompanying it? There’s no way to be certain yet. Lyta and her world are out of sync. She has a plan now, but whether it will accomplish anything other than spreading chaos, there’s no way to know.

Whatever she does, though, we can be sure it will have repercussions.

The Kindly Ones Part 4

When Carla comes to visit Rose in the fourth chapter of The Kindly Ones, Rose is getting ready to videotape an episode of the sitcom Roseanne. She tells Carla that she is hoping to write something about three sitcoms in particular: Roseanne, The Addams Family, and Bewitched This information comes as she and Carla discuss, among other things, the difficulties and weirdnesses of families. (And from A Doll’s House we might remember that Rose knows a thing or two about weird families.)

The Addams Family and Bewitched both played on ABC and aired their first episodes on consecutive days in 1964. (Their fates were different, though, as The Addams Family only lasted until 1966, while Bewitchedcontinued until 1972.) Roseanne also played on ABC, but twenty-four years later, premiering in 1988 and running until 1997.

One of these things is not like the other. While all the shows were comedies, the two older ones were both full of magic and monsters, and generally devoid of “serious issues”. Roseanne was exactly the opposite, an attempt to create a realistic show within the confines of the sitcom format. Its storylines presented problems of class, gender, and sexuality, including the introduction of gay characters. It presented the difficulties of family life in ways the earlier shows would never have considered.

The Addams Family and Bewitched are fantasy worlds and fantasy families, but Roseanne was, for its time, one of the most realistic shows on tv.

While it is often misleading to reduce people to their fantasies and entertainments, Rose’s interest in these particular shows seems to me quite meaningful. Perhaps they speak to her feelings about her experiences and the worlds she has seen, the history she has known. They certainly echo, sometimes in mirror-image, the challenges faced by Rose, Lyta, and many other characters throughout The Sandman: how do we reconcile the immediate, mortal world with the worlds of dreams and myths and magics that shadow it?

Rose and Carla’s conversation comes right after we have seen Lyta in between both worlds. It’s an extraordinary sequence in its art and the suggestiveness of its writing: Lyta talking to people along the path she travels toward revenge, with each encounter ending in the city and giving us, the readers privileged to a distance Lyta is not allowed, at least a bit of uncertainty: is she dreaming, deluded, insane? And what would that mean, given all we know of dreams and delusion from The Sandman?

There’s nothing funny about Lyta’s plight, and so the sitcoms stand in an inverse relationship to her experience. Their monsters and magics are funny, and even the most dire problems of the most realistic family can be played for laughs. Lyta and Rose don’t live in such a world, though they may yearn to. Rose can watch that world on her tv, she can preserve it on videotapes, she can write essays about it to try to determine its deepest signs, suggestions, and significance. But The Addams Family, Bewitched, and even Roseanne are all fantasy worlds. Fantasy fantasy worlds, not real fantasy worlds like the realms of the Endless. Television worlds are manufactured, deliberated, produced — they don’t live in a mythosphere of human dreaming, they aren’t ancient, terrifying, wise, bewildering.

Or are they?

People have made the case that television and movies and comic books are our contemporary myths, that popular mass culture provides our societies with the sort of sustenance provided to ancient societies by their stories. I am not experienced enough with myths and legends, either themselves or their histories, to venture an opinion on whether this is so, but certainly we cannot deny the effect of all the various media on our imaginations. From childhood on, we dream through Bugs Bunny and Harry Potter, we visit the shrine of Disneyworld, we chronicle the legendary exploits of celebrities through tabloids and TMZ.

Neil Gaiman is especially aware of this, as not only The Sandman but many of his writings, especially American Gods, show. What becomes of old gods, old beliefs, old myths? Where do they go when no-one is left to believe in them, when they are forgotten?

I’m not sure if that’s the direction The Sandman is taking, but its mélange of comic book culture and thousands of years of human belief and storytelling implies the question.  What happens when all our dreams get copyrighted? When belief is little more than an accumulation of Twitter stats? Should Dream get a Facebook page?

The Dream King

Created new Corinthian. w00t! It’s good to be the king!

Well, maybe not.

Although Mervyn Pumpkinhead might be really amusing on Twitter. But he gets into enough trouble as it is.

All the social media in the world won’t save Lyta, though. I fear for the path she’s on, and the Furies she will encounter.

But that will all have to wait for later.

Right now, I need to go find out more about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian…

The Kindly Ones Part 5

Given how complex the narrative of The Kindly Ones is revealing itself to be, I would be a fool to pretend to be able to come to any conclusions about it yet, or even to pretend to any knowledge of quite what is happening beyond the immediate events of each chapter. This is by far the most difficult of the Sandman volumes to proceed through in an issue-by-issue way; every time I reach the end of a chapter, I groan with the effort of restraining myself from turning the page. While such restraint fulfills the goals of this experiment in reading, and somewhat mimics the experience of the original readers who had to wait between issues of the comic, it’s still unavoidably frustrating.

I wonder if there are readers for whom seriality is itself an attraction. I don’t mean the products and effects of seriality — the rich complexities of plot and character available to a story developed over multiple episodes — but the episodic, can’t-wait-for-next-time suspense that a serial form creates. If, by some shrinking of a time-space continuum, we could preserve all aspects of serial stories and yet make them completely available from Day 1, would we enjoy them as much, or perhaps even more, than we do when they are parceled out in pieces? Is such stories serial structure and distribution a pleasure in addition to the other pleasures of an extended, complex story?

Audiences have all sorts of different preferences, but, personally, I would not be bothered by a world where every story is available in a complete form. But then, I’m the sort of person who reads the last chapter of mystery novels first and seeks out full summaries of movies before watching them, so I’m a bit a weirdo.

Technology has reduced the fragmented seriality of the mediascape. During my childhood and adolescence, for instance, if we missed an episode of a particular TV show, we’d have to hope to see it during a re-run, and re-runs weren’t always easy to find. This heightened the need for episodes to be self-contained, and shows with long narrative arcs (e.g. Babylon 5) were few and far between. Now many shows can be saved on Tivo or are quickly available online after they are first aired (or at least available within a few months on DVD) and so new narrative complexities are possible. What might have been made, at best, as a five-part mini-series before can now stretch to five seasons (e.g. The Wire).

While I prefer this environment to the one of my youth, I’m not blind to some of the losses in a world of plenty. Scarcity can create community. For instance, I had to rely on a friend to videotape Babylon 5 episodes for me, and we would typically watch four or five of them together when I went to visit him every few months. The wait in between was excruciating, but there was a social aspect to our viewing that made the experience of watching the show far more fulfilling than it would have been otherwise. The difficulty of seeing the shows added to their aura.

I wonder if  The Sandman had a similar sort of aura when it was being published one issue at a time. If you missed an issue, you couldn’t just go online and order it (at least in the beginning). You would need to rely on friends or visit a comic shop or write to the publisher. In between issues, you had time to re-read the old ones and to get into discussions with anybody else you could find who shared your interest in the series. Once you did find them, such people would be like a lost sibling found; in the days before most people had access to the internet, discovering like-minded fans of geeky (or, as I prefer to think of it, esoteric) stuff could be hard or even impossible, depending on where you lived. Then when you did find them, they might be hygienically challenged, politically reactionary, paranoid, delusional, and desperately proud of every factoid in their memory — but they still shared your passion, they were still part of the family, and so the pleasure of their company usually outweighed whatever quirks or obnoxious qualities they possessed. On the internet, they’re no longer quite so rare or special, and so they just become a crazy fascist conspiracy theorist who is WRONG.

There are new sorts of community and sociality in the internet age, though, and so I wouldn’t trade the days of yore for the days of now. There is always some loss with change, otherwise it isn’t change.

Before I collapse into a puddle of reckless generalizations, though, let’s look at some of the specifics of this chapter of The Kindly Ones. One of the elements of the story that I haven’t yet had a chance to comment on is the many parallel tales it tells. That’s a particularly challenging task for a serial story, especially one limited to the size and frequency of a comic book, because there’s always a chance that readers could completely lose track of at least one plot thread or character arc. One of the ways The Kindly Ones works to avoid such confusion is by returning to characters we haven’t seen for a while but who are, nonetheless, familiar. Most of the characters are from A Doll’s House, and one of the ways readers could have gotten through the wait between issues when The Kindly Ones first appeared was by going back to reread that story.

More importantly, each issue is structured to give us a glimpse of many, if not all, of the storylines that will, I assume, eventually converge.

For instance, the fifth part of The Kindly Ones gives us bits of the stories of Lyta, Rose, the (new) Corinthian, Nuala, Carla, and Loki. Rose and Carla’s stories begin separately and then come together on page 18, then Carla and Loki spend the last few pages of the chapter together, with Carla apparently burned up in the final panels. The moments with the Corinthian in the Dreaming and Nuala in Faerie make up the middle of the chapter (six pages total), while a brief moment with Lyta makes the first three pages a sort of prologue leading into a touching five-page section with Rose visiting Zelda, who is dying of AIDS. The section in which Carla visits the police station, returns home to have a photograph of Daniel burst into flames in her hand, and talks with Rose about the “weird shit” of life also covers five pages. Lyta’s sections, scattered through the chapter, add up to five pages.

The symmetry and balance of the narrative structure alleviates some of the confusion inherent in a story accrued from multiple threads. Additionally, some of the threads have a sense of completeness to them: Rose’s visit to the hospice to see Zelda is a full incident, and Carla’s ending, though mysterious, still seems to be some sort of an end (albeit one of those ends that is also a beginning). Lyta’s quest for revenge continues as it has for a little while now, the Corinthian’s story is just beginning, and Nuala’s story continues, but feels particularly beguiling because we don’t yet have any idea how she will connect with the other stories.

This one chapter, then, doesn’t have its own narrative beginning, middle, and end, but it contains beginnings, middles, and ends. Though the structure can be frustrating if, like me, you are halting yourself from reading the entire book all at once, it is also (paradoxically) satisfying because each part is so carefully balanced.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to resist turning the page.

The Kindly Ones Part 6

We have reached a sort of middle: the sixth part of The Kindly One’s thirteen parts. Thirteen, of course, being an odd number does not split evenly in two. Fans of Part 7 might find it more comfortably middle-ish, being for all intents and purposes the beginning of the second half, while fans of Part 6 might argue fervently and ferociously that their part is really the middle because it’s the end of the first half. Fans of Part 8 might then dispute the fans of Part 7 for the title of Beginning of the Second Half, invoking all sorts of ancient statutes requiring that second halves be shorter than first halves if the halves are not equal halves.

So there you halve it: the halves and halve-nots.

Perhaps you’d rather I write about the half-time show at the Superbowl. My entire family watched it, most of my friends watched it, but I did not. Instead, I watched, for the umpteenth time, Fritz Lang’s marvelous movie The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the second of three or the third of four films Lang made about the eponymous übermenschy crime lord. Its exact number within Lang’s Mabuse sequence depends on how you count the two parts of Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, which were made together but originally released as separate films. Most people consider The Testament of Dr. Mabuse to be the second of three. And thus, it is the middle of the trilogy.

Speaking of trilogies, in Part 6 of The Kindly Ones, everything seems to come in threes.

What do all the threes (that is, half of six) mean? I could venture guesses and throw darts toward obvious answers, but there’s no need yet, here in the middle of things. Just note they’re there. (“There” is an anagram of “three”.)

In the middle of this middle-ish (not middling!) story sits another story, a tale told by one of the three old women, a tale told to her by her mother. Consumed with curiosity, I broke my own rules and looked up a reference, wondering if this story-within-the-story that felt so much like an old folktale was something Neil Gaiman had come up with himself, or, as all the best writers do, appropriated from elsewhere. It’s apparently a variation on a story in The Penguin Book of English Folk Tales, a book that I don’t happen to have, nor does my local library, so for now I’m going to have to continue on in ignorant bliss.

This middle chapter is a kind of pause, a tangent, a bit of a breather. The art is not by Marc Hempel, who has done the very distinctive and stylized work that makes up the majority of The Kindly Ones, but rather by Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, and Dean Ornston. The story of Rose is depicted in a fairly traditional comic book style, similar to when we first met her in The Doll’s House. The story told to Rose, though — the folktale in the middle of the chapter — is in a wholly different style, more like an illustrated book, as befits it.

A chapter with, then, a good claim on being in the middle of The Kindly Ones stands distinct from the chapters around it in both its content and form; and in the middle of this chapter stands a story that is distinct in content and form from the rest of the story around it.

Stories within stories, forms within forms. We ought to be used to this now in The Sandman, but I’m a sucker for it all, these labyrinths of nested dolls.

Today I was delighted to learn, for instance, that when planning his early film Der var engang (Once Upon a Time), the great Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer wanted to try to keep costs down by building all the sets within each other: the largest set would be built first, then the next-largest inside it, and so on, until the smallest and most intimate set was built last. The plan fell apart when some of the actors had changes in their schedules, but it is nonetheless a lovely concept for a movie that is the story of a princess in a kingdom called Illyria.

It is a movie that is incomplete, and likely will remain incomplete forever. Nitrate film disintegrates if not stored in cool and dry conditions, safe from air. It also explodes. The oldest movies are like self-destructing messages in Mission: Impossible, or bombs, or books in the library of Alexandria. Most of what was ever filmed is gone. (Perhaps Dream’s library also has a media wing, a place where all those lost old movies live.)

Part 6 offers echoes with its nests. It’s full of panels that hark back. The last pages take us all the way back to the first Sandman story.

The first Sandman feels so far away to me now.

The people we were when we read that first issue no longer exist. But they leave traces. Like memories and stories and middle things, our past reading experiences nest inside us. They haunt each new word we read and shadow even the youngest stories.

And I expect that, like old nitrate film, those past stories are just waiting to explode.

The Kindly Ones Part 7

In the seventh part of The Kindly Ones, the growing sense we’ve had that Lyta’s story and Dream’s will intersect climactically is solidified by this chapter’s many parallels and apparent omens.

Ominous parallels and forboding omens.

Forced to find a simile for this chapter’s structure, I’d hem and haw a while, then, reluctantly (because of impossibility, because of imperfection) say Part 7 is like a quilt, and every few pages we get a new square, and all the squares are threaded together with the strings of past stories. (You have noticed by now, I’m sure, that each chapter except for the prologue and Part 6 begins with a string across the first panel.) The past stories are stories out of histories and mythologies, and, more and more, past Sandman tales. There is, for me at least, a sense of gathering — gathering characters, gathering plots, gathering stray props and loose ends and spare change.

The quilt metaphor falls apart, of course, when we think about the gravity all this gathering creates, the sense of accumulating momentum toward a — well, toward what, exactly? A climax? A resolution? An end? A new beginning? (A New Hope! Rumors of George Lucas trying to insert Jar Jar Binks into The Sandman are, my sources assure me, entirely without basis in fact. As Dream says to Odin: “Only a fool listens to rumors.” Also, I had a dream last night in which The Sandman himself assured me that Han shot first. Dreams are better than rumors.)

The gravity and momentum, the perception of movement toward Something Big is a powerful undertow through the narrative, one that causes me to want to mix every metaphor I find — our quilt now has gained not only certain Newtonian properties, but oceanic qualities, too! (In dreams, quilts equal mass times wave actions.)

The sense of movement toward Something Big is heightened by the difficulty of defining what that Something Big is. We’ve gotten acclimated to anti-climaxes and resonantly ambiguous resolutions in The Sandman, and the best bet right now might be to take a term from the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly and call the impending sense of conclusion-or-not a Great Whatsit.

But with a Great Whatsit, we might end up on a beach at the end of the world.

The design of the last few pages of this chapter highlights all of the effects I’ve mentioned so far. Lyta’s story occurs in the bottom panels, while the top 2/3rds of each page give us other stories. Lyta has found, or been found by, the Furies. This event is literally the story beneath the other stories. And then, on the last page of the chapter, it takes over, after all the ravens have left the Tower of London and a kingdom is destined to fall.

Dark, menacing colors and figures. A panel in which Lyta stands in a doorway a bit like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers (the story of a man crazed with vengefulness, genocidal). Tentacles of hair and blood. Grotesque night-blue figures seeming at first to offer no help in Lyta’s quest, then revealing the one truth that will put them on her side: “He did kill his own son.”

Six single-syllable words: he did kill his own son.

How can this end well?

How can this end?

Impossible questions to answer just yet, so let me divert you, instead, with one of my favorite sentences in The Sandman so far, from the top of the penultimate page of this chapter, a vision of Hell: “A makeshift barge made of dead flesh is slowly poled down a river of cold semen.”

Dead flesh and cold semen. (A fine name for a punk band, no?) Detritus of a rotting afterworld and a failed beforeworld.

(How can this end well?)

It is interesting to me, too, that the Furies appropriate the language of feminism, and quite reasonably, too, in decrying the name Lyta uses for them. “Not the Furies, my Lobelia. That’s such a nasty name. It’s one of the things they call women, to put us in our place…” And then a panel with floating words: Termagant, vixen, shrew, virago, witch, bitch. “Do we,” one of the women asks, “look furious to you?”

Indeed. The words for powerful men are so much nicer than the words for powerful women. There are so many fewer insults to hurl at strong men than strong women. Our language associates strength with men, it’s normal, it’s fine, they’re like that, those boys, they’ll be boys, what do you expect — but in words and mythologies, women with chutzpah and gusto and authority are often set up to “get what they deserve”, and what they deserve, of course, is to be shown their place.

Cold semen. Dead flesh.

(How can this end?)

He did kill his own son.

The Kindly Ones Part 8

Travels and transgressions. Emigrations and imbrications. Diffusion and osmosis.

The eighth part of The Kindly Ones suggests that borders are breaking down, that walls once seemingly sturdy may be more rickety than we supposed, that to be Endless is not to be free of the threat of an end.

The first page gives us five children who travel to the King of Dreams in search of their lost mother. The second and third pages portray Dream traveling through his realm, encountering a variety of states and citizens. On the fourth page, he returns to his castle. “The heart of the Dreaming is as large as the Dreaming itself,” the narrator tells us. Throughout these first pages, space and time are delineated: we know the days (Truesday, Wodensday, Thirstday) and their approximate hours (“In the afternoon…”, “When this day was almost over…”); we know the places outside and inside the castle.

Dream is not merely wandering his realm, he is enscribing it.

Delirium then visits him from her own realm. She is concerned with making sure she does it right, that she respects the rules and the borders. She questions what her brother means by the word “responsibilities”, and he says, “I use it to refer to that area of existence over which I exert a certain amount of control and influence.” She sees things differently: “Our existence deforms the universe. That’s responsibility.” Place versus being. Ecology versus ontology.

After Delirium and Dream, we move to Rose Walker and Jack, her solicitor, who she ends up in bed with. (A bit of a no-no. A crossed line.)

Then to Matthew and the new Corinthian, who locate the charred body of Carla in a morgue. The Corinthian takes out her eyes and puts them in his own, to see what she saw — he crosses into her last sight, giving it new life in his own eyes.

Ravens lurk in the shadows on the outskirts of Dream’s realm.

And then visitors arrive at the gate of the castle, and achieve the impossible: they kill the gatekeeper Gryphon. The Wyvern does his duty — his responsibility — and warns the visitors not to stray from the path in the castle, but then adds: “You killed my friend, woman. Stray from your path.” (This double statement — do not stray/stray — echoes the double statement Destiny gave to Delirium, as she reports: “He said it couldn’t hurt to come and see you. He told me not to come and see you, too.”)

Dream mistakes his visitors for Lyta Hall. “We are far more than Lyta Hall,” they say. Identities merged and mixed. The visitor as plural individual. Lyta Hall, Kindly Ones, Erinyes. Vengeance, hatred unending. Doom.

To Dream, death and destruction are not final. “We destroyed your gatekeeper,” the visitor says. “I can create another,” he says, “who would not even know that it had ever died.” Crossing between the realm of death to life; a single being with many lives.

(“You think these are clues?” Matthew asked the Corinthian. “I think they’re echoes,” he replied, “or ripples, or…”)

The visitor threatens to destroy Dream. In the second panel of page 19, Morpheus asks if there is a reason they want his doom. We see then a statement by Lyta Hall on the left (“You killed my son…”) and by the Kindly Ones on the right (“…You killed your son.”) We know that one is true and one is false. Both statements concern murders, or perceived murders, but the true statement is the most transgressive: one family member who killed another. A family is a realm, an ecology and an ontology, a time and a space. The oldest rule, it seems, is that the ties of family must not be cut by the family members. A family story must not be ended by its protagonists.

Dream asserts his power, his control, his responsibility. The Kindly Ones point out a simple fact to him: the gatekeeper, destroyed.

Dream looks to another world to see how the Corinthian and Matthew are progressing. They are not in the waking world; they have crossed into elsewhere, travelers to another realm, to a place the Corinthian says is “a long way from the real world.”

Page 22 gives us three panels and three people’s stories. Lucifer, approached by a waitress with a Janus face, has “an urge to move on”. Thessaly, who now calls herself Larissa (another name, identity, self; another game of you), reads omens in the flight of birds and expects a visitor soon. Nuala, now returned to Faerie, searches her memories for happiness. Her travels are over, her past is more alive than her present.

On page 23, Rose Walker calls Jack and discovers he is not as unencumbered as he seemed. He is not quite who she thought he was. Their transgresssion was more complex than she knew.

Rose sits alone in the top third of the last page, angry and frustrated, the world a little different from how she had perceived it moments before. She had been reading an old diary entry, amused by her past self, and then she called Jack and her present got reconfigured, and now she must be wondering about the future, about the cycles of life and love, about unknown possibilities and inevitable dooms.

Below her, a single panel for two-thirds of the page, and a simple narration: “And on Son’s Day, they held the first funeral.” The sentence and image are rich with possibilities — the funeral is for the destroyed Gryphon, but this is Son’s Day, and we know that the Gryphon’s death cannot be the only one Dream is thinking of.

Autumn leaves fall in this panel, reminding us of the leaves falling in the big panel on page 4 that shows the castle and the path leading up to it. Autumn, the season of harvest, when winter’s deaths sit on the horizon and the rebirths of spring are little more than whiffs of dream.

The Kindly Ones Part 9

By the end of the ninth chapter of The Kindly Ones, some characters may have found things they were looking for: Rose Walker may have found her heart, and the Corinthian may have found Lyta Hall’s son, Daniel. I say “may have found” because only a fool proclaims certainties about a Sandman story before it is finished (if then!), and I aspire to be less of a fool.

Rose’s heart is left behind by Desire after their conversation. The heart is in the form of an Art Deco lighter, something cold to the touch but full of fire when sparked to life. The Corinthian finds a lot of fire when he and Matthew track down Loki and Daniel: a fireplace fire and a fire that seems to emanate from Loki as a shield and weapon. The Corinthian is strong enough to overpower Loki’s fire, to knock him out and steal his eyes and see Daniel concealed above like a balloon on a string.

Unlike many of the other chapters, in this one there isn’t a lot of moving back and forth between stories. Each strand of plot gets a few pages of its own, and then we move on to another, with an exception made for Matthew’s travels as he journeys from Swartalfheim to The Dreaming to Fiddler’s Green (its desert corpse) and then back to Swartalfheim. The stories exist on their own, without overt connections, except for Matthew, flying between a few, and Dream, who in some way or another haunts them all.

Part 8 began with a string about to be cut, and Part 9 begins with the same, but now the string is frayed and will, we expect, snap at any moment, scissors or no. “Almost time,” a voice says. “Nearly, very nearly,” says another. Quests may be completing; separations loom.

Even though the stories themselves are separate, they are, as usual for The Kindly Ones, noisy with echoes. I needed to look back at Preludes and Nocturnes for a few details to refresh my memory, and stumbled on more than I’d guessed. For instance, compare the panel that occupies most of the second page with the very first Sandman panel of them all. The same manor, the same fence. In Preludes and Nocturnes, we see it from a distance; now we are closer in. The fence covers a greater portion of the panel in The Kindly Ones, and our entire view of the house is through it.

Time has passed, names have changed. Wych Manor has become Fawney Rig. But Rose has hardly aged and Alexander Burgess still lies sleeping and dreaming of waking into nightmares. Furniture in the manor sits under dustcloths, unused, and no-one reads the books in the library.

Of course, Rose’s visit to the library was my favorite moment in this chapter. I’m always a sucker for a library. A new and copious library is an opportunity to revel in the pure pleasure of potential. Anything could be there. “This place is like the library of my dreams,” Rose says (a statement that has many implications within The Sandman).

I’ve known the library of my dreams, but its corollary in our world wasn’t actually a library. It was a bookstore. But had I the ability to build my dream library, it would look exactly like the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore, which existed at 339 Newbury Street in Boston from the year of my birth, 1975, to 2004. I first visited in the late 1980s, when my uncle took me into Boston for my birthday and I was seeking a copy of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, because I’d read somewhere that it was a great end-of-the-world story and I just loved end-of-the-world stories. I remember first setting foot in the store. It was not a very big place at all, but it was floor-to-ceiling books, with narrow alleys between the shelves. In some places, books had to be piled on the floor. The smell of old books filled the air. It’s the best smell in the world.

(Avenue Victor Hugo has left a particularly special legacy: two young clerks named Gavin and Kelly met there. They created a zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and a publishing company called Small Beer Press to publish Kelly’s book Stranger Things Happen. Avenue Victor Hugo is gone, but Small Beer Press lives on, as do Gavin Grant and Kelly Link and their daughter Ursula. In fact, Small Beer has published books by Avenue Victor Hugo’s owner, Vincent McCaffrey.)

(And while I’m being parenthetical, I must do what I always do whenever I mention Avenue Victor Hugo in public: apologize to Gavin. I visited the store in the late ’90s and bought a copy of the marvelous multi-genre magazine Century and a copy of Carol Emshwiller’s Leaping Man Hill. The nice man with a Scottish accent who rang me up said something like, “Oh, you know, if you like Carol Emshwiller and Century, you might like this little magazine I publish…” In my mind, I imagined some painfully earnest photocopied zine full of semi-literate rantings, and I don’t think I hid the contempt in my voice when I said, “Uh, noooo thank you…” I always remembered this because I really spent the rest of the day pondering the gall of someone who thought his silly little magazine might be worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Century and Carol Emshwiller, and whenever I looked at that issue of Century or Leaping Man Hill, the moment returned in a flash. Soon enough, of course, Carol Emshwiller herself would appear in Lady Churchill’s, Small Beer would publish a number of her books, and for those reasons and many others they became unquestionably my favorite publisher.)

So yes, for me, the ultimate library would be a kind of infinite Avenue Victor Hugo. Floor-to-ceiling books, narrow passageways, old-book smell, a cat.  That’s not just the recipe for the ultimate library — that’s a perfect description of Heaven!

The Kindly Ones Part 10

Dear Reader, see me squirm. After watching Nuala insist that Dream come to her to grant her boon, and after reading Dream say, “As long as I remain in the Dreaming, no real harm can occur,” and after then reading Nuala say, “My Lord … you are no longer in the Dreaming,” and Dream reply, “No. I am not,” I turned the page only to discover that I had just read the last words of Part 10, and thus must stop.

Dear Reader, I work hard to stick to our agreement about this experiment. I do not read ahead before I write down my meditations. I do not consult reference books or Wikipedia. I risk bushels of blunders. The purity of the experiment is what matters, and I have kept the purity I promised you at the beginning, Reader.

But, damn, I didn’t know there would be such vexing cliffhangers on this journey! I knew, of course, that each issue would not be complete, that there were tapestries and mosaics to be seen, that plots and counterplots would accumulate — I knew all this, yes, but how could I foresee that Nuala might lead Dream to his doom! And that I would then have to stop reading and write to you, Reader, my idle, straying thoughts. I did not want to resent you, Reader, but do you know the torture you are inflicting on me right now, the pain of a Major Unanswered Plot Point, a disease for which the only cure is to continue on into the narrative. But you won’t let me! You insist on reading this!

I should have told you at the beginning that I do not like suspense. A strange thing for someone who reads as much fiction as I to say, I know, but there it is. When I read mystery novels, I read the last chapter so I have a sense of who lives and who dies and whodunnit. Before seeing movies, I usually read reviews and, if possible, complete summaries. Just last week, I read the Wikipedia summaries for all the Hunger Games books because I had begun to read the first one and knew I’d be going see the movie with some friends. That’s how I roll. Suspense is intolerable, a kind of physical pain, like nausea.

I imagine you feel differently, Reader. Just about everyone I know does. Because I do not get much joy from the suspense of a plot, it took me a while to realize that there are people in the world with exactly the opposite feelings to mine. These are the people who resent any mention of any narrative without a SPOILER WARNING!!!

I don’t have those neurons in my brain, and so it is easier for me to understand how Republicans think than the Spoilerwarners. “Don’t you see,” I have said to them, “that knowing the plot information is a kind of freedom — the freedom to give more attention to other, more interesting things within the story?” They do not see this, and they think I am malicious for asking. “There are no more interesting things,” they say. “Nothing else is as much fun.”

(Then I do actually get malicious for just one moment. I tell them what happens to the boat at the end of Titanic.)

The wide-spread, pathological hatred of SPOILERS!!! and love of plot-suspense is, in some respects, a relatively recent development. We could go back to the days of folktales and myths, those ever-replicated, ever-embroidered stories that make up every culture’s bank of tales, where the pleasure was not so much in the suspense of what would happen — audiences often knew at least the basic outline of the plot — but of how the storyteller would tell it.

We don’t have to reach quite so far back in history, though. Until about fifty years ago, many movie theatres played movies continuously, with a roughly three-hour block of newsreels, cartoons, a B movie, and a longer A movie. Some theatres advertised the showtimes, especially of the feature; some theatres just advertised the hours they opened and closed. Many people would simply show up at the theatre when it was convenient, and thus could easily come in in the middle of a movie. If they liked it, they could stay and watch the beginning.

That’s not my ideal, though, because for all my hatred of suspense, I do like to look at things in the shape they were intended to be looked at, if possible. My ideal is pretty much what we have now: the ability, via the internet, to find relatively accurate plot summaries, and to read them before embarking on any journey likely to evoke suspense.

But, Reader, here I am, stuck in an experiment that denies me my usual means of undermining suspense, and here I am, Reader, with that most awful of suspense-inducing tricks, a cliffhanger!

What am I to do?

There’s really only one solution. One way to stop resenting you for keeping me here, chained to not-knowing, suffering under the suspense.

I have to stop writing this and go read Part 11…

The Kindly Ones Part 11

You will be relieved to learn, I know, that I survived the suspense of the cliffhanger at the end of Part 10. And as with so many of the surprises (and suspenses) of The Sandman, it was less and more than it appeared. We might have expected Nuala’s luring of Morpheus at the end of the previous part to lead to a story of great explosions back in the Dreaming, or we might have guessed Part 11 would give us an epic attack by the Furies, or we might have feared a giant climax of gigantic giantness to lurk around the corner, with Nuala as a devious double-agent of the forces of evil.

Instead, we learned that Nuala is perhaps best described as naive, and that the destruction heralded by the Furies will be slow and steady and insidious. They have no need for speed. They are the most patient creatures in the universe. They are the masters of revenge, and revenge is best served slow.

What the Kindly Ones offer — their greatest threat — is not just death, but an irrevocable materiality. Look at the wound they cause the Dream King, the scar that will stay on his face. He will, he says, be keeping it for now. “Alianora foretold,” he says, “that I would receive my scars, in my turn, like the one I left on her cheek, like the one I left on her heart.”

Life does that: it leaves tracks and scars. Little baby Daniel looks perfect, as if he has survived his ordeals without suffering, as if he is fresh and almost newly born. The Furies tell his mother that it’s only partly him, though. “He isn’t dead,” she says. “He is no longer alive,” they reply.

Meanwhile, Rose discovers Zelda truly is dead, and what remains are her material things. Zelda becomes the personal items she left behind and a bill for services rendered. She will live, for a while at least, as a memory in the minds of those who knew her and are still alive, but memories grow porous, then perish. Items often last longer. Personal belongings are personal effects. The OED notes an archaic meaning: “Something which is attained or acquired by an action,” as in Shakespeare’s “I am still possest / Of those effects for which I did the murther.” Action is the province of the living, the real. Another archaic meaning of effect: “Practical reality, fact, as opposed to name or appearance.”

The scar on Morpheus’s cheek is real. He is being welcomed into the world of the living, which means, of course, he can then be killed.

Encountering death teaches us about materiality. The dead body, certainly, but even in these days when death is hidden off in hospitals and funeral homes, the corpses kept as far from everyday encounters as possible, there is what remains behind: the remnants, the relics.

This is what struck me four years ago when my father died: how much a person can leave. I am an only child and my parents were divorced; I became, in the eyes of the law, the person to whom it all belonged. My father was a collector, someone who acquired stuff of all sorts, who kept things in closets and corners and an attic that remains a nightmare to me. Even if somehow I ever forgot the memory of him, I will never, as long as I live, forget his stuff. It lives with me, surrounds me, stalks me, haunts me. It bound him to reality, especially at those moments when he felt that life was out of his control. I’m more focused in my material obsessions (books, DVDs), but no different, really. Someday, someone will inherit everything that I own, which will mean they will inherit all that I have kept of my father’s items, and what I kept that he kept from his parents.

I open a drawer in a desk and find a photograph of my grandfather, open another drawer and find an old key to a house I think my grandmother once owned, open another drawer and there’s a pile of business cards with my father’s name on them….

Given the inevitability of entropy and rot, all of this stuff — mine, my father’s, my grandparents’, my friends’, everyone’s — will one day be dust and ash, unidentifiable molecules and atoms. Until then, though, it is the actuality of what we were, the negative space to our personalities and actions. Our effects. It makes me think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book that begins with items. Every emotion imaginable can be summoned by our things. We are what we leave behind. Somewhere in the distance, I hear the notes of one of Tom Waits’s saddest songs, “A Soldier’s Things”, in which a whole life is conjured in a list.

Perhaps we should not be sad for Morpheus as he becomes more material. He we will not, if he dies, leave behind only the wisps of dreams. He has a scar, and he has scarred. What sort of box of remnants will be able to be carted off, what sort of inheritance will have to be taken up by those who remain, what sorts of bills will need paying we do not know. But there will be something.

Practical reality. Something attained. Scars on cheeks and hearts.

Those effects for which he did the murther.

The Kindly Ones Part 12

“Because there are rules.” That is Dream’s reply to Matthew, who wonders why one of the most powerful creatures in the universe has to give in to the demands of the Kindly Ones and risk his entire existence.

My immediate response, perhaps because I share a name with the raven, was to whine to myself: “But why!?!”

Rules and traditions create limitations, and that’s the point. In a story full of magic and fantasy, where, conceivably, anything could happen, it’s important that there be some basic rules to keep the possibilities from being infinite. Rules ground and govern our expectations; if the storyteller could have absolutely anything happen at any moment, suspense would be impossible and surprise would quickly stop being surprising. If my sentences here were not connected to each other by at least general (perhaps tenuous) rules of logic and transition, you might grow exasperated and stop reading, because what rules could possibly explain why the sentence after this one is, “Just a year later I saw him, working at the stand; then, again, he was gone.” Just a year later I saw him, working at the stand; then, again, he was gone.

The rule that put that sentence there was not a rule but an impulse. The sentence is from The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany, and I stuck it here because the book happened to be sitting on my desk. I opened randomly to a page and copied down the first sentence I saw.

That’s a technique that can be interesting in poetry and certain types of experimental fiction, places where chaos and, especially, randomness can produce compelling results when placed up against the often invisible conventions and traditions of more regulated literature, but even then, such techniques are rarely randomly random. Sometimes, in fact, they are the result of strict rules. Consider Walter Abish’s book Alphabetical Africa, where every word in Chapter 1 begins with the letter A; in chapter 2 with A or B; in chapter 3 with A, B, or C, etc. Or Georges Perec’s La Disparition (translated as A Void), a novel written entirely without any words containing the letter E. Such rules create fierce constraints and are as inexorable as the rules that seem to be leading Dream to his doom.

We don’t (or, well, I don’t) generally think of dreams as realms of rules — I would not be surprised to dream about writing a Sandman Meditation, for instance, in which I suddenly and with no reason wrote a random sentence, and never commented on it. (Just a year later I saw him, working at the stand; then, again, he was gone.) But we do seek to understand our dreams, to reflect them back on our lives. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is an attempt to find, or perhaps impose, some rules.

Our desire for rules and our hatred for randomness and chaos fuels both science and superstition. We seek to understand the universe we are part of, and so we study it, we experiment, we poke and prod and measure to find the meaning behind events and behaviors. We hold onto superstitions, even if we’re not the superstitious type, because they help make meaning, they stand as bulwarks against the possibility that all is random. It’s not even that we fear purposelessness, though plenty of people do — I am, myself, perfectly comfortable with the idea that the universe has no discernable purpose, but I would never say it’s all just random. There are too many rules.

Stories are appealing because they fight against randomness, they impose order. The words in a story are chosen to follow one after the other, the sentences work together to build images and characters and plots. The rules may come from the writing itself, or they may be dictated by genre or other expectations, but they are there, and they are both comforting and entertaining. A story full of inexorable fate will keep us turning the pages, as will a story like The Sandman that challenges our expectations, because without rules we would have no expectations to be challenged.

My own understanding of how the realms of The Sandman work — my expectations — provided an unexpected moment of emotional response at the end of Part 12. For at least a few chapters now, it has seemed that Dream will not escape the Furies, that he will have to suffer some great loss, that he may be destroyed. I did not think I was particularly emotionally attached to this character, because he isn’t exactly the sort of creature to inspire warm and cuddly feelings. When he told Matthew to go and get his sister and to send her to him, I knew, of course, that his sister is Death, but what he was asking didn’t really register until the final panel. “He wants you to go to him,” Matthew says to Death. It was a shivers-down-the-spine moment for me. I truly caught my breath. The slow progression toward this moment had, it seems, put various expectations in place without my even knowing it. The rules of stories and this story converged at that one moment to let me realize what it meant for Dream’s sister to go to him then.

Plenty of previous Sandman moments have proved my expectations wrong — have, indeed, deliberately built up expectations only to complicate them — but I would be especially surprised if my expectations here are wrong. Too much has gone into creating them. Sometimes, fate truly is inexorable, even in dreams.

Because there are rules.

The Kindly Ones Part 13

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Those sentences have been rattling around in my mind’s ears ever since I finished reading the thirteenth, and final, chapter of The Kindly Ones. They’re traditionally said at ceremonies of monarchical accession, but mostly they remind me of E.M. Forster’s distinction between a story and a plot. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster maintained that “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story, while “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. A story is a narrative of events; a plot is a narrative with causality.

Aspects of the Novel is a fascinating little book, but I don’t agree with much of any of it. (Or maybe I agree with more than I remember. It’s been a while since last I read it all.) Causation, for instance, is less compelling to me than it is to Forster. The relationship between reader and text holds my interest more than explanations do, and so I wonder about the ways writers hide or elide causation, forcing readers to create causes and motivations in their minds. Much of The Sandman, and “The Kindly Ones” in particular, stands as a model of this technique. Even at the end now, there is much we do not know about the Dream King and his downfall, about Daniel, about the ways of the Endless and their realms, about the Kindly Ones themselves. The mysteriousness forces us to be active readers, to dream our way through the gaps in the tales, and it also heightens the sense of the stories’ vastness. Narratives in which everything is apparent, in which all loose ends are tied up, not only violate the immense unknowability of life and the universe, but, no matter the depth of their details, produce an imaginary world much smaller and more limited than one built from hints and whispers and echoes.

Of course, too little definition and too much mystery spins a story in the opposite direction, toward bland, ethereal swamps of vagueness. Our imaginations need something to work with, some firecrackers to set them off. But it doesn’t take much if you can find just the right firecracker. In The Seagull, Anton Chekhov has the young, aspiring writer Treplev express his jealousy of the more established writer Trigorin’s ability to evoke an entire moonlit night with a single detail: a shard from a broken bottle glistening on a dam beside the shadow of a mill’s wheel. The technique may seem obvious for descriptive writing, but it’s really true for all storytelling: no matter what, something must be left up to the reader, because all stories are selections from infinite possibilities. The great challenge for any writer is to know how much to say and how much to leave unsaid.

Neil Gaiman addresses this idea explicitly in his afterword to “The Kindly Ones”, listing various unanswered questions from the story, then, instead of answering those questions, saying, “All I can do is quote Cain, quoting Robert Aickman, quoting Saccheverel Sitwell. It is the mystery that lingers, they have all told us, at one time or another, and not the explanation.”

Or, as Chekhov once said — though he wrote it in Russian and I’m paraphrasing from memory of a translation, so I might as well just be making it up — great literature is about questions, not answers.

Thus, “The Kindly Ones” ends not with pages of pyrotechnics to show the death of The Sandman, but with two pages about storytelling and mystery. The Kindly Ones have finished weaving their tale, they have conquered all other tales for the time being, and they settle down to read a fortune, one that annoys them because it doesn’t stick to its genre conventions. “More of a motto than a fortune,” one says of the quatrain pulled from the cookie. Another replies, “At least it’s not a moral. Worse than beginnings, morals. I’ve got no time for them. No time at all.” Lovers of mystery, questions, and great literature rarely have much time for morals, despite a certain cultural and educational subtext that seems to teach new readers that the best possible thing they can get from stories are good lessons. Morals and mottos fit on multiple-choice tests, so, alas, our schools encourage the idea that stories are full of them if you look at the right angle.

(Questions, not answers. Lingering mysteries, not explanations.)

Toward the end of “The Kindly Ones”, Larissa reads a book: When Real Things Happen to Imaginary People. (I imagine it’s a lost Philip K. Dick novel that Larissa somehow stole from Lucien’s library.) A wonderful title, and one that in some ways describes the very nature of fiction. Our imaginations make real the unreal. We let the details dream in us. For a writer, it can often be the greatest joy, the real thrill of sharing what you have written: the reader completes it. Even if the reader is inattentive or insane, they are still giving a life to your words in their mind.

I’ve been to countless author readings and interviews where a member of the audience asks what some element of a story means. More often than not, the writer responds: “It means whatever you think it means,” or, “Everything I know is in the story; the rest is for you to complete.”

I suppose it’s a matter of temperament. Not everyone likes Chekhov, after all, or Robert Aickman, one of the greatest of 20th century short story writers, someone whose best stories, like Chekhov’s, evoke endless implications. I can rationally understand people disliking such writers — one of the joys of being human is the diversity of our tastes — but mysteries and hints and whispers are so much at the core of what I seek in art that I have trouble sympathizing with the desire for clean endings and tidy resolutions, for explicit answers, for morals.

I don’t know what the moral of “The Kindly Ones” is (don’t kill your family members, even if it seems like a good idea at the time?), but having reached the last page, the story lives on in my mind, expanding in its possibilities, its questions fostering their own questions, its mysteries lingering through their refusal of explanation, its implications … endless…

Share your thoughts