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!