Sandman Meditations – The Doll’s House

Tales in the Sand

the dolls house

“Tales in the Sand” is the prologue to the second set of Sandman stories, The Doll’s House, and it’s utterly different from anything in Preludes & Nocturnes right from the first panels.  The title page is almost abstract in its imagery: the pastel yellow and red of a desert fills a background of triangles and trapezoids; two small figures carrying spears and wearing traditional garb walk in the middle ground; the foreground is dominated and bisected by a black spear.

I’ll admit I was wary.  I am sensitive (and sometimes oversensitive) to representations of Africa by non-Africans.  This sensitivity comes from a synergy of experiences, some dating back to childhood, but mostly from a time during my college years when I realized my brain was full of stereotypes and myths about Africa — not good myths, like stories of gods and heroes, but myths like, “Africa is a place where all the black people live in mud huts, starve to death, and eat white people they boil in giant pots.”  Of course, by late childhood I knew the myths were false, but I didn’t have much to replace them with, and my education provided no help: I learned nothing of African history or culture in any class I ever took from kindergarten through undergraduate years at two universities.  Nothing.  Eventually, I started to teach myself, and with every new book I read, I recognized yet another prejudice or myth I’d been unaware of until I was forced to examine it.  Travel and new friendships challenged my ignorance, too, and soon I became fascinated by, even occasionally obsessed with, the history of European (especially British) and American representations of the thing they called “Africa”, and how those representations differed (or didn’t) from the stories and images created by Kenyans and Nigerians and South Africans, by people who identified as Kikuyu, Masai, Igbo, Yoruba, Zulu, Xhosa…

Tempted as I am to go on and on here about all that fascinating stuff — H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Elspeth Huxley and Isak Dinesen, Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Zakes Mda, Yvonne Vera, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila — I will restrain myself as best I can, because once I got past my initial “Ack! Non-African writing about Africa!” response, “Tales in the Sand” didn’t bother me, despite doing some things that usually set me a-ranting and a-raving: creating a generic “Africa” and filling it with generically “primitive” people.

What “Tales in the Sand” shows, though, is that even the techniques most likely to lead to pure awfulness can be used thoughtfully and purposefully to good effect.  Sandman is especially well set up for this, because it is very much about representations and misrepresentations, stories and legends, myths of every sort.

Here, a story is placed at the center of an adulthood rite, and it is a specifically and determinedly gendered tale.  An older man takes a younger man out into the desert soon after the young man has been circumcised.  The young man must go out into the desert to find an unspecified something; he returns, as they apparently always do, with a heart-shaped piece of green glass.  And then the older man tells the younger man a story that, he says, must only be told here and must only be told once to each man: “For this is the way it has always been.  Each of us hears the tale once, in this place.  And each of us tells the story once in this place … if Grandmother Death spares us long enough to tell it…”

The story is of a lost city (from which the shard of glass originates), the city of the first people, and of a particular person, a woman named Nada, who fell in love with the lord of dreams, Kai’ckul.  She tracked him down, sought him out, but then grew scared and broke his heart.

We may remember seeing Nada before.  Dream passed by her in Hell, where she cried out, “Kai’ckul!  Dreamlord!  I hoped one day you would come to me!  Free me, my love!  Please?”  Dream replied, “I greet you, Nada.  It … pains me to see you like this.”  She said he ordered her confined there and his forgiveness could free her.  “Don’t you love me?” she asked.  “It has been ten thousand years, Nada,” Dream said.  “Yes.  I still love you.  But I have not yet forgiven you.”

The story of Nada told in “Tales in the Sand” is not necessarily complete and accurate — Gaiman has foregrounded the telling of the tale as much as the tale itself, and the particular restrictions are ones that certainly caused me to think of the game called Telephone that my elementary school teachers loved to have us play when we were waiting in line somewhere.  One person whispers a phrase into another person’s ear, and on it goes down the line, until the phrase is unrecognizable after passing through ten or twenty people’s imperfect lips and ears.  The story of Nada is kind of like a game of Telephone spread over centuries.  There is no reason to assume the story bears much relationship to whatever actually happened.

At the end, Gaiman highlights the storyness of the story.  We are told by a narrator that the women of the tribe tell each other a different version of Nada’s story.  “And in that version of the tale perhaps things happened differently.”

Assumptions and perceptions shape stories.  We have previously mostly encountered Dream as a gaunt, pale figure, but within the story of Nada, he is a strong, dark man — but his helmet is the same as before.  Were he to appear to Nada as he has appeared to people in contemporary England and America, he would seem perhaps unbearably strange.  Nonetheless, Nada recognized him in Hell, and so it’s entirely possible that he appeared to her in that form at some point, and the imagery we see in “Tales in the Sand” is the imagery that the older man and the younger man build in their minds — the assumptions they hold about what the people in the story looked like.

Assumptions and perceptions shape how we tell and receive stories, too.  Gender roles are so separated in this tribe that the women and men have different stories, and even different languages — the women tell the story of Nada “in their private language that the men-children are not taught, and that the old men are too wise to learn.”  These men and women inhabit different worlds.  The stories we tell and the languages we use for those stories are fundamental elements of how we understand the lives we live.

“Tales in the Sand” works well because its reasons for using a particular representation of Africa are not based in an idea of an alien Africa, a place separate from the assumed audience of the story and exotic to it, a place valued only for its exoticism.  It instead shows that the implied globalism of the Sandman’s powers is not an empty gesture, nor is our perception of him as a gothy white guy necessarily anything other than a projection of (or adjustment to) assumptions — he is, in some way, what the people he encounters want him to be.

After telling us that the women may tell a different version of the story, the narrator says, “But then, that is a women’s tale, and it is never told to men.”  That’s a sentence crammed full of implications.  For one thing, it turns all of the readers of this issue of The Sandman into men.  Reading the story, we are given access only to the information available for men in the tribe.  We have been initiated as men.  (Thus, the story is much like the generic singular pronoun problem in English when fuddy-duddy style prescriptivists insist “he” is universal.  This is true only if this sentence makes sense: “If a person is pregnant, he should not smoke cigarettes.”)  The absurdity may be most obvious to female readers, but it struck me hard, because for a nanosecond I thought, “Wait, how did you know I’m a…”  Written now in a comic able to be read by any person literate in English who comes upon it, the effect of the narrator’s statement is to subvert its own assumptions.

The sentence also felt to me like it was suggesting we may be getting a woman’s story next.  At the bottom of the last panel, instead of a block with the title or theme of the next issue in it, we get a block with a single French word, “Fin.”  We have reached the end of only one thing: the men’s story.  What, though, it means for a story to be “a woman’s story” remains for us to discover…

The Doll’s House

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…

Moving In

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I’m such a shallow person that the biggest kick I got out of Sandman issue 11, “Moving In”, was discovering that Dream’s crow assistant shares my name.  It was actually shocking when I first read it, because I was bit tired, and I got absorbed in the many strands of the story that were coming together, and then there, on page nine, DREAM WAS SPEAKING TO ME!

“Hello, Matthew,” he said.  “The surveillance goes well, I presume.”

And even though I’m a total materialist and rationalist, someone who lacks much sense of superstition, someone who scoffs at the supernatural — even though I am that person, for a few nanoseconds, I was sure something pretty freakin’ weird was going on.

Of course, it was just that, being tired, I missed that Dream was talking to a crow and not speaking through the page to me.  This happens now and then.  People talk to crows and I’m sure it’s all about me.  Usually it’s old ladies in parks, so the Lord of Dreams seemed like a nice change of pace…

I didn’t miss, though, that page nine continues the theme of seeing that fills this story arc. Surveillance*, peeking, watching: each of these words appears at least once on the page, and Dream says, “You are my eyes, Matthew.”  The rest of the issue is filled with references to sight and perception.  It’s not just about things being seen, but how they are seen, that seems to matter.

The issue opens with a house, and so the questions of scale that preoccupied me through the last issue recur: the first image is of a large house that feels in some way like an analogue of Unity Kincaid’s doll’s house.  There is a certain similarity to some of the windows, and the most recent appearance of Unity’s doll’s house showed Dream looking out one of the windows.  “Moving In” opens with Rose’s new landlord, Hal Carter, talking to her from an upstairs window, and he is a soft pink color, a lighter hue of the hot pink that filled the background of the window Dream peeked through (and which is now the color of Rose’s dress).

Rose has, we discover, been sent by her mother and grandmother on a quest to find her lost younger brother, Jed, and so she has ended up in Florida, renting a room.

The page after we learn of Rose’s quest, we enter Jed’s dream world, which resembles Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland.  I’ve looked at the Little Nemo strips in a giant collection at a library, but I’ve never actually taken it out of the library because the book is nearly as large as I am, and I’m self-conscious about becoming a spectacle (further evidence that I am not, despite the rantings of some old ladies on park benches, really Lady Gaga), which anyone who carries a book the size of a small door around with them is likely to become.  I became interested in McKay and Little Nemo after reading a short review by the great American writer John Crowley of a biography of McKay.  Crowley compared McKay’s work to that of Buster Keaton, and whenever something is compared to Buster Keaton, I feel obliged to investigate, because Buster Keaton was sublime.  This is not the place to go into a full discussion of Keaton or McKay (interested readers can find the review in Crowley’s nonfiction collection In Other Words), but I am going to steal Crowley’s description of Little Nemo in Slumberland:

Night after night, Little Nemo (whose name is Nobody, of course, as Odysseus’s was once) sets out on a new dream journey toward Slumberland.  Each night a psychopomp appears to guide him there, sent by the immense but kindly King of Slumberland, who wants to join Nemo with his Nemo-sized daughter.  Each night the journey is frustrated; Nemo meets obstacles, or trips himself up, or breaks some dreamland prohibition; the creatures sent to help him desert or hinder him.  Lost, in trouble, usually falling vertiginously, Nemo wakes up.

I stole Crowley’s words not only because they help us understand why Gaiman and his collaborators made Jed’s dreamworld look a bit like Little Nemo’s — even without knowing it, the contrast of the bright colors and simple, child-friendly images with the dark, lonely images of Jed in his basement is unavoidable — but because I so admire Crowley’s sense of sentence structure that any excuse to include his sentences is one I’m happy to take.  (And not just because he’s someone who appreciates the subtle power of semi-colons so much that he’s willing to use two in one sentence; he’s a man after my own punctuated heart.)  It’s that last sentence that gets me — the clauses reinforce the feeling of falling, the syntax matches the fall into waking.  Meaning and structure unite.

Speaking of unified meaning and structure, one of the great masters of such unity is mentioned on the seventh page of “Moving In”.  Rose’s landlord Hal is, it turns out, a drag performer.  He storms into Rose’s room and declares, “He’s cut my tribute to Sondheim, and given an extra number to that slut Mitzi!  I told him, Douglas, I don’t care who you’re screwing, but if ‘Broadway Baby’ goes, then so do I!”

Of course, you know that Stephen Sondheim is the greatest songwriter the American musical theatre has ever seen, a true genius in a somewhat limited art form, a man capable of evoking an extraordinary range of meaning and emotion through the interplay of lyrics and music.  It’s a skill like that of Crowley’s with sentences that echo and reinforce meaning through their structure, and like the skill of comics writers and artists who find images and words that can strengthen each other.  For instance, as Hal says, “But if ‘Broadway Baby’ goes, then so do I!”, we see in the background a purple, blue, and black poster for The Cure’s album Boys Don’t Cry, the title song of which tells the story of a man trying to pretend a lost love doesn’t hurt as much as it does.  “Broadway Baby” is from Follies and expresses the hopes of an aspiring performer who is “pounding 42nd Street” in hopes of getting a role.  We don’t need to know about either song to see Hal’s anguish any more than we need to be aware of Crowley’s sentence structure to get his direct meaning, or need to be aware of the way discordant notes undercut and subvert certain Sondheim lyrics, but the added information makes that single panel a particularly rich one.  Not only do we get a sense of each character’s musical preferences, we may also assume that Boys Don’t Cry and “Broadway Baby” were chosen deliberately, as commentary, perhaps, on Hal’s own life and emotions at that moment.

There is much more to “Moving In”, including a penultimate page as full of purple, blue, and black as the Boys Don’t Cry poster, and an impressively agile elderly fellow tenant who saves Rose from assault, and some more play with conventional gender expectations, but it’s still early in the full Doll’s House story, and we’ll have plenty of time in coming issues, I expect, to explore these and similar ideas.

Because yes, the surveillance goes very well, indeed.

Playing House

“I bet you’ll like The Doll’s House,” my friend Eric Schaller said to me before I started reading it.  “It’s got serial killers in it.”

Eric knows comics and he knows me and he knows I have a slight fascination with serial killers.  It’s the result, I expect, of having read Robert Bloch’s story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” at an early age.  I loved the story, wanted to know more about Jack the Ripper, and discovered a few books at the library on the subject.  Some of the books put the Ripper in the context of the history and psychology of serial murder.  The information was so bizarre and so obviously not intended for a child of my age that I couldn’t stop reading.  From then on, stories with any sort of serial killers in them would snarl my attention in a second. Eventually, I even discovered that America’s first famous serial killer, H.H. Holmes (real name: Herman Mudgett), was born in my own state of New Hampshire, and that Robert Bloch had written about him, too, in a novel published a year before I was born, American Gothic.

I’ll get to write about serial killers for a later issue, I’m sure, but I wanted to note here the first appearance of what immediately became one of my favorite puns in all literature — on page eleven of the third Doll’s House story, “Playing House”, a small panel shows the exterior of a hotel with a big sign reading, “Welcome Cereal Convention”.  We’ve had hints of some sort of convention in earlier issues, something the Corinthian is attending, but this is the first spot where the nature of that convention is revealed.  (Well, revealed if you get the pun.)

But “Playing House” is only briefly about the Corinthian; mostly, it’s about the painful divide between dreams and reality.  The title is resonant — of children and imagination, innocence and joy.  The story begins with these words: “Lyta is rudely pulled from her revery by the alarm, which echoes and clangs through the dream dome.”  A woman, woken.  What will not be revealed to her until the end of the story is that she is waking into another dream.  She sees her husband as the 1940s/1970s Joe Simon and Jack Kirby version of The Sandman.  It’s clear to us that her husband, Hector, has the brains of a child, and that he’s being manipulated by Brute and Glob, though he thinks they’re his servants.

On the title page, Lyta is linked visually with Jed — her face stares out from a panel at the top of the page, his from the bottom of the page, and both faces dominate the left side of their respective panels.  Jed is being woken from his slumberland into the nasty, brutish reality that is his life with Clarice and Barnaby, who mostly keep him locked in a basement and collect the $800/month the government sends for his foster care.

Jed escapes from his basement and ends up hitching a ride with the Corinthian — he leaves one terrible reality for another that, having once again seen the Corinthian’s viciousness earlier in the issue, we know is even more perilous than the awful existence he had before.  Lyta’s wrenching into a more awful life is the primary focus of this issue, though, because it becomes Dream’s job to truly wake her, to bring her back to the awful existence she has been sheltered from through Brute and Glob’s scheme: an existence in which her husband is dead, and she has nothing but a baby who, Dream declares, “is mine.”

Lyta had not seemed happy before, but now she is wrenched into a new reality.  This gives her a new resolve, though, it seems, for even as she sits in the rain, surrounded by the ruins of her life, she says, “You take my child over my dead body, you spooky bastard…  Over my dead body.”

Such determination is in contrast to the Lyta we had seen before, passive and dull as she wandered through the dreamworld that she knew was not quite right, its time out of joint.  The fourth page offered a haunting bit of narration: “Lyta lives in a pretty house, with her husband, their two servants, and a thousand thousand screens.”  We’ve seen the thousand thousand screens on the first page, their images of mix of histories and icons, and a wall of screens on page 10 resembles the screens in the Threshold of Desire from “The Doll’s House”.  Screens are representations, near-rhymes with dreams.  Both can be shattered.

Lyta and Jed each leave strange and terrible family lives for an independence that seems rich with death.  It’s after Lyta vows to keep her child away from Dream over her “dead body” that we then move to Jed being picked up by the Corinthian, a master of creating dead bodies, who calls the boy “kid” and “kiddo”.  It’s all foreshadowing and cliffhanging, because we don’t know yet if Lyta will survive to give birth, and what that birth will mean; nor do we know if the Corinthian will get to do to Jed what he’s done to so many other people.

Men of Good Fortune

On the second page of “Men of Good Fortune”, Geoffrey Chaucer tells a friendly critic that he writes the way he does because he likes it, and, he says, “I enjoy tavern tales told of an evening.”

“Men of Good Fortune” is a kind of tavern tale, at the very least because it is set in a tavern, but it ranges over centuries of evenings.  Dream meets once every hundred years with a man whose name changes over time, but who was first known as Hob.  He is a man who has decided not to die (or, perhaps, who lives because he has not yet decided to die).  There’s a certain Forrest Gump element to the story, with various eminent historical figures appearing or alluded to during each century (Chaucer, William Caxton, Shakespeare, Jack the Ripper…), but while such an approach in other stories can be cloying, here it is an extension of the allusiveness that has filled The Sandman so far.  It serves a greater purpose, though, in setting up the final panels, which prove surprisingly moving.  It’s a marvelous example of misdirection — as our attention is caught in cleverness, we don’t notice the sentiment sneaking up until it springs into view like a jack-in-the-box Athena.

With all of its famous (and infamous) characters, “Men of Good Fortune” is ultimately a story of how fragile fame and fortune are, how arbitrary their blessings.  Wealth, power, and notoriety do not define people so much as accompany them.  What matters, the story suggests, is not the vagaries of time and chance, the loose calamities of life, but rather the authentic connections of friendship.  Hob careers from fortune to famine and back again, the tavern’s clientele changes class by the century, but two things remain constant: the idle chatter of the patrons and the friendship of two creatures from different realms who share little except their memories of the long past.

It’s an odd interlude, this story.  It comes right in the middle of The Doll’s House, and yet it takes us away from primary narrative, providing a break from the grim events while also increasing the suspense by delaying our knowledge of the characters’ fates.

There’s a shift in gender focus, too.  Women have been the central characters of the main story, but with “Men of Good Fortune” we have a structure that is reminiscent of “Tales in the Sand”: two men talking, with a woman is at the center of the story — Nada in “Tales in the Sand”, Death in “Men of Good Fortune”.  Nada hurtles toward, then rejects, a male-identified creature (Dream).  Hob hurtles toward, then rejects, a female-identified creature (Death).  And through the centuries, many stories are passed from generation to generation.  The details change, but not the fundamental content.

“Playing House” ended with Jed’s future uncertain, but bleak — he’d caught a ride with a death machine.  Now we see that mortals can cheat death.  Or not cheat it, exactly, but reject it.  Reject her.  Death is, in this sense, then, less fate than temptation, something desired by those who die, even if they don’t fully recognize the desire themselves.  To live forever is to deny the desire for Death.

The biggest threats to Dream and Hob in the story are female: Johanna Constantine and Lushing Lou the prostitute.  Lou appears at first glance like a beautiful young woman, but in close-up shows herself to be a grotesque, and Hob notes that she is known for her diseases.  She is not what she seems at first, and she carries deadly, invisible contagion — she is a trap.

Lou is not without her own threats, the biggest of which to her in Whitechapel at that time was an apparently vehemently misogynistic murderer: Jack the Ripper (the canonical Ripper murders occurred in the fall of 1888, presumably a year before Dream and Hob’s meeting, each of which seems to happen in the eighty-ninth year of the century, but other prostitutes were killed, and fear of the Ripper remained strong).  Lou may ensnare men, but it is a man who is the most frightening embodiment of death for her.  At the same time, she is given a name that, like fear, is not bound to one gender alone.

Dream and Hob’s meeting can, in a certain sense, be seen as a triumph of homosocial bonding, a triumph over female threats.  We know, though, from Lou here and from the other stories in The Doll’s House, that the most painful, violent, and evil threats are men.  We also know that both Hob and Dream have committed terrible, destructive acts.  Their meetings may be a vision not (or not only) of a horror of obliteration by female power, but of small, perilous, tentative steps taken toward an escape from the sort of masculinity that leads to terror and violence.

In friendship, perhaps, Hob and Dream find refuge from their imperfections and fears.  Such refuge is denied men like Jack the Ripper and the Corinthian, and may prove itself the true good fortune for such men as can find and accept it.

Collectors

Well, here we are: The Cereal Convention.

There are millions (more!) things I would like to know about life, the universe, and everything; one of them is if Robert Bloch ever read “Collectors”.  He’d have enjoyed it, I’m sure.  Bloch is the man who gave us Norman Bates and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and a novel about the Chicago World’s Fair serial killer H.H. Holmes, American Gothic.  Bloch was a man with a playful, dark sense of humor — he called his autobiography “unauthorized” and was also, I believe, the originator of one of my favorite quips, something along the lines of: “Despite my age, I have the heart of a young boy.  I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

Bloch would, I think, appreciate the fun of the first pages of “Collectors”, wherein the conventioneers say such things as, “Wouldn’t be seen dead here, if it wasn’t for the convention,” and, “Tell you, I could murder a steak.  A good, bloody steak,” and, “They do this chocolate fudge whip that is just to die for.”

The attendees call themselves collectors, and they address each other by nicknames — or professional names: The Family Man, Fun Land, Nimrod, The Corinthian.  Anything can be professionalized; it just needs a convention and some euphemisms.

There is much fun to be had with the idea of a convention of serial killers.  Anyone who has attended, for instance, a science fiction convention will find some of the panel discussions Gaiman creates for his characters awfully familiar: “10.30am panel discussion, ‘We Are What We Are'”, “12.30pm panel discussion, ‘Women in Serial Killing'”, “3.30pm panel discussion, ‘There Is No Sanity Clause'”.  In the latter, a panelist known as Candy Man says, “Look, as a practicing psychiatrist, I, uh, well, look, none of you, uh, well, there’s no more evidence of mental abnormality amongst us people than amongst, uh, them. Less, maybe.”  I’ve had similar discussions with science fiction fans (and the opposite, too — some folks speculating that low-level autism runs high in fan communities, and that this is a good thing).  On the “We Are What We Are” panel, one of the members says, “They are the sheep and cattle.  But we know the truth.   We’re alive.”  He’s a serial killer, but he could just as well be a fan complaining about the sorts of people who read literary fiction, or he could be an Ayn Rand acolyte, or a Scientologist, or, really, any number of things.  One of us, needing a them from which to differentiate himself and to strengthen his own sense of identity and righteousness.

The fun is in the idea of serial killers having a convention, not in other types of conventions and other groups of people having similar ways of talking about themselves as serial killers.  Because serial killers, despite whatever it is that makes them fascinating as cultural characters, are not fun.  They torture and murder people.

One of the things I especially enjoy about “Collectors” is that it doesn’t let us revel in the fascination without reminding us of the seriousness of what is depicted, the horror that lies beneath the amusement, the reality that exists beyond the fantasy.  Gaiman knows he has a fun concept here, and he’s certainly aware of the interest that serial killers can arouse in readers, and so visions of horror break through the humor and light tone throughout the story (e.g. The Doctor at his old sewing machine, making neckties, the panel colored entirely red and black, contrasting with the bright rainbow of the other panels on the page).  Finally, Morpheus arrives to save Rose from Fun Land, whom he addresses by name: Nathan Diskin.  The Lord of Dreams is here to shepherd in some reality, to cut through euphemisms and shatter the collectors’ dream of their very special specialness.  He forces them to see themselves as they are: pathetic, disturbed, murderous, and sends them shuffling off into the night.

Serial killer stories often portray their subjects as malevolent superheroes (and not always malevolent — Dexter and Spiderman have a lot in common).  “Collectors” undermines such portrayals, first through the humorous idea of a serial killer convention, then through the very serious unmasking of the killers’ delusions and self-justifications.

We, the readers, do not escape unscathed.  We were amused by the idea, perhaps even seduced by some of the delusions.  The figure of the serial killer is a powerful cultural icon because it is extreme and outré, it can speak to many social fears and anxieties, and it offers a fantasy of unbridled, transgressive power that helps us recognize and define the forces that create some sort of border between us and them.

*Though not as shocking or gut-wrenching, “Collectors” has similar resonances to Wes Craven’s film Last House on the Left, one of the most discomforting movies I know.  Craven lures us into a slasher/exploitation film, then punishes us for desiring it.  Watching it can be a shattering experience.  “Collectors” is not shattering because it is not punishing — it does not use our desire to see mayhem and atrocity against us, but rather reminds us that what accompanies our desire is a tendency to see sick, depraved people as something better than sick and depraved.  Morpheus knows better, and so he ushers them back to their sad, destructive lives.  The final page echoes the first page in its imagery — once again, we have the “Welcome Cereal Convention” sign outside the hotel, but now the people we see are not bundles of wordplay and satire. No-one could mistake them for heroes or anti-heroes.  They are no more than hollow, haunted shadows; deadly drifters in the night.

Into the Night

At the same time I read the sixth part of A Doll’s House, “Into the Night”, I was reading a very different book, Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?. I certainly wasn’t thinking I would see any echoes of Josipovici in The Sandman or vice versa — after all, Josipovici at one point highlights approvingly what he sees as the Modernist dislike of fantasy (and, as he notes, realism too): “Not out of Puritan disdain for the imagination or the craft of letters, but out of respect for the world.”  I’m too much of a postmodernist (world?!  Pah!), and too enamored of weirdness as a quality unto itself to have a whole lot of sympathy for such a view, myself, of course, but you can see from it how a connection to The Sandman might not be particularly expected within Josipovici’s definition of Modernism.

It is probably Josipovici’s fault, though, that I immediately thought, on hitting page 6 of “Into the Night”: It’s an enactment of the differences between Gothic-Romanticism and Modernism!

(Yes, I know, I should get out more.)

Look at Chantal’s dream: “Chantal is having a relationship with a sentence.”  The next page tells us: “The sentence spent most of last year in Czechoslovakian for political reasons.  But it was recently translated into English.  In order to stop the sentence being deported, Chantal has arranged to have it read into the Library of Congress.  However … when the time comes she discovers that she can no longer read.  She has no idea what the sentence is about.  Despondent and joyless, Chantal begins to cry.”

Meanwhile, Chantal’s partner, Zelda, is dreaming about being a little girl (who very much resembles  John Tennial’s Alice) in an über-Gothic world, one that refers to the seminal Gothic novels Melmoth the Wanderer and The Castle of Otranto, among other things.  Chantal’s dream takes up the top of the pages, Zelda’s dream the bottom, with a portrait of the two women asleep together in the middle of page 6 offering a view of them outside the dream world: lovely and at peace in aquamarine shadow.

Josipovici’s description of Modernism is far too complex for me to render with any justice (for that, read Stephen Mitchelmore), but here is one sentence that connects to what I responded to so forcefully in Chantal’s dream: “What is afflicting Mallarmé, Hofmannstahl, Kafka and Beckett is the sense that they feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world — imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have — and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves.”

Chantal’s beautiful, heartbreaking dream is an allegory of this affliction.  Not an exact allegory, no — where the Modernists, in Josipovici’s framing, are tortured by the inevitable falsity of words and fiction, Chantal is tortured by a love for a sentence that she has read, not written, a sentence that becomes meaningless to her when she loses the ability to read any sentence at all.  But the tortures rhyme, and I can imagine both between the lines of Beckett and Kafka and Hofmannstahl and Mallarmé.

Not just between the lines of great writers, though.  The Modernists may have been great because they wrote through and into the abyss of alienation that the impulsion to write and the recognition of falseness opened in them; their works embody the affliction.  Chantal’s dream, on the other hand, is an experience likely common to writers both great and utterly without merit: the alienation of affection.  The beautiful, enchanting words that, on later viewing, possess no power to enchant.  She has no idea what the sentence is about.  A lost love, a lost world.  Despondent and joyless, Chantal begins to cry.

In the panel below her, little Zelda “laughs and laughs,” having just seen Chantal, her “soul sister” pull up a veil and reveal a spider’s face.  Zelda’s love, too, is transformed, but to an opposite reaction.  Gothicism gains pleasure from fantastic grotesquerie; Modernism cries.

Chantal and Zelda are just a moment here, a few pages amidst many.  There are other dreams throughout the story.  A houseful, a worldful.  They all meld together in the whirling vortex that is Rose.  A small box of text amidst the whorl announces: “The walls come tumbling down.”

For all the drama of the moment (which A Doll’s House has been building to for a while now) and for all the drama of the other revelations here, I am still most moved by Chantal’s dream.  The sentence loved, the sentence unreadable.  Like language destroyed by a maelstrom, like reality torn asunder by the vortex of dreams.  Chantal enters the whorl with all the other dreamers, but hers is one expressed by Hofmannstahl in “The Letter of Lord Chandos” in 1902: “Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back — whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.”

Or into the night.

Lost Hearts

Endings are tough, especially in the realm of the Endless. “Lost Hearts” concludes The Doll’s House, but it’s also a waystation, a rest before another tale.

I’ve got to admit, this was my least favorite of the Doll’s House stories.  It felt too explicit, too explanatory, too determined to try to make us feel something for Rose and the other characters.

I would not be surprised if the fault were mine: I prefer cereal killers to vortices.  I never believed Dream would kill Rose, and so the suspense of the issue was not the suspense of wondering, “Will she survive?”, but rather the suspense of wondering what trick will let her live.  The trick arrives, Dream and Desire have a chat, and we end with an image that recalls “Tales in the Sand”.  All of this is well done, but it feels hollow to me, dutiful, as if everyone involved said, “Hey folks, time to wrap this one up,” and so they did.

The expository passages in the issue were what really bogged me down, and the bog was born from a bias: I have little patience for characters who explain things to each other.  I usually fail to enjoy mystery stories that end with the detective connecting all the dots for everyone.  If a character explains something on one page, I want them to explain the opposite on another page.  I’m a sucker for both ambiguity and dialectic.  (People tell me this is because I’m a Libra, and I believe them, though I don’t believe in astrology.)

Endings are tough.  Students are often taught, especially in high school, to write concluding paragraphs to their papers that sum up everything they’ve said.  I tell students not to do this in my classes, because I have no interest in reading what I’ve already read.  As a young high school teacher, I got in trouble for telling a class that the strategy many other teachers gave them — “Tell me what you’re going to tell me, tell it to me, tell me what you told me” — is a strategy that could have been designed by a drunk person, because who else thinks being told the same thing over and over is interesting?

I don’t mean to imply that “Lost Hearts” is full of stuff we already know.  It’s not.  It fleshes out the meaning of the vortex, it lets us know about Fiddler’s Green; it ties up most of the loose ends.  Perhaps because I find the tying of shoelaces tedious, I love loose ends.

“Lost Hearts” is one of the textiest stories in The Doll’s House.  It may not have the most words, but it feels full of the pesky things.  I imagine re-creating it all according to some arbitrary, Oulipian rule: remove all words with the letter E, for instance. The penultimate page would now have dialogue such as this:

DREAM: If you not of my kin…

DESIRE: But I am.

DREAM: You.  To.  This.  Of.  Of living.  NOT … know, in that … last living thing has … this … our task will…  And do not … if anything … us.  Toys … dolls.  And you — and … and … poor — should … that.

DESIRE: I — I don’t…

DREAM: I am afraid that you don’t. It reads like a Tarzan movie written by Samuel Beckett, I know, but there’s something appealing in making Dream inarticulate.  Maybe, for whatever reason, I just want to put him back in a cage.

Endings are tough.  Critics, writers, and teachers will often speak of endings that are satisfying, as if satisfaction is the highest praise.  I’m not convinced, though I’m also sure I’ve used the terminology myself in that way at some point or another.  The endings that really stick with me, though, are endings that deny satisfaction — endings that disturb, endings that nag, endings that shatter the sense of all that came before.  Is the desire for such endings pathological or aesthetic?  I don’t know.

In Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, a young woman, Lyndall, tells her sister Em a story.  It ends:

“He died there in that island; he never got away.”

“It is rather a nice story,” said Em, “but the end is sad.”

“It is a terrible, hateful ending,” said the little teller of the story, leaning forward on her folded arms, “and the worst is, it is true. I have noticed,” added the child very deliberately, “that it is only the made-up stories that end nicely; the true ones all end so.”

All true stories end in death.  Ending earlier is the privilege of fiction.

Immortality, too, is the privilege of fiction.  Death can be a character in such stories, a beautiful young woman, kin to Dream and Desire.  Made-up stories can end nicely; made-up stories can be satisfying.

“We are their toys,” Dream says of the living things.  “Their dolls, if you will.”  Desire doesn’t feel this.  Desire lives in a Threshold of self, not a doll’s house.  Dream’s is a world of many mansions.

Rose, who has lived in at least one of those mansions, hides in her room and tells stories of the story, trying to give it happy endings.  She can’t quite accomplish that for herself, though.  The best she can come up with is, “And then she woke up,” which she admits is the sort of ending she hates.  But after all she’s been through, it’s the most satisfying: “I suppose there are worse endings,” she says of it.  And so there are, just as, though “Lost Hearts” has not worked its way into my heart, I can recognize that it could have been far worse, and that it winds things down with skill and symmetry.  It is satisfying.

But endings should be tough.

Author: Matthew Cheney

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. The Mumpsimus. 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.