Sequences at the Inn and A Tale of Two Cities
Worlds’ End begins with a prelude illustrated by Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham in which two people get in a car crash during a mysterious June snowstorm and find their way to a magical inn, the Worlds’ End.
That plural apostrophe is easy to overlook, but the plurality of worlds at the inn is immediately apparent to the viewer from the first panel on page seven, which offers our initial sight of the other characters who are waiting out the storm, or storms — characters of such physiognomic variety that they might be ready to attend Mardi Gras or a particularly good Halloween party. We’re experienced enough by now with The Sandman, though, to suspect these aren’t costumes.
Brant is still in shock from the crash and from carrying the unconscious Charlene to the inn, and so he doesn’t seem to really register how odd the other travelers look. He just wants to get some help. He explains the storm, and an elfin boy says, “It’s not a snowstorm, friend. It’s a reality storm.” (Okay, I’ll admit, shamefully, that in my head I added a “duuuuuuuude” after that statement.)
There is magic, or at least very good medicine, in this inn. Brant passes out for fifteen hours, and by the time he wakes, Charlene has been well healed by the centaur Chiron (“the finest physician in a dozen realms”).
All of this is a preparation for tale-telling, a frame story. Such a structure is ancient, common to many Asian and Middle Eastern literatures — most prominently The Arabian Nights — and then European books such as Boccaccio’s The Decameron and the most obvious influence on Worlds’ End, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where pilgrims of various social classes tell stories to amuse each other on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. In The Canterbury Tales, the tale-telling is a contest: the winner will receive a free meal at the end of the journey. Because Brant and Charlene enter the Worlds’ End in the midst of storytelling, we don’t (yet) know the circumstances of it all.
The frame story then shifts to a story told by a serious and dapper fellow referred to as Mister Gaheris, who calls it “A Tale of Two Cities”.
The separation between the frame story and the story it frames is vividly rendered not only by a change in artists, but by a significant change in styles. From the full, detailed, and traditional pages of Talbott and Buckingham we move to the more abstracted, geometric panels of Alec Stevens. In the frame story, text boxes and balloons sit in the panels, while in “A Tale of Two Cities”, the panels and text are separate, an effect that mirrors the symbiotic nature of the cities and their dreams in the tale.
The structure of the pages and the style of the artwork is the most distinctive yet in The Sandman. The story of a city dreaming made me think of many writers who appeared in classic issues of Weird Tales, especially the H.P. Lovecraft of the short, impressionistic, non-Cthulhu stories and Clark Ashton Smith. There’s also the Weird Tales precursor Lord Dunsany, whose tales of Jorkens were a series of stories framed by the conceit of being told in a gentlemen’s club. “A Tale of Two Cities” also feels a bit like the elder cousin of China Miéville’s The City and The City.
I know nothing about the direct influences on Alec Stevens’s art, but when I first read “A Tale of Two Cities”, I had just returned from an exhibition of woodcut and wordless sequential art curated by David A. Beronä, author of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels, and I couldn’t help but feel the ghost of Frans Masereel floating through Stevens’s panels.
Masereel was born in Belgium in 1889, and he pioneered a style of woodcut storytelling-in-images with books such as Passionate Journey (1919) and Story Without Words (1920) that would influence such later artists as Lynd Ward, Will Eisner, Laurence Hyde, Eric Drooker, and Peter Kuper, among many others. The German Expressionist artists had revived interest in woodcut art, and Expressionism also seems to be evoked in Stevens’s panels — not only Masereel and other Expressionists, but also the set designs by Hermann Warm for the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
As I keep looking at the panels in “A Tale of Two Cities”, though, it is Masereel I continue to think of — the sharp angles and straight lines, the absolute contrast of black and white, the simple, exaggerated shapes that replace strict realism with emotional force.
Stevens isn’t simply imitating the Expressionists or woodcut artists; what distinguishes his work from theirs is the use of color. While the whites and blacks are sharp and Masereelian, the colors in the panels are mostly soft, pastel, and dreamy. Expressionists who used color often chose bold, rich hues (I think in particular of Max Beckmann’s paintings). In Stevens’s panels, the color is an accent tagging along among the blacks and whites.
The placement of the text outside the panels highlights the artwork and the storytelling by separating them. We are especially aware of this story as a story because it looks less like a comic than what we’ve seen before in The Sandman — the art and text work together like text and illustrations. I could imagine (indeed, wish for!) a little book of this story alone, with the illustrations on one page and the text on another.
I’ve said little here about the story itself, and I don’t mean to subsume it to the art — they work marvelously well together, and the story feels old and eerie while also feeling removed from time, much like the best sorts of dream tales, whether from Lovecraft or Smith or Dunsany or someone perhaps a bit closer to the style of the artwork: Franz Kafka. (Some of Stevens’s figures actually look a bit like the doodles in Kafka’s diaries.) The idea of cities dreaming is evocative and haunting, and the old man on the bridge who tries to get the city to wake reminds me of so many incidental characters in Kafka’s fiction who feel like they’ve been somewhere forever, and who have a single goal in the universe — and not only the incidental characters, but also the people of the parables: the man who waits outside the gate in “Before the Law”, for instance.
It’s always fun to trace resonances in The Sandman, but I can see with Worlds’ End that some of the fun is also going to come from differences between the artists for each story. What a panoply awaits us!
And as someone who has lived through many Nor’easters, I can tell you: There are worse ways to wait out a storm than to surround yourself with stories.
I have to admit, I was dreading this one.
My reason for dread isn’t even a reason, not in any reasonable way — it’s nothing more than an irrational prejudice.
I hate fairies. Everything about them. The glitter, the glamour, the glow. Most of all, I hate the word itself. Fairy. (Or, worse, faerie. Ugh, it hurt just to type that.)
I have no idea why this is. The aversion began somewhere in the primordial ooze of my childhood. When everybody had to clap to keep Tinkerbell alive, I sat on my hands. When people tried to read me fairy tales, I ran away, or, if trapped, covered my ears and squeezed my eyes shut and screamed out my best impersonation of Ethel Merman until they gave up and left me alone.
I know this makes me a horrible person, a creature with an irredeemable soul. And kind of pathetic, too, because really … who pathologically hates fairies? When there are so many other perfectly worthy targets of hate — war, poverty, Smurfs, Rebecca Black songs — why do I have to be stuck hating fairies more than anything else?
It probably has something to do with failures of masculinity. I grew up a very unmasculine boy in a pretty macho culture (my father owned a gun shop), and I’m sure that somewhere along the line I associated the word “fairy” with men who weren’t exactly Sylvester Stallone, and so, to try to skew my sympathies toward the dominant culture, I watched the Rambo movies again and again and let my unconscious mind associate the word “fairy” with everything that’s contemptuous in the universe. And now, because childhood is hard to shed entirely, I’m stuck still traveling the defensive neuropathways of my earliest days.
Experience can help renovate even the most solid architectures of thought, though, and I got through “Cluracan’s Tale” without foaming at the mouth, which for me is a step in the right direction. I even felt a hint of happiness when Dream showed up to rescue the ill-fated ambassador when he was cold irons bound. That seems to me a big leap in my recovery — even just a few years ago, not only would I not have felt any emotion for Cluracan at all, I would have desired only one fate for him: an explosive-tipped arrow to the heart.
But I liked “Cluracan’s Tale”, and liked Cluracan himself, or at least how he presented himself, since what we read is not so much a story about him as a story he tells about himself, one he admits may not exactly be truthful. (Or it may be. He likes being coy.)
The ambiguity of the story’s truth annoys some of the listeners, and they question him about the details. They’re the sorts of folks Alfred Hitchcock called “the plausibles” — people who get so stuck on the details of a story’s plausibility that they miss all the fun. Cluracan enters into the spirit of the storytelling endeavor with panache. He makes all sorts of excuses for his story being “dry and dull”, but that’s more of a lie than anything else he says, and I’d bet he knows it. It’s the false humility that used to be a requirement of any tale-teller, and it situates him within a narrative tradition, one where the ritual declarations of a story’s ordinariness, banality, and soporific potential tend to be most fulsome for the most extravagant yarns.
The listeners who demand to know from Cluracan what was and wasn’t true in his story are like the people who are horrified by novels marketed as memoirs. If you want a story and not just information, does it really matter whether that story is “true”? For many people, yes. Books labeled as memoirs tend to sell better than books labeled as novels. Movies and tv shows that claim themselves to be “Based On A True Story!” are considered preferable by many viewers to movies and tv shows based on imagined stories. In most cases, though, it really doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not. There will be no difference to your life if someone like, say, James Frey embellishes the facts of his exploits as an addict to make his tale more interesting.
There are, of course, lies that affect people’s lives, and some of those lies are ones created by frustrated fiction writers — pulp writers who discover, for instance, that claiming guru status is much more lucrative than churning out another story for a cent a word; science fictioneers who know that calling an alien story an honest-to-god-true-tale of abduction is a better way to sell books than to keep the fiction label on it. These sorts of people are the equal of stage magicians who become “psychics” because there’s better money in preying on people’s yearnings and superstitions than there is in being honest about illusions and tricks. These people aim for a gullible audience and cynically exploit it.
But a good story is a good story, regardless of factual accuracy. And who says fiction isn’t truthful, anyway? You might be disappointed that the latest memoir of substance abuse turns out to be more imagined than lived, but you’ll find fewer more visceral, vivid, and affecting tales of addiction than such novels as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano or William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — both based very much on their writers’ own experiences, but not limited to them or by them.
I’m with Cluracan. If people want a story to pass them time, or to distract them from their drab, wretched lives, who cares what’s true and what’s not? What matters is how absorbing the story is, how entertaining. Anything else is voyeurism or accountancy.
Interestingly, though, Cluracan didn’t just tell an amusing story — he told a story that is also a political allegory, a tale of power and revolution that sums up whole shelves of political theory. It vividly illustrates the idea that rulers require the consent of the ruled, and it shows some of the techniques the ruling classes use to gain and exploit that consent.
Perhaps that’s the sort of the truth the plausibles at the end should have been looking for, not whether the Vault of Horror-style twist was an accurate representation of Cluracan’s experience in reality. Fairies are, it seems, illusionists. A bit of contemplation, though, reveals their misdirections and leads us deeper into the tale.
I think I’m starting to like the fairies. No lie.
Stories within stories within … how many withins are there in this story? There’s the story Jim tells, which is the primary one in the Sandman story called “Hob’s Leviathan” — as with all the Worlds’ End tales, at least up through this one, it is a story-within-the-story. But there is also the stowaway’s story, which is told within Jim’s story and so is a story-within-the-story-within-
There are also identities within identities. The important characters in Jim’s tale are as much like nested dolls as the tales are. For reasons of magic and prejudice, the characters must hide their identities, and thus hide some of the stories of themselves, stories they can only share with each other. Jim has agreed to tell the stories he’s told to the strangers at The Worlds’ End because he doesn’t believe his audience is real — he claims to think he is in an opium dream, a fantasy, a story shared only between a narcotic and a mind.
Everything is hidden, and yet for us, the audience, everything is revealed. We know, it seems, all the secrets of these stories and these identities. Jim would only allow that to an imaginary audience, and so we become the dream of the story itself. Within what Jim thinks is reality, neither we nor the travelers stuck at the Worlds’ End can exist. If we and/or the travelers exist, then Jim is wrong to assume he is suffering from too much opium smoke, and he will be seen by no-longer-imaginary people as either insane or a wonderful liar. Or, rather, he would be seen as such if he were in a rational world that obeys the laws of science and the evidence of history as we understand such things. But something tells me that the travelers do not all inhabit such a world, and so even the most empirically-minded of them might find Jim’s story credible. Some of them might even themselves have seen sea monsters, immortals, and women passing as men.
Meanwhile, what is left to us is what is left to any audience: belief or disbelief.
All narrators are unreliable, all witnesses untrustworthy, because even the most perceptive human beings tend to see mostly what they expect to see. Psychologists have made careers of chronicling all our cognitive biases. Jim, Hob Gadling, the stowaway, and anyone else with a secret that needs some disguising benefits as much from expectations as from elaborate subterfuge. By dressing in typically male clothing and doing work that is socially restricted to men, Jim seems obviously male. He tells his audiences, though, that he was born female. Hob Gadling, however, is not fooled.
“There are,” Gadling says, “things you get to recognize, given enough time.”
It’s not merely time, though — it’s experience, too. If Gadling had lived 500 years in an unchanging society, one where cultural norms and fashions never shifted, he would be less likely to have noticed that Jim is different. Gadling says, “You’re not the first lass I’ve known in my time was passing, nor even the fiftieth,” and this suggests not only that he has lived a long time, but that he has experienced a variety of environments. What is known and unknown, said and unsaid, revealed and unrevealed depends very much on the standards of the time and place. If you have an ability to live in various times and places, standards don’t seem so standard anymore.
This has all been on my mind perhaps because shortly before reading “Hob’s Leviathan” I saw the new movie Alfred Nobbs, in which Glenn Close plays a 19th century British woman who has lived most of her life as a man and has come to identify as a man. One of the things I found most fascinating about the film — and there are many things to be fascinated by in it — was the power of clothing to regulate social expectations. Alfred and another woman who is passing as a man are not, to our eyes, particularly difficult to spot. I fear some viewers will hold this against the film, saying, in effect, “I knew he was a she the moment I saw him, so how could everybody in the story have been fooled?” Most viewers of the film, though, live in a time and place where standards of dress are at least somewhat less gender segregated than in 19th century London. It never occurs to most of the characters in Alfred Nobbs that a woman would wear men’s clothing and do men’s work, and so it doesn’t take a lot of disguise for the characters to pass.
Hob knows this. “Some of it’s the voice,” he says when Jim asks him how he knew the truth, “and some of it’s the hands, and a lot of it’s learning to see what you see and not what you think you see, if that makes any sense.”
Seeing what is real is sometimes a matter of learning to unsee. In Alfred Nobbs, it is a small child who seems to see through the disguises, or at least to perceive them as disguises. Perceived reality is an agglomeration of habits and prejudices, ones children must develop through experience. Naive eyes sometimes see the most.
Surfaces can be just as real as what lies beneath them. We don’t (most of us, at least) go around checking each other’s chromosomes or genitalia before making a gender judgment. We go by what we see on the surface. We trust what seems to work. And even though a glorious, impossible monster occasionally rises from the depths, we make our way across the waters of life without knowing a whole lot about what lies beneath.
Perhaps the real depths of reality lie in our stories and dreams.
The Golden Boy
The tale this time is a mystical Manichean parable of an alternate America, and it’s a story that uses severe simplification to highlight our governing myths.
(Let me pause here first to say that an inn with a library full of many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore seems to me the perfect rest stop in a storm. The Worlds’ End becomes a stranger building with each chapter, but the addition of a bibliophile’s wing seems eminently civilized to me.)
Successful nations need national myths, and the United States has been particularly successful at mythologizing itself. Neil Gaiman gets this, as is perhaps most clearly shown by his novel American Gods, a novel that situates the U.S. as a sort of last-ditch Olympus at the edge of apocalypse, a place that is always also an idea.
“The Golden Boy” gives us Prez Rickard, the apotheosis of the myth that in America anybody can grow up to be President. Prez is predestined, his fate sealed in his name by his mother’s hopes. He’s blonde and blue-eyed, male and middle-class and entrepreneurial: the ideal Presidential material.
Prez becomes not just the embodiment of his mother’s hopes, but of everyone’s. He’s pure and honest, incorruptible, like the love child of George “I Cannot Tell a Lie” Washington and Honest Abe Lincoln. He’s Jesus of the Oval Office, the President as superhero.
The tale’s setting is important, the time in recent U.S. history when good and evil seemed to some folks to be most starkly set against each other. The President that Prez replaces is obviously Richard Nixon, known for his deleted expletives and jowled corruption. Nixon was hardly the most criminal President the country has ever had (Watergate was tawdry in comparison with Iran-Contra), but he’s the punching bag of American presidential history, the figure the liberal left, especially, loves to remember as a demon. He even seemed, himself, to relish the role.
The world of “The Golden Boy”, though, is the world of Boss Smiley, the blind watchman. He’s a happyface dark lord, the cartoon of Dick Cheney’s id. He’s the Bad to Prez’s Good.
America is the place where conspiracy theories go to thrive, and Boss Smiley is the personification of all the powers suspected to be behind the throne. Conspiracy theories are hypotheses of efficiency and power, and they flatter all our images of ourselves – the person who claims to know the true and secret story of the puppet masters gets to feel superior in that knowledge, while the true and secret story itself says that there is greater power behind the forces we see than we know. Conspiracy theories don’t posit a messy, contradictory core at the heart of America; they say that America is even more powerful, capable, and far-reaching than you had previously thought. Boss Smiley is the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group and Who Killed Kennedy and every other paranoia – but he’s more American than any of those groups because he’s one guy, the lone puppetmaster, the ultimate individualist. The American myth is not one that much likes the messiness of systems analysis; the American myth is lone cowboys pulling a nation up by its rugged bootstraps.
Prez is the lone cowboy up against Boss Smiley, and he is also the dream of Presidential perfection come alive. The best-loved Presidents in America are not pragmatists or policy wonks, but engineers of persona – mythologists. All politicians are a mix of compromises and bargains, corruptions and moments of grace, but this isn’t what makes them rise or fall. If we love them, we love them not for what they do, but for who they are, the story they tell, the myth they inhabit. They channel our hopes and our dreams. Richard Nixon wasn’t a bad president because he did anything much worse than his peers; he was a bad president because he lost his mythology in a perpetual five o’clock Jungian shadow.
Prez becomes not just the best president of all time, but the best myth manager, the best storyteller for the tale of himself. He’s a kind of dream prince, and it’s no wonder, then, that he is saved in the afterlife by the Dream King. He wanders away as a kind of messiah, an everlasting hope to be followed.
It’s a waste, though, to wait around for a savior. Perfection is disempowering. We see that when Prez abdicates. “Things were no longer golden in America,” the narrator says. “It wasn’t that things got bad. It was just that they weren’t spectacularly good anymore.” The image accompanying those words is suffused with sad hopelessness: a superhero left to languish at the bottom of a bottle in a bar.
We can hope for saviors and dream of good and evil, but the world is more complex than all that. There are conspiracies, but they’re mostly out in the open, recorded in the minutes of board meetings, sealed in the offices of K Street, reported on the business pages of newspapers. There are heroes, but they can’t make it alone. The narrator of the story of “The Golden Boy” will keep seeking and following, but he’ll die discontented, having sought a single savior, a myth instead of a reality.
The reality is that the world is not made by any one Boss Smiley, nor saved by any one Prez.
But what would become of the myth of America if any of us actually believed that?
The word necropolis etymologically means “city of the dead”, but its everyday definition is “cemetery” or “burial ground”. In the penultimate chapter of Worlds’ End, the necropolis of Litharge is more literal — a city built from the dead and devoted to the dead, a metropolis of morticians.
It’s an evocative, strangely beautiful idea. Certainly, it’s efficient: with all the corpses and their detritus contributing to the creation and maintenance of the city (once the appropriate rituals have been attended to), Litharge provides a model of sustainability, with one of the best recycling programs in all the Sandman stories.
“Cerements” also presents the most deeply nested storytelling of any yet, with stories within stories within stories within — well, honestly, I lost count. The structure of the storytelling echoes the complexity of the catacombs beneath Litharge.
Life and death are stories, but there is a responsibility to get the rituals right and to pay the proper respect. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the real test of time for all the literatures of the known and unknown universes: that which survives is that which best performs whatever rituals its culture deems necessary, and that which disappears into the realm of the forgotten is that which is most complacent and cynical. Alas, the city of stories is governed by more chaotic laws than the city of the dead.
Though the oldest parts of the city were built from human bones, and the citizens wear the clothes of the dead and eat the food provided as tribute, the rituals ensure that little remains of the actual bodies. What remains are memories, and the masters of the necropolis are those memories’ keepers. Not the same memories as friends and family have, but memories of the last moments of the body. The person is gone; it is the body that is honored in Litharge.
The twentieth century was the time when, in the most technologically and medically advanced places, death lost some of its physicality. More people died in hospitals, fewer died at home. Many people now go through their lives without ever seeing a dead body. This fact affects our stories, too. Dead bodies become more mysterious, more imagined, more talismanic. It is a different world from one where mortality is a common and visible event, where corpses are ordinary objects. If we don’t understand a particular society or era’s ways of death, we can’t understand their ways of life. Tragic tales, grim children’s stories, morbid poetry all seem strange and perhaps even tasteless to a culture where the physicality of death is hidden away in the province of specialists.
Cerements are waxed cloths used for wrapping corpses, and in this chapter called “Cerements”, the dead are wrapped in stories. They are preserved in memory and narrative, they live again in the words of the storytellers. Some have names — Billy Scutt, Mistress Veltis — others are more anonymous, their essence having faded, but their role still remembered.
The tale of the old Necropolis’s destruction offers tantalizing hints and possibilities, and communicates more to us, the readers, than it does to the characters telling or hearing the story. The art exists in a more certain realm than the text. We recognize the silhouettes of the Endless, and we remember some stray comments about Despair in Brief Lives. “Our sister is dead,” the Endless say. “We have come for her cerements, and for the books of ritual which are in your keeping.” The Necropolitans laugh at them and call them mad, and this leads to the revocation of their charter. This tale is told by Destruction within a tale told by Scroyle within the primary tale told by Petrefax. Master Hermas says, “I do not know if Scroyle’s telling has any truth in it or not. Nor does it matter. These tales we tell for the dead are not told to teach us…” The ellipsis at the end lets us fill in the rest for ourselves — we know what the tales are not for, but what they are for is left to our own knowledge and interpretation. Stories, like lives, have various purposes, and may, like death, resist all inquiries of why.
The terms of the Necropolis are those of business: the corpses are clients, the city operates because of a charter. Destruction, the wanderer, says the previous Necropolis fell into disrespect and ennui because its citizens came to regard their work as “a job, not a task. There was no care, no love.” When Scoyle says he and his fellow citizens call the corpses “clients”, Destruction says that is wise. He indicates that it will keep them praying, keep them respectful. It’s a strange point of view, because clients are people who hire you to do something, a job or a task, and why that should lead to a greater sense of respect than otherwise, I do not know. There is nothing that ensures respect in a service culture, as anyone who has dealt with incompetent or rude service providers knows. It would seem more likely that respect, care, and love, would come from a sense of serving something greater than the individual clients — serving a cause or a god. But since Destruction has by this point given up godhood and struck off in search of ordinariness, it makes sense that he would valorize a certain simple capitalism, a system that appeals both to his newfound individualist nature and to the role he abdicated.
In the end, it’s all just stories and memories and legends, shadow lives and half lives. The final page of “Cerements” returns us to the story that has engendered the telling of all these others, and pushes them toward the background, bringing forward the question that lingers over everyone at the Worlds’ End: Why are we here?
The one thing they seem to know is that they are not dead (yet). One woman steps forward with, she claims, an explanation. But that will have to wait for its own chapter in the story…
Worlds’ end and words’ ends; end as conclusion and end as purpose. We’ve reached the finishing line of this story arc, and the stories within stories reveal by the last page what seems to be their outer shell.
This conclusion does what the best conclusions do: it ties up some loose ends while heightening the overall sense of mystery. We might say we like stories that have clear, unambiguous endings, but do we? Depends on the we, I suppose. No-one who likes such endings is likely to last through many Sandman volumes.
If I may indulge in utter presumptuousness for a moment, I would bet that most people who like stories (and are there people who do not like stories?) don’t actually like neat and tidy stories, stories without a hint of remaining mystery. Such stories are fine when we just want a quick escape into a never-never land of happily-ever-after, or a utopia where crimes are all solved and order trumps chaos (and voids the laws of thermodynamics), but for me, at least, those are the stories that disappear from memory a few days after I encounter them, because one of the things that is most lasting in a story is the sense of possibility invoked in its final words.
In a screenplay for an unproduced film called The Big Brass Ring, Orson Welles wrote a line that has since gained some renown — indeed, I expect it’s now the most famous line from a movie that was never made: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
There are conclusions to plots, conclusions to events, conclusions to lives — but are there conclusions to stories? There are, as Welles noted, stopping points, and much depends on them. But stories go on; they mingle and echo and proffer and spread. A story that does not, by its end, at least give a quick tip of the hat to this truth is not a story that lingers in the memory and imagination. Stories thrive on all sorts of flights of fancy, but the fantasy that reality is a closed and narrow system is one that offers no story a way to bloom.
Thus it is that Brant Tucker’s insistence on the hardness of reality is a narrow, story-denying ideology. “Reality isn’t fragile,” he says, “it’s — it’s huge and big and solid. I mean, you think reality is fragile, you should try banging your head against a brick wall. Huh? That’s reality.”
Brant Tucker there reminds me of Samuel Johnson. Boswell famously wrote:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”
There are more things in heaven, Earth, and the realms of the Endless than are dreamt of in Johnson’s or Brant Tucker’s philosophies. (Indeed, Bishop George Berkeley’s philosophies of perception and reality are more interesting than a reader of Boswell or Johnson might assume. It’s also worth noting that the city of Berkeley, California was named in his honor, and that the city can number among its notable citizens such explorers of reality as the poets Jack Spicer and Allen Ginsberg, and writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick, who graduated together from the high school there, though they did not know each other at the time.)
The explanation for the Inn at Worlds’ End is, in fact, a reality storm. The inn is a sort of harbor in that storm, a single place outside all other realms and realities, a place to weather the most monumental metaphysical meteorologies.
The cause and import of the storm is more observed than explained. We watch along with everyone at the inn as a funeral procession marches across the sky. The moment is the most sustained in visual drama of any in The Sandman so far — the panels go away, and we watch the procession across multiple multi-page spreads. The power of the rift in reality is mirrored in the amount of space given to the event, and its power to affect all worlds and realms is demonstrated through the unity of pages that are not disrupted or fragmented by panels. All eyes are on this sky, all events are this event.
Who has died, we do not know, though we can make an educated guess. We see in the procession many characters we’ve seen before, but one is notably missing: Dream. If he is there, and if my eyes are not fooling me, he is not conspicuous, but I can’t think of a reason why he would be hiding. Given how dramatic the moment is purely in its form, it makes sense that it would be the Sandman himself who is here memorialized.
But we don’t know, because we do not join the bereaved. Instead, we exit a story-within-a-story for the last time in this tale, ending up in a bar with Brant Tucker telling it all to the bartender before she closes up for the night. Our story ends up in the sort of place that Charlene Mooney wants to hear more stories about, a place outside of myth and fancy, a place more ordinary. (She, the determined realist, stays behind in the inn, waiting for a reality that compels her into its story.) The colors of these last panels are variations on the colors of the last pictures of the procession: the cold grey-blue of Death and the red of the bloodied moon here become the deep blue of a city at night and the pink of a neon sign.
Who has died and who has lived? We do not know, we cannot know. All we know are the stories — the worlds, the words — and their ends.