“Read a Damn Book – 136: The Sandman – The Doll’s House”
I’ve been a fan of mythology and monsters since I was a little kid. My grandma, when I was about six years old, bought me a couple volumes of The Little Golden Book Encyclopedia set, and luckily for me, “mythology” was one of the topics covered in these volumes. I poured over those pages, which talked about griffins and rocs and gorgons…and I was completely enthralled! Beyond fascinated! And I have continued to love mythology (especially the non-human entities in mythological belief systems) throughout my life---so when I discovered Neil Gaiman’s series, The Sandman, it was inevitable that I would be utterly won over, and I proclaimed this my absolute favorite series for the next decade, at least. (It’s still in my top three...) I’ve already reviewed the first volume, Preludes & Nocturnes, so how does the second collection compare to the first??? Let’s take a look…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III - The Sandman - The Doll's House (1990)
The first Sandman book collected issues 1 through 8 of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking series, and it related the story of how Morpheus (also known as Dream) was captured and imprisoned by a cheeky British magician---who was hoping to snare Dream’s older sister, Death, but got him instead---and how Dream was held captive for nearly an entire human lifetime. But Dream, being one of the Endless, was unharmed by the passage of time. The same cannot be said, however, for his captors OR for his kingdom, which fell into chaos while he was imprisoned. After escaping from his captors, Dream set about gathering his tools, which were stolen and scattered by the humans who imprisoned him, and has his revenge on the surviving folks involved in his captivity. The first collection ends with Dream talking with his sister, Death, about what he should do next.
This book, called The Doll’s House, begins with the same issue that ended the first volume---but that’s fine because the story is good and Death, who was introduced in this issue and quickly became a fan favorite, is always an interesting character (in Gaiman’s hands.) The REST of The Doll’s House, however, follows the story of Rose Walker, the granddaughter of a woman named Unity Kinkaid, who slept for decades while the Dream King was imprisoned---and became pregnant and gave birth to Rose’s mother while she was asleep. As Morpheus is working to rebuild his dream realm and rounding up a few stray dreams and nightmares that have escaped into REALITY while he was gone, Rose is sent by her mother and grandmother to look for her younger brother, Jed, who was has been missing for several years. We learn that Jed is actually being held as a virtual prisoner by an unscrupulous aunt and uncle, who claim a monthly check for keeping Jed in their custody---but keep him locked in a basement sleeping in his own filth. (Jed’s situation is pretty disgusting, especially knowing that some REAL children have lived through similar tortures. One thing we learn rather quickly when reading The Sandman---this is a HORROR title as much as it is fantasy or mythology. Possibly more so, especially in this storyline…)
While Rose is searching for her brother and having odd encounters with a number of freakish characters, we also get to see some of Morpheus’s stray nightmares, like The Corinthian, who are running amok in the waking world, torturing and killing people, as per their dispositions, but doing it in reality instead of in dreams where they belong. This leads to a horrifying, but somehow darkly hilarious, section of the book where a large number of serial killers gather for a convention, and (of course) Rose ends up taking a room in the same hotel where the “Cereal Collectors” have come together.
Though the outline I’ve sketched above may sound ridiculous, in Gaiman’s hands, what comes across is an epic, nightmarish, mystical story---a TRUE modern fairy tale---that combines psychological horror, metaphor and symbolism, counter-culture narrative themes, and surrealist textures into a cohesive and compelling journey. The artwork, by Dringenberg and Jones, is dark and psychedelic and fragile, and it has a very underground / indie feel, even though the book was published by one of the two largest comic companies in the world. The tone is extremely creepy and (of course) dream-like throughout the book, and the art perfectly captures the fragmented, distorted, and exaggerated quality of dreams.
Where the first book did a solid job of introducing us to Morpheus and the dream landscape, this book pushes us further into the universe of the Endless, introducing two more of Morpheus’s family, Desire and Despair. These two younger siblings, who come across as tricksters, at best, and EVIL, at worst, hatch a plot to disrupt Dream’s rebuilding of his realm---although the reasons for their meddling aren’t exactly clear. (Maybe it’s not for mortals to question the ways of the Endless…) What we do come to understand, however, is that these immortal figures---Death, Dream, Desire, Destiny, Despair---are just personifications of human attributes. They ARE only because humans exist. Dream says to Desire, as he’s chastising her for meddling in his affairs, “We of the endless are the servants of the living—we are NOT their masters. WE exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist. / When the last living thing has left this universe, then our task will be done.” This, of course, is Gaiman speaking to us, not Dream to Desire, and Desire (who is both male and female---depending on the moment) says s/he doesn’t understand what Dream means… Of course, s/he wasn’t meant to understand---WE were. Dreams and desires and despair are human attributes, and by personifying them, Gaiman is showing us how they can be abused, distorted, and manipulated.
When a greedy, powerful man imprisons the Dreams of hundreds (as happened in the first book, when the magician takes Dream away and locks him in a cage) lives can become meaningless and are wasted, lost, and destroyed. (We need dreams to keep us going.) When Desire is used to manipulate the masses, Despair inevitably follows. When Dreams are allowed to roam free in reality, without any checks or controls, disaster can arise. What Gaiman has created is horror, for certain, but this is also, pretty clearly, a cautionary tale, as well, about the POWER that stories have over human lives...and for further proof that this is the case, in the middle of Rose’s search for her brother and Morpheus’s attempt to restore his realm, we get a strange tale---which ALMOST seems unconnected to the rest of the book---about a character named Hob, (a name PREGNANT with meaning---as “hob” used to me an elf or goblin that causes trouble or mischief,) who sometime around the 15th century decides that he doesn’t ever want to die. Dream and Death, who occasionally travel together amongst the humans, overhear Hob in a pub saying as much, and they decide it might be interesting to let this particular dream come true for the man. Death agrees not to touch Hob, and Dream tells him he will meet the man at this same pub in 100 years’ time and see if he still wants to be immortal. They meet several times over the centuries, with Hob deciding each time that he would like to continue living, even when his life is in shambles---but what we ACTUALLY get from this tale, is a glimpse at how STORIES (which are the substance of dreams) change through time. Hob, who in all respects is NOBODY, is merely the vehicle, a time machine that lets us see through the ages. The actual subject of the tale is Dream himself---how he develops and changes as the humans who FEED the dream realm change and grow. On the surface, this story seems like an outlier, a throwaway unrelated to the rest of the book---until we realize that Hob’s DESIRE to be immortal, to be left untouched by DEATH, moves and manipulates and influences the stories (or DREAMs) of the people---Hob being a generic everyman---and this sets us up for the conflict between Dream and Desire at the end of the book. Dream has learned through his interactions with Hob that humans are the HEART of the endless, not the other way around.
This may seem like I’m giving away the ending of the book, but I’m not. The Rose Walker tale floats above this meta-text, and I’ve left most of what happens in THAT storyline undescribed here. Rose’s story is dark and freakish, and the point of this collection, BUT the Dream vs Desire conflict is the point of stories in general. Humans create tales based on their dreams and wants and desires (lusts and fears and fantasies,) but the fictions---the stories being told---sometimes take on lives of their own (FAKE NEWS,) and forget that they belong to the people, and are not the masters… Underneath it all, The Sandman is a story about stories. However, the DETAILS of the tale, what happens with Rose and her brother, that’s where Gaiman and company’s skills really shine!
Overall, I would recommend this book for fans of mythology and psychology (especially that old-school, mostly discredited, psychology that was popular before neuroscience came in and took the brain out of the realm of stories and moved it firmly into biology.) I would also recommend this book for people who like horror, particularly WEIRD horror that’s filled with dream imagery, monsters, and a humanity that has just a tenuous, fragile grasp of what’s actually happening in the universe. This book is especially BRUTAL though, and people who are squeamish about violence and bodily fluids will be disgusted at quite a few scenes, especially once the serial killer convention gets rolling. There are also the less fantastic (and for me, far more disturbing,) horrors that are explored here, like child abuse, illness, old age, and loss of identity, and I think it’s Gaiman’s ability to MIX the fantastic with the mundane that makes his work so effective. The book is dark, sometimes disgusting, but also funny, and for folks who love myth and folklore and psychological exploration, this text, which is easily as good as the first volume---possibly better---should be added to your “MUST READ” list immediately. Of course, I definitely recommend starting with Preludes & Nocturnes, but even if you don’t and just jump right in with this book, you’ll still find a lot to enjoy, if you’re hearty enough! Sweet dreams!!!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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