The Sandman: Book of DreamsNeil Gaiman
BOOK OF DREAMS
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
GEORGE ALEC EFFINGER's seven-night dreamquest in the devoted service of Desire...
BARBARA HAMBLY's nightmare of the sins of Cain spilling out of the Dreaming into the waking world...
WILL SHETTERLY's darkest visions gathered and hungry and real...
TAD WILLIAMS's heartbreaking story of a girl, her father, and a Byronic teddy bear...
SUSANNA CLARKE's magic that would steal the sands of Morpheus...
GENE WOLFE's last gift of the first dream...
BOOK OF DREAMS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PREFACE Frank McConnell
MASQUERADE AND HIGH WATER Colin Greenland
CHAIN HOME, LOW John M. Ford
STRONGER THAN DESIRE Lisa Goldstein
EACH DAMP THING Barbara Hambly
THE BIRTH DAY B. W. Clough
SPLATTER Will Shetterly
SEVEN NIGHTS IN SLUMBERLAND George Alec Effinger
ESCAPE ARTIST Caitlin R. Kiernan
AN EXTRA SMIDGEN OF ETERNITY Robert Rodi
THE WRITER'S CHILD Tad Williams
ENDLESS SESTINA Lawrence Schimel
THE GATE OF GOLD Mark Kreighbaum
A BONE DRY PLACE Karen Haber
THE WITCH'S HEART Delia Sherman
THE MENDER OF BROKEN DREAMS Nancy A. Collins
AIN'T YOU 'MOST DONE? Gene Wolfe
VALOSAG AND ELET Steven Brust
STOPP'T-CLOCK YARD Susanna Clarke
AFTERWORD: DEATH Tori Amos
How do gods die? And when they do, what becomes of them then?
You might as well ask, how do gods get born? All three questions are, really, the same question. And they all have a common assumption: that humankind can no more live without gods than you can kill yourself by holding your breath.
(Of course, you just may be the kind of arrant rationalist who huffs that modern man has finally freed himself from ancient enslavement to superstition, fantasy, and awe. If so, return this book immediately to its place of purchase for a refund; and, by the by, don't bother trying to read Shakespeare, Homer, Faulkner, or, for that matter, Dr. Seuss.)
We need gods---Thor or Zeus or Krishna or Jesus or, well, God--not so much to worship or sacrifice to, but because they satisfy our need--distinctive from that of all the other animals--to imagine a meaning, a sense to our lives, to satisfy our hunger to believe that the muck and chaos of daily existence does, after all, tend somewhere. It's the origin of religion, and also of story-telling--or aren't they both the same thing? As Voltaire said of God: if he did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him.
Listen to an expert on the matter.
"There are only two worlds--your world, which is the real world, and other worlds, the fantasy. Worlds like this are worlds of the human imagination: their reality, or lack of reality, is not important. What is important is that they are there. These worlds provide an alternative. Provide an escape. Provide a threat. Provide a dream, and power; provide refuge, and pain. They give your world meaning. They do not exist; and thus they are all that matters. Do you understand?"
The speaker is Titania, the beautiful and dangerous Queen of Faerie, in Neil Gaiman's graphic novel The Books of Magic, and I don't know a better summary explanation--from Plato to Sir Philip Sidney to Northrop Frye--of why we need, read, and write stories. Of why we, as a species, are godmakers. And spoken by a goddess in a story.
Books of Magic was written while Gaiman was also writing his masterpiece--so far his masterpiece, for God or gods know what he'll do next--The Sandman. It is a comic book that changes your mind about what comics are and what they can do. It is a serial novel--like those of Dickens and Thackeray--that, by any honest reckoning, is as stunning a piece of storytelling as any "mainstream" (read: academically respectable) fiction produced in the last decade. It is a true invention of an authentic, and richly satisfying, mythology for postmodern, postmythological man: a new way of making gods. And it is the brilliant inspiration for the brilliant stories in this book.
Like most extraordinary things, The Sandman had unextraordinary beginnings (remember that Shakespeare, as far as we can tell, just set out to run a theater, make some cash, and move back to his hick hometown). In 1987, Gaiman was approached by Karen Berger of DC Comics to revive one of the characters from DC's WWII "golden age." After some haggling, they decided on "The Sandman." Now the original Sandman, in the late thirties and forties, was a kind of Batman Lite. Millionaire Wesley Dodds, at night, would put on gas mask, fedora, and cape, hunt down bad guys, and zap them with his gas gun, leaving them to sleep until the cops picked them up the next morning--hardly the stuff of legend.
So what Gaiman did was jettison virtually everything except the title. The Sandman--childhood's fairy who comes to put you to sleep, the bringer of dreams, the Lord of Dreams, the Prince of Stories--indisputably the stuff of legend.
Between 1988 and 1996, in seventy-five monthly issues, Gaiman crafted an intricate, funny, and profound tale about tales, a story about why there are stories. Dream--or Morpheus, or the Shaper--gaunt, pale, and clad in black, is the central figure. He is not a god; he is older than all gods, and is their cause. He is the human capacity to imagine meaning, to tell stories: an anthropomorphic projection of our thirst for mythology. And as such, he is both greater and less than the humans whose dreams he shapes, but whose thirst, after all, shapes him. As Titania would say, he does not exist; and thus he is all that matters. Do you understand?
Grand enough, you would think, to conceive a narrative whose central character is narrative. Among the few other writers who have dared that much is Joyce, whose Finnegans Wake is essentially one immense dream encompassing all the myths of the race ("wake"-- "dream": get it?). And, though Gaiman would probably be too modest to invite the comparison, I am convinced that Joyce was much on his mind during the whole process of composition. The first words of the first issue of The Sandman are "Wake up"; the last words of the last major story arc of The Sandman are "Wake up"--the title of the last story arc being, naturally, "The Wake." (All of Gaiman's story titles, by the way, are versions of classic stories, from Aeschylus to Ibsen and beyond. A Brit, raised on British crosswords, he can't resist playing hide-and-seek with the reader--rather like Joyce.)
Grand enough, that. But having invented Dream, the personified human urge to make meaning, he went on to invent Dream's family, and that invention is absolutely original and, to paraphrase what Prince Hal says of Falstaff, witty in itself and the cause of wit in other men.
The family is called the Endless, seven siblings, in order of age--"birth," we'll see, is not an appropriate term-- Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (whose name used to be Delight). They are the Endless because they are states of human consciousness itself, and cannot cease to exist until thought itself ceases to exist; they were not "born" because, like consciousness, nothing can be imagined before them: the Upanishads, earliest and most subtle of theologies, have a deal to say on this matter.
To be conscious at all is to be conscious of time, and of time's arrow: of destiny. And to know that is to know that time must have a stop: to imagine death. Faced with the certainty of death, we dream, imagine paradises where it might not be so: "Death is the mother of beauty," wrote Wallace Stevens. And all dreams, all myths, all the structures we throw up between ourselves and chaos, just because they are built things, must ine
vitably be destroyed. And we turn, desperate in our loss, to the perishable but delicious joy of the moment: we desire. All desire is, of course, the hope for a fulfillment impossible in the very nature of things, a boundless delight; so to desire is always already to despair, to realize that the wished-for delight is only, after all, the delirium of our mortal self-delusion that the world is large enough to fit the mind. And so we return to new stories--to dreams.
Now that's an overschematic version of the lineage of the Endless, almost a Medieval-style allegorization. For they're also real characters: as real as the humans with whom they are constantly interacting throughout The Sandman. Destiny is a monastic, hooded figure, almost without affect. Death--Gaiman's brilliant idea--is a heartbreakingly beautiful, witty young woman. Dream-- is Dream, somber, a tad pretentious, and a tad neurotic. Destruction is a red-haired giant who loves to laugh and talks like a stage Irishman. Desire--another brilliant stroke--is androgynous, as sexy and as threatening as a Nagel dominatrix; and Despair, his/her twin, is a squat, fat, preternaturally ugly naked hag. Delirium, fittingly for her name, is almost never drawn the same way: all we can tell for sure is that she is a young girl, with multicolored or no hair, dressed in shreds and speaking in non sequiturs that sometimes achieve the surreal antiwisdom of, say, Rimbaud.
Nevertheless: the Endless are an allegory, and a splendid one, of the nature of consciousness, of being-in-the-world. And it can't be emphasized too much that these more-than, less-than gods matter only because of the everyday people with whose lives and passions they interact. The Sandman mythology, in other words, brings us full circle from all classical religions. "In the beginning God made man?" Quite--and quite precisely--the reverse.
And Dream, the Lord of Storytelling, is at the center of it all.
We begin and end with stories because we are the storytelling animal. The Sandman is at one with Finnegans Wake, and also with Nietzsche, C. G. Jung, and Joseph Campbell in insisting that all gods, all heroes and mythologies are the shadow-play of the human drama. The concept of the Endless--and particularly of Dream-- is a splendid "'machine for storytelling" (a phrase Gaiman is fond of). Characters from the limitless ocean of myth, and characters from the so-called "real" world--that's you and I when we're not dreaming--can mingle and interact in its universe: quite as they mingle and interact in you and me when we are dreaming. It's often been said by literary critics that our age is impoverished by its inability to believe in anything save the cold equations of science. (Hence Destruction, fourth of the siblings, left the Endless in the seventeenth century--the onset of the Age of Reason.) But our strongest writers, Gaiman included, have always found ways of reviving the vitality of the myths, even on the basis of their unreality. Credo, quia impossibile est, wrote Tertullian in the third century A.D., about the Christian mystery: "I believe it because it is impossible." Good theology, maybe; excellent theory of fiction, absolutely.
Now that The Sandman is over, and its creator has moved on, it continues to serve as a machine for storytelling. DC Comics provides The Dreaming, a series by various hands using the assumptions and the characters invented in The Sandman. And the volume you hold now, by gifted "mainstream" (i.e. non-comic book) writers, all of them expanding and elaborating the Sandman mythos, is perhaps only the first, rich fruit of Gaiman's new technique for godmaking.
De te fabula, runs the Latin tag: the story, whatever story, is always about you. That's the ancient wisdom The Sandman makes new: it's why, finally, we read at all. It is--and I know no higher praise--another realization of Wallace Stevens's sublime vision of fiction in his great poem, "Esthetique du Mal":
"And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur
Merely in living as and where we live.
MASQUERADE AND HIGH WATER
I have known Colin Greenland (um, Ph.D.)
at least three weeks longer than I have
known anyone else in this book. That's
about thirteen years. In that time he has
written elegant fantasies, romping space operas,
and wise works of nonfiction. He has
also won many awards, including the Arthur
C. Clarke Award for his novel Take Back
Plenty. Oddly, he has not aged in any
noticeable way, still looking a little like Gandalf's
rock-and-rolling youngest brother would, if
he were secretly a pirate.
It's a love story; which seemed like a good
place to start.
Sherri stood in the doorway with a mug of ice tea, shading her eyes from the sun. "You missed the wedding!" she called.
Oliver shut the car door and went up the steps to the porch. "You had a wedding?" he said.
In fact Oliver had been aware of them all morning, the battered cars and bikes trailing up the road past his house. He had heard the laughter coming from up here, the distorted wail of old Jefferson Airplane albums. It was either a wedding or a wake. He kept away until the celebration all died down and everything went quiet. He didn't know why he had come up here now. Just being neighborly, he supposed.
Sherri was pottering inside and out, picking up. There was enough mess: paper plates smeared with guacamole, empty bottles, half-empty cans. There was always mess at Sherri's house, wedding or no wedding. Oliver kind of liked it. It helped confirm his resolve to keep his place down the road vacuumed and tidy, free of bachelor squalor.
"It was a great wedding," Sherri said. "I married Johnny and Turquoise."
She knew everybody in the hills for miles around, and always assumed he did, too. In fact in two years here she was the only one he had got to know at all. It was the solitude he liked--that, and the low property prices that meant he could own now instead of paying top dollar rent on some cracker box downtown. He liked living among the trees, in clean air, with the mountains in the distance. He sat on Sherri's broken-down porch and looked out into the soft dark green of spruce, the shivering yellow aspen. Above his head hung the sign, black letters charred into a slice of birchwood: CHURCH OF THE WILD ELK.
"Want some of this?" She put a big cold bowl in his lap.
"What is it?"
"Melon ginger ice cream."
Probably half an ounce of hash in there too, knowing Sherri. "No thanks."
Sherri half sat on the porch rail in her worn long tie-dye skirt, cradling the bowl. Her arms were sun brown and strong. "You know, I had this amazing dream," she said, dipping her finger in the ice cream and licking it. "I dreamed I was sitting there where you're sitting, only there was this big white cat in my lap. And I stroked it, and it got up and went away, and I looked down in my lap and there were all these tiny little kittens! It was ama-azing," she said, drawing the word out into a whole drowsy musical phrase. "It was really amazing. Don't you think that was a good omen for Johnny and Turquoise?"
"I never have dreams," said Oliver.
In his black onyx boat in the form of a sphinx, Morpheus the Shaper and his sibling Desire float across the waters of the buried lake. The air is hot and gloomy. The sailors in their nightwear haul at the ropes, putting on more sail. Eyes closed, they trawl the darkness for the sluggish wind.
The two travelers lie upon cushions. They speak of responsibility. Desire says it is a tiresome illusion. Morpheus does not deny it, but claims it is inescapable in the human realm, inseparable from it as shadows from sunlight.
"People pursue things," says Morpheus. "As soon as they have them they run away from them. But what they run away from stays with them, dragging along behind them like an ever-lengthening cloak."
"Cloaks are nice." Bright-eyed Desire bites its finger. "You can wear a cloak and have nothing on under it at al
l. And you can go anywhere you want like that!"
The water is dark and murky, like an old painting. Desire makes water lilies in it, green and white and golden as egg yolk. Morpheus broods, as he does so often, his long chin resting in his wax-white hand.
Far away across the water, at the Pavilion of Recurrence, the summoning bell is ringing.
"Everybody dreams, Ollie," said Sherri, fetching him a beer. "They say you are what you dream. Did you ever hear that?"
"No," said Oliver. "I never did."
"You are what you dream," said Sherri again, nodding, and smiled her blissed-out smile. Her eyes were pretty. She picked up some butts, an empty corn chip box. She came across a shawl and draped it round her shoulders, despite the warmth of the afternoon.
Oliver glanced at her. She couldn't be much older than he, though she had a grown-up daughter somewhere running around. They always had dressed like grannies, the Earth Mother types, in long dresses and scarves and twenty pounds of beads. He did wish she wouldn't call him Ollie.
Sherri was a nice Jewish girl from New York, originally. She had come out here to clean out her headspace.
Her house was a legally consecrated church, tax exempt. She had told Oliver she was figuring out a way to write off the hot tub as a baptismal font.
Oliver smiled and drank his beer. Sherri and her congregation. People who had crawled up in here when the sixties turned to shit and never crawled out again. But Sherri was okay. She had helped him the first winter, when he got sick, and when his Subaru went into that snowdrift she got somebody for him, somebody she knew who came with a tow truck and pulled it out and never even sent him a bill. Sherri was okay, when you had time for her. Sherri wouldn't do you harm.
Sometimes the Pavilion of Recurrence looks like an Arabian tent, a finespun marvel of white-and-scarlet cloth billowing in a place of sand and mirage. Sometimes it stands to one side of a grassy river meadow where swans glide beneath willows and great helms and targets with obscure devices hang amid the branches of bowed and ancient trees. Sometimes it is made of pellucid white marble, the Pavilion of Recurrence, with gilded balconies, and the sound of a piano tinkling lazily from an open window.
Sometimes, like today, the Pavilion of Recurrence has the aspect of an island monastery, with a bell tower and a thick coat of evergreen creeper. The bell tolls slowly, insistently, across the buried lake.
Inside the Pavilion of Recurrence, as anywhere else in the Dreaming to one extent or another, whatever is needed is provided. A morgue, where night after night forensic pathologists find members of their families stretched out on the slab, opened up for dissection, though still pleading to be released. A school where adults of all ages return again and again to face unprepared for and incomprehensible exams. A tram that takes commuters on an eternal journey to an ominous destination through unknown yet strangely haunting streets. A sepulchral secondhand shop, on whose shelves authors find dusty books with titles that are completely unreadable, but whose covers bear their own names.