Monday, October 15, 2012

Sleep of the Just: Part 1

Still getting over being creeped out by this series, but I've managed to turn off a few lights and stop walking around the house with my katana. So I think I'm ready to post about Sandman 1: Sleep of the Just.

These essays are not meant to be exhaustive. I am not attempting to turn this into the Annotated Sandman. Others reviewers far more knowledgeable of comics, myth, and the occult are better equipped to handle such a mammoth undertaking.
If I can find a toe hold that is an entry point to get into the book then I will be satisfied. Yes this is reader response criticism but hey, that's ok too. Not everything we reflect on lit has to be a school paper.

What I want to look at today is the major entry point into the story: the setting. An English country house which implies titles and lords and all the horrible things the English upper classes supposedly did. There were secret cults and initiations etc. and all part of the classic English horror fiction subgenre Gaiman was working in.

The World War I setting and background is significant. World War I was a massively fundamental shift in human consciousness(at least to Europeans and American). Prior to the Great War ideas like honor, nobility, love of country, etc were common coin. The greater good etc was supposed to be a worthy goal. But with the Great War and its destructiveness humanity would never be the same. Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory does a thorough job of exploring the collapse of the old value system. Hemingway perhaps summed it up best in A Farewell to Arms where talks about the terms honor etc. sounding hollow and embarrassing when compared with the names of places of battle with their numbers of casualties.

But how does that apply to a character, Dr. John Hathaway choosing to look for a supernatural solution to his problems? Dr Hathaway, is curator of the royal museum and has access to objects valued by the occult community. He has shown up at the mansion of Roderick Burgess with the Magdalen Grimoire. The book Roderick needs to complete a ritual designed to chain and imprison death. If Roderick succeeds, then humanity need not fear death, and no one needs to die, ever again.
Hathaway's son has died in a naval battle. The poor old man has no one else and is mad and desperate with grief. So he makes an error of judgment. He agrees to Roderick's need for an ancient and occult book to complete a ritual which may give him back his son. Its an error but as far as hooking the audience it’s a very understandable error.

And very human as well.

Again, interesting because of the time period and the world background to events. Imagine that during the battle of the Somme over a million men died in battle. In one battle, a million men. That is death on a scale heretofore unheard of. There hadn't been that kind of death toll since the bubonic plauge.

In a sense, it makes Roderick Burgess's desire to imprison and stop death appear almost heroic. He isn't going to convince world leaders to stop the slaughter. Nor is he going to be able to appeal to the masses to help him. If Roderick had been motivated by purer motives the story may have been different than what it is.

But Roderick isn't heroic. He may want to stop death but not for anyone else. Only for his own gain, his own prestige, his own "power and glory."

Its curious and jarring, and I believe well set up, how this character, who regularly traffics with the occult, with phenomena that would have even the most ardent skeptic convinced of another realm and would sway all naysayers and hard bit atheists, is such a complete and utter bastard. He wants money. He wants power. He wants to manipulate and control people's lives. He wants only to get over on people, to make their desires stuff his pocket books.

And poor Dr. Hathaway, whose desire to get his son back, ends up completely in Roderick's power. Roderick stole from the museum. He can be prosecuted and imprisoned for this. Roderick explains to his son that now the man is in his control and all the wonders of the museum are going to be at their fingertips.

Which is the other excessively creepy aspect of the story. Sleep of the Just is also a bit of a bildungsroman. It is Roderick's son's Alex education in the occult, and in grift. In controlling people. In using their supernatural fears to turn a profit.

But that's enough for post 1. More on Sleep of the Just next time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sandman Read Through Intro

Volumes 1-6 arrived in the mail today. As I flipped through them I realized several things:

1) There is no way I'm going to do this all in a month.

2) However long it does take I'm going to do the read through until I finish the series.

Some initial impressions:

This is gonna be weird. I'm not a fan of weirdness. I've actually worked hard in my life to avoid weirdness. I don’t read horror. It took the promise of a story telling orgasm to get me to read my first Stephen King book(the dark tower). I don’t even watch horror films. I've never sat through more than five minutes of any Saw. Trying to watch a movie with an exorcism in it will have me turning on all the lights and calling my mom, or any other relative or friend who is willing to talk to me at 3 am.

So why am I doing this? One look at the covers of the Sandman books today had me wondering that. A quick flip through the books reveals graphic blood and guts scenes. Something as I said I've avoided. The pages abound with demons, ghosts, corpses, and a cornucopia of images that look like the prop department of a horror film set. The squeamish part of me looks at this and goes, yea why are we doing this again? You know how much of a chickenshit you can be.

Well, gentle reader let me put it this way. I've read Gaiman before: American Gods and Neverwhere and Anansi Boys and Fragile Things and The Graveyard Book. I learned much from those books but one thing stands out: Neil Gaiman knows things. Things about what it means to be human. Things about what it means to be mortal. Things about the limitations of death, desire, loss, and love. Not in some smarmy Mitch Albom the Five People You Meet In Heaven kind of way(in fact, if that were a Gaiman title it would be The Five People You Meet On Your Way to Hell). He's a man just like the rest of us, he eats and sleeps etc. But he has this way of saying things, of revealing things in a story, of knowing the right word and the right time and the right phrase.

As I said, the man knows things. Characters speak truths. Not some hallmark card planarization of the Buddha or Zen koan pithy aphorism that has me shaking my head, scratching my ass and reaching for another beer. But truths about real life and what happens to real people. He uses fantasy and urban fantasy to communicate these truths and so comes at you with what he knows obliquely, flanking your reason with his word hoard of myth.

For example this from Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere on becoming homeless and things getting worse from there: "He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn't occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.”

Or this from American Gods: "I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn't even know that I'm alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. "

Cause this is, in a wonderful paradox, what you get from Neil Gaiman's work: straight talk. About life that is. All the questions, the meanings, the searches. I don't mean my life of course. Gaiman's not the Delphic oracle(well, if the job ever becomes available I'm sure they'll consider him) and I don’t expect him to be for me. I mean the big questions about Life that most thinking people ask. That kind of stuff that brings you back to yourself. T.S. Eliot wrote "The end of all our searching shall be to arrive at the place we departed, and to know it for the first time." A Gaiman novel does give that experience. They are stories, I know. The stories are full of weird and wonderful and improbable and horrifying things. I know this too. But using these tools he has, in the novels I've read, managed to say some profound things. Things that have resonated with me.

Another motivation for this read through is Story. Its kind of the last muse we have left after structuralism, deconstruction, and feminism carpet bombed the humanities. I see her as a thin shouldered girl, sitting on a hilltop, lonely for her sisters. She is the last inspiration we have left. No matter what academic departments may think or say about the death of the author, she is at least still going strong. The idea of story is something we humans just can't detox ourselves from. And this is a good thing. And Gaiman is one of our story masters. On a barstool, in the movie theatre, on your couch, at a bookstore: story lives and breathes in all these places. She whispers to us Don’t you want to know what happened?

The Story Muse hangs out with Gaiman. They are probably on a first name basis. They probably text each other when bored. Compare notes, promise to do lunch. You get the idea.

So to summarize why I am doing this: I have much to learn from Neil Gaiman. And much, I suspect, to learn from the Sandman series. And you, lucky constant reader, will be witness to this adventure. I hope you have read the series. I also hope you haven't. I hope if you read you share thoughts.

Some points about method: I'm going to review each individual story piece as its presented in the books. For example, the first review will cover Sleep of the Just. This is the first story in Volume 1. The second story, Imperfect Hosts, seems to continue the same story line, but I'll review it as its own individual piece. And so on and so on all the way through the series.

So, here we go.