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.

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