REVIEW: The Sandman Vols 2-4 – The Doll’s House, Dream Country and Season of Mists (Neil Gaiman)

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My re-reading of the Sandman series has continued voraciously onwards, but I’ve been away from home for work so my reviewing of them is falling behind. Time for a summary before I’m left reviewing the whole series in one Titanic blog post.

Preludes and Nocturnes set out the basics of the Sandman character, and second story arc, The Doll’s House, carries on directly from the aftermath of Dream’s imprisonment. Whilst he was away, one woman afflicted with the sleeping sickness was raped and conceived a child, who in turn had a child. That girl has become a ‘dream vortex’, someone capable of manipulating dreams–tearing them apart, in fact, and destroying the dream world. Dream must prevent this from happening, and protect her from the various nightmares that have abdicated his realm and are drawn towards her. The girl, meanwhile, is more concerned with finding her little brother. ALl this bookended by the scheming of two more of the Endless, Desire and Despair.

The Doll’s House is the first step into real Sandman territory–the fusion of mythology and the slightly askew storytelling that became Gaiman’s stock-in-trade. It’s still a fairly basic quest narrative, and the ‘dream vortex’ is essentially an underwhelming McGuffin, but what The Doll’s House does do is throw a whole bunch of different styles and characters into the mix that make the reading experience so much more than the underpinning story. It runs through everything from Tales of the City-style bohemia-in-a-flat-block to chilling satire in the most memorable issue, Collectors. By far one of Sandman’s scariest characters is the Corinthian, a killer with teeth for eyes, who kills and collects people’s eyeballs, making him a celebrity at a pitch perfect convention parody of middle-management-seminars, except for serial killers. Likewise, the inventive capture of two characters, a husband and wife, in a bubble on the edge of the dreaming in which he remains perpetually alive, convinced he’s living in a heroic comic-book life is poignant and a clever subversion of the kind of genre the Sandman built out of. And then of course, there’s Desire, who’s a fabulous character that I find myself with a bit of a crush on.

Dream Country is an anthology of four individual stories, which happens frequently between the longer arcs, and so far are often my favourite parts of the series. The first story, Calliope, is the story of a muse captured by a writer long ago and passed down to the another writing, charting his rise to fame. Its a great character piece, both of her and of the writer, characterised by the one moment when, after sleeping with her, he worries she might have been a real woman, which is the kind of underscore about the assumptions of fiction that I love.

The second story, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, is one of the most famous issues, multi-award winning and, in my opinion, over-rated. It’s the story of William Shakespeare’s first performance of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream to an audience of the faerie upon whom it is based. The mischievous Puck steals his way into the performance, and wreaks his usual havoc. I remember not particularly enjoying the story the last time, and I still didn’t this time, and I can’t really say why–it just seems fairly hollow and, I don’t know–obvious to me. I prefer it when Sandman weaves the lesser-known parts of mythology or history in, and my favourite part of the story is the side-plot about Will’s son, where Will becomes just another absent father.

The third story is A Tale of a Thousand Cats, in which a household cat sneaks out to hear the story from a kind of cat-messiah, who tells the story of meeting Dream (as a cat!) and learning that once, the world was ruled by cats until all the humans dreamed together of a different world. It’s a slight story, but beautifully told and illustrated, and can you imagine? A major DC comic… in which an entire issue is narrated by a cat? Welcome to the Sandman…

The fourth story is Facade, the story of the dwindling life of a depressed superhero whose talent was being able to create fake ‘skin’ like masks, that eventually wither and fall off. It’s a sad, claustrophobic story full of visual metaphor and seems to go overlooked in the whole Sandman ouevre, but I like it.

Season of Mists was the book that I remember, for two stonking (yes, stonking) issues. In the Season of Mists, Lucifer leaves hell, and introduces the amazing concept of hell as a place built by your own expectations that hugely resonated with me when I read it as a teenager. In Gaiman’s version of hell, you go to hell to receive the punishment you subconsciously believe you deserve–so when Lucifer has to evict the last remaining its a Conan-style killer who did unspeakable things and sentenced himself to being chained to a rock by his entrails. Who refuses to leave. It’s one of Sandman’s finest moments, a fantastic reversal of Lucifer’s character, and at it’s core, just fabulous storytelling.

On the other end of the grand scale is the issue in which the dead start to return to the world, with an issue focussed on a British boarding schools that is suddenly inhabited by the ghosts of boys who have died there. I’ve always loved boarding school stories, ghost stories and coming of age stories, and this is all of them rolled together, with a few dark references that slipped under the radar when I was thirteen but I now understand. The headmaster and his mother, and the school builies trying to rule the roost are monstrous creations, but the issue has its moments of delicacy with the friendship between the two boys–the last living boy and the pupil who was murdered in the attic–and their final escape. This is one of my favourite issues of all of Sandman. The rest of the story concludes in the rivalries between various members of the Sandman mythology for possession of the key to hell, which introduces a whole wealth of characters that return later in the series. Much like the Doll’s House, it’s an average plot wrapped up in great storytelling verve and fascinating characters.

Onwards now to the next anthology book, Distant Mirrors.

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2 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Sandman Vols 2-4 – The Doll’s House, Dream Country and Season of Mists (Neil Gaiman)

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this because I love using Gaiman to inspire my students. I’m actually teaching Midsummer by Shakespeare right now so maybe I can get Midsummer by Neil and use it in my classroom!

  2. That sounds like a definite plan! What ages do you teach? I used to be teach secondary school English and use any excuse to shoe-horn in good books as ‘examples’–used Gaiman quite a few times, and all sorts of others.

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