Our assignment was to read the first two issues from Dream Country. Glyph reviewed Caliope and Jaybird and Maribou reviewed Dream of a Thousand Cats.
A Doll’s House recaps here: KatherineMW took on the first two issues, then the next two issues. KatherineMW and Jason Tank then reviewed the fifth and sixth, respectively. Mike Schilling reviewed the final two issues.
It’s very difficult to discuss this book without discussing the next one (or the one ofter that, or the one after that), if you want to discuss something with a major plot point: please rot13 it. That’s a simple encryption that will allow the folks who want to avoid spoilers to avoid them and allow the people who want to argue them to argue them.
We good? We good! Everybody who has done the reading, see you after the cut!
Calliope – Sandman #17
“Writers are liars” – Erasmus Fry
First bit of dialogue: “I have no idea”.
We open on a writer, Richard Madoc, obtaining a trichinobezoar,
the result of Rapunzel (remember that) syndrome, from a physician named Felix.
Multiple allusions to a difficult gestation (SYMBOLISM!) in the first couple pages – we are told that the bezoar was cut from a young woman’s stomach; that Madoc’s next novel is almost nine (not eight, and not ten) months overdue; and that he is in “breach” (breech) of contract.
Madoc exposits that he has not written a word of the overdue novel, as he walks to his next appointment. He is depicted wearing a jacket that looks remarkably similar to the type often favored by the author. (Based on the linked essay, it seems safe to say this sartorial choice for the character is probably entirely intentional).
Madoc meets with Erasmus Fry, a nasty and cantankerous old writer gone to seed who (amongst other historical trivia) makes reference to the original John Dee. Madoc confesses to his writers’ block, and he and Fry get down to their business; trading the bezoar for a malnourished, apparently-young captive woman.
Fry explains that contrary to her youthful appearance, she is in fact a Muse – the titular Calliope – whom he captured 60 years prior on Mount Helicon in Greece, and implies was the impetus for his many now-faded literary successes.
Madoc takes the captive woman home and locks her in the topmost room.
The long-golden-haired maiden thus ensconced in the tower, Madoc rapes her in a disturbing sequence – maybe all the more disturbing because Madoc exhibits the faintest flickers of some sort of conscience (he rapes her “nervously” – he briefly worries that he might have done “something wrong”); but these qualms quickly vanish as the act loosens his writer’s block, and he begins his second novel.
Calliope calls upon the Weird Sisters for help; they explain that they cannot assist her, as she is lawfully bound. They exposit that Morpheus and Calliope were once lovers and had a child together, but that it ended badly; and even in the unlikely event Morpheus wished to help her he could not, as at that time he is still imprisoned by Alex Burgess. Calliope at first says that she would not accept Morpheus’ help, even if offered; but after the Sisters take their leave, despairingly admits that she would.
Now we get a montage of Calliope remembering the day of her capture (and is it me, or does young Fry look sort of Joker-like?); her continued and ongoing rape by Madoc (by now, there is no hesitation or self-doubt at all in his actions, the creep); and the resulting years of Madoc’s increasing fame (he’s now a successful author, playwright, poet, screenwriter and director) and concomitant douche-picklery (“Actually, I DO tend to regard myself as a feminist writer.” ARGH).
By 1990, Madoc is at his professional peak; but somehow Morpheus has learned of Calliope’s plight and comes to visit her. She pleads, based on their shared history, for his assistance in freeing her.
Madoc arrives home from a TV interview at which he has learned of Fry’s death, to find Morpheus awaiting him. Morpheus requests that Madoc free Calliope; Madoc refuses. Morpheus is enraged (once again, we see that Dream’s own captivity has given him a newfound empathy for any prisoner, let alone one with whom he has a personal connection) and bestows to Madoc a writer’s version of Midas’ curse.
Madoc is overwhelmed with ideas, driving him mad and out into the streets (the panels showing his wrecked fingertips – yeesh). Madoc encounters Felix, the physician who provided him the bezoar years before, and begs that Felix go to Madoc’s house and free Calliope to make the ideas stop coming.
The physician finds no one in the topmost room at Madoc’s house, only a copy of Fry’s most famous book; presumably Calliope/Rapunzel has been rescued from her tower by her (former) lover. Calliope and Morpheus have a somewhat-strained yet mostly-companionable conversation that looks to be their final farewell; it’s apparent there is much painful history between them.
At Calliope’s request, Morpheus releases Madoc from the tidal wave of inspiration currently swamping his sanity; but Madoc’s brain has seemingly been scrubbed clean. He can now remember nothing, as we see Morpheus fade away, presumably along with any last bit of inspiration or imagination or memory Madoc may ever have.
Last bit of dialogue, completing the first: “No idea at all.”
What we have here is a little morality play about a writer’s greatest fear, Tales of the Crypt- or Twilight Zone-style. In a way, it’s almost like a mirror image of Stephen King’s “Misery”, though where that story focuses on what the readers will do to get what they want, this one focuses on what the writer will do to get what he wants. In both cases the answer appears to be: imprison the story-giver – and in a neat loop, we are right back around to the beginning of Sandman.
Also, for those interested: this is a little bit on how Dave McKean created those iconic Sandman covers, in the olden days before easy digital manipulation.
Dream of A Thousand Cats
It’s said that dogs are as old as Man, but cats are only as old as civilization. “Not fully domesticated” is another phrase thrown about with regards to the cat. As you may know, Maribou and I are a four cat household. We have young cats and old cats, skinny cats and fat cats, pointy cats and toothless cats. Cats, if you haven’t had the pleasure of spending much time with one, are marvels of engineering. Pint-size predators that have been infantalized… yet, in many urban settings, cats could easily be in the running for apex predator and yet, at the same time, they enjoy such things as being cuddled and brushed (assuming their bellies are full).
From time to time, though, it’s possible to see something completely that predates civilization in the eyes of your cat… though, usually, we consider such things “cute”. The example I’m currently thinking of is what our kitten does when we have a new cardboard “zip strip”, like you sometimes get at the side of a frozen pizza box. A long, thin, strip of cardboard, maybe a foot by a centimeter. When he hears the sound of the rip, he runs in and when he sees it, his pupils expand and he will stalk up to where we stand and leap and grab this little piece of paper out of our hands, claws extended, as if we were not there. Ouch, we laugh, as we let go. An hour later he’ll be jumping in our laps again and rubbing his cheeks against ours while he purrs… but, from time to time, when we have the right trinket, he forgets us.
It’s the look on his face when he sees that strip of paper that I think of as I read Dream of One Thousand Cats.
We begin with a little kitten being placed into a little pet bed as her people make their way to sleep themselves… but an outdoor cat comes up to the window and tells the kitten that it is, in fact, tonight… and explains one of the escape routes from the house available to the kitten. They go and discuss what it is that they’re going to… they’re going to listen to a speaker tell them a story. The location, of course, is a graveyard. The story, of course, is about a dream.
We hear the tale of the cat and how she went from thinking that she was quite well off, getting the better of her trade with her humans, giving them her presence in exchange for food and shelter and willingness to be brushed and cuddled. Then she met him and they did what cats do and she gave kittens and was quite pleased. Pleased… until her humans took the half-purebreed kittens and threw them into a sack and then into a lake. She then prayed. Not to Bastet, strangely enough, but to the darkness, to the night, to the Carrion Kind. Specifically, to the Carrion Kind’s emissary… and this takes her to The Dreaming.
A field of bone. A messenger of bone. Our speaker states what she wants: Justice, Wisdom, Revelation.
We are told what we all know, there is no Justice to be found. Wisdom, what there is to be found, is won and not given.
Now… Revelation? That’s something that can be found in dreams.
Our speaker is told that she can find revelation but the way is long and goes through difficult terrain. Her response is the response of Kipling’s Cat: “All Places Are Alike To Me”.
She tells us of her journey and we see places that we recognize, if she did not. We walk through Erebus, we wet our paws in Lethe, and find ourselves in front of the cave with the three winged guardians: the griffin, the dragon, the pegasus and they, as is their job, give her crap. In response, she gives one of the lines that sticks in my craw and strikes me as being centuries old when… really… I can’t find evidence of it existing prior to this issue: “I am a cat and I keep my own counsel.”
The guardians, doing their job, let our cat in to speak to The King of Dreams but, like he appeared to Martian Manhunter, he appears in the form that our speaker recognizes. (To be honest, I was reminded of the scene with The Great Owl in Secret of Nimh.) We see the line “a cat may look at a king” before we are given our Revelation… which caused me to google the phrase and I found that it dates back, at least, 450 years:
The Proverbs And Epigrams Of John Heywood, 1562
Some hear and see him whom he heareth nor seeth not
But fields have eyes and woods have ears, ye wot
And also on my maids he is ever tooting.
Can ye judge a man, (quoth I), by his looking?
What, a cat may look on a king, ye know!
My cat’s leering look, (quoth she), at first show,
Showeth me that my cat goeth a caterwauling;
And specially by his manner of drawing
To Madge, my fair maid.
In any case, we learn the (or a, anyway) Truth. Once, there was a world in which cats were the size of cows and humans the size of cats. Humans were playthings, and groomthings, and huntthings and Cats were supreme until Humans decided that they should dream a world in which things are different. A world in which things have always been different. And, then, “one night, enough of them dreamed. It did not take many of them. A thousand, perhaps. No more.”
And, this is important, the dreams they dreamed created the world. A world in which humans had always been dominant. Our speaker is told by the King that this can be done again… and then is given permission to wake.
And our speaker now goes from place to place, across seas, across cities, across prairie and savannah, speaking to cats and telling them that it only would take one thousand of them to dream it back to the way it used to have always been. Our kitten tells the speaker that she believes and then our kitten, and the outdoor cat, walk home… and we’re left with a scene where the kitten’s humans see the kitten sleeping and notice that she dreams and they wonder what cats would dream about and coo and awww over how cute the dreaming kitten is.
And I think about my four cats. Our kitten doesn’t have the attention span. A treat, a string, a cardboard zip… he’s content to remember hunting. Our Queen doesn’t have the patience. She wishes to be fed, to be cuddled, to be brushed. Our old man wishes to sit in the area where the blast from the heating vent in the ceiling blows down and to eat pinches of chicken breast from the occasional rotisserie chicken we bring home. Our tom, however? I think we should keep this issue away from him. Just in case.