Hello, Sand-fans. I talked with JB, and he was OK with me spreading these two issues over a little bit more time. I think Chapter 4 is worth its own discussion. If I went into too much detail, it’s because I couldn’t figure out what parts of the story to leave out; it all hangs together so beautifully!

Anyway, Chapter 5 will come in a few days; I here invite discussion on the crossroads of adolescence and death.

[I’ll put color commentary in italics and brackets.]

Season of Mists
Chapter = 4

In which the dead return; and Charles Rowland concludes his education.

December 1990.

Creepy, dusty attic. Dead deer, dead politican, dead pastimes. Dead memories.

A boy leans over a splayed body: “Rowland? Are you awake yet?”

The questioner is Paine; Rowland is feverish, confused. He had a dream in which worms were eating him, falling snow was birds’ bones, were crushed yet still moving. The whole world covered with dead birds trying to fly. Morpheus broods over the whole conceit.

Just a dream, says Paine. Oh, Paine is dead. Rowland forgot, briefly. Anyway, it’s Sunday, and THEY are praying downstairs in the chapel. Six days ago, it all started…

Charles Rowland, just turned (lucky) thirteen, is stuck at his boarding school with no other children around; just the headmaster and the old matron, Miss Gribble. Charles’ father, his only living parent, is a hostage of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, and so Charles isn’t visiting him for the holidays as had been planned. The headmaster is calm and quiet, a pipe smoker, and a bit annoyed at having to babysit Charles, but the matron, though creepy, is friendly enough and considerate of Charles’ situation. Her hair is in a tight, prim bun.

Charles takes a cold, damp (misty) walk outside, and we get more information filled in. St. Hilarion’s School for Boys was founded in 1802, and Charles has been here one and a half years. He has wanted to write a simple message to his father, a British architect living in Kuwait, the whole time: “Please, Daddy. Take me home.” As he thinks about his father now being unable to do anything for him, he reenters the school, watched by the ghosts(?) of the many other boys that came before him.

Later, the matron interrupts him reading the Scarlet Pimpernel to tell him “Lights out.” Charles ponders as he goes to bed that he’s never really alone at school. The school belongs to the dead people who used his desks, his bed, before him, and they never go away. “Even when you’re alone, you’re not alone.” And all the other beds are filled with ghosts.

Back to the Present:
Charles asks Paine about death. Paine died. Paine went to Hell-—a Hell of slowly walking terrified down endless corridors, because running would mean the horrible, timeless something following him would get him. [This is deliciously Lovecraftian.] Turns out Paine was there for 75 years. Charles says he’s not afraid of dying, but Paine tells him he should be.

Charles woke up expecting breakfast, but it wasn’t made for him in the empty kitchen, so he ate his last packet of crackers sitting outside on a gigantic war memorial—“IN MEMORY OF THOSE BOYS FROM ST. HILARION’S WHO LAID DOWN THEIR LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR (1914 – 1918)” followed by the first few names in a very long list.

Charles still finds himself alone come lunchtime, so he goes to find the headmaster in his office. When Charles opens the door, a woman with a face like an ancient and unshaven John Wayne is standing over the smiling headmaster at his desk. The headmaster’s mother who, as she explains, died and went to Hell in 1942, which she seems to have expected and, possibly, rather enjoyed. She is obsessed with the “unnatural” sexual proclivities of her husband and treating her grown son like a toddler, which he seems to accept. After she takes his still-smoking pipe from his mouth and tells him he is not headmaster now, she plants a tender kiss on his balding pate. [A kiss, I should say, that looks more like a delicate nibble from his brains.]

Wondering about what insanity might actually look like, Charles leaves the two and finds the matron in the sanatorium. She has let down her long hair, and holds a baby in each arm. In the left arm is Veronica, who died of SIDS a long time ago and was put in the ground. In the right arm is Veronica’s brother (?), who was a miscarriage caused by German measles when Miss Gribble was sixteen. He looks like Uncle Fester as a preemie, and when so exhorted, waves to Charles and says “Hello” with some difficulty.

This scares the bejeebus out of Charles. [and me]

He runs away and that evening finds himself back in the dormitory, hungry and scared. The groundskeeper, Alfred, is seen disappearing into the mists, chased by a woman and a child. No one comes to turn off the lights, and Charles takes a long time of being hungry and frightened before falling asleep.

Back to the present:
Paine explains that he stays in the attic because his bones are there; some people sacrificed him in a ritual to try to raise devils. [Which explains how a seemingly good kid ended up in Hell.]

Charles wakes up to three dead bullies splashing him with cold water and calling him bug-related names. [Important to consider every loss of calories, at this point.] Cheeseman, Skinner and Barrow are Old Boys…very Old Boys. Charles is rescued by a badly decomposed headmaster, who accuses them of doing “something to that boy…who disappeared.” He never trusted them, which indicates he knew them in life. Calling Charles “live boy,” the headmaster announces “assembly in ten minutes,” and Skinner whispers that they’ll wait for another time to torment Charles.

At the assembly, quite a large audience of boys is told that the dead-master’s name is Parkinson, and he was headmaster from 1901 until he died in 1916. A fun page of typical school humor crossed with Zombieland. “Mens sana in corpore mortua.”

Later, during silent study in a classroom full of boys, Charles realizes he’s the only one breathing.

The deadmaster makes all the boys go swimming in the lake. Charles loses many more precious calories.

After lights-out, Charles sneaks down to the kitchen desperate for some food. He takes one bite of a sandwich before the bullies find him. We learn that Cheeseman died in the trenches, and Barrow and Skinner died of diphtheria; since Barrow and Cheeseman were both visible on the war memorial, presumably Skinner’s name is there, too. They proudly announce that they were, in fact, Paine’s murderers, and that they therefore expected to be big stuff in Hell; they were laughed at instead. “We burned anyway. Just like you’re going to, bug.”

They beat Charles up, and torture him by burning his back against a hot oven. After piercing his nipple painfully, Charles faints, thus escaping further torture for the time being and disappointing the bullies. Paine finds him passed out and helps him up to the attic where his bones are hidden.

Back to the Present:
Charles spent Thursday unconscious, Friday delirious and under the meager care of also thirteen-year-old Paine. Saturday, Charles was conscious but weak and in pain, with signs of infection from his burns. The calorie deficit clearly is taking its toll.

And on Sunday, Charles Rowland died.

Death shows up, cheerful, dressed like Cyndi Lauper in a leotard. [Just another manic Sunday?] She’s in a hurry, but since she can’t take Paine—already dead, you see—Charles refuses to leave with her. She can’t convince him, so she says she’ll be back for him when “things are less crazy.”

After Death sprints away, Charles talks Paine into leaving the attic. “It’s part of growing up, I suppose,” says Paine. “You always have to leave something behind you.” Shot of Charles’ corpse as the zombie and his newly-ghosted friend close the attic door behind them.

As they walk through the school, they ponder the nature of Hell. Charles states his position that Hell is not a place but something people carry around with them as we see the headmaster, naked except for his shoes and kneeling before his mother, being disciplined to prevent him from becoming like his father. While we hear Cheeseman and Skinner preparing to rape Barrow because they’ve got “none of the little tarts to fag” for them, Charles points out that these dead people “are doing the same things they always did. They’re doing it to themselves. That’s Hell.”

As Deadmaster Parkinson conducts a perfectly awful philosophy lecture about the unimportance of thinking, Paine disputes Charles’ conclusions: “Maybe Hell is a place. But you don’t have to stay anywhere forever.”

Out in the wide world, and now on a first name basis, together, Edwin Paine and Charles Rowland begin trying to thumb a ride on the road.

“Now: Let’s see what Life’s got to offer us…”


Scott Starin is an aerospace engineer with a specialty in spacecraft dynamics and control. He works at NASA, but of course he does not speak for NASA or the Federal Government in any way on this site.


  1. Even though this is a little side-story, just giving us a glimpse of what is going on on Earth due to Hell’s closure, I like this one; really nice little horror story. Death is awesome as ever; she’s busy, so she’ll let this slide. I guess the boys did have a spin-off series (“Dead Boy Detectives”) – anyone ever read it?

    “Skinner” and “Barrow” are good horror villain names for obvious reasons, but is there some symbolism to “Cheeseman”?

    The overall feel of this story is like “The Wall” crossed with “The Shining” – in fact, there is a panel when Charles is sneaking food from the kitchen in which we see the knife rack suspended above him, that makes me think of a shot of Danny Torrance seated in the Overlook’s kitchen, framed in such a way that the wall-mounted knife rack appears to be over his head.

    There also seems to be some parallel with the failed occult ritual that got Paine killed, and the one that trapped Morpheus; and they were kept captive roughly the same duration; but I can’t quite figure it out.

  2. This story strummed the most frustrating chord for me.

    The whole “we’re dead ghosts that are powerful enough to torture and kill you and you are not powerful enough to do anything back” is the horror story that always freaks me out. (Remember me complaining about Fatal Frame? At least Fatal Frame gave you a camera!)

    There was much of me that hoped for Charles to see a handy holy cricket bat or something and inspire essays in afterlife newspapers on the ubiquity of sporting equipment in our schools… but no. He was tortured and then he died.

    And that story generally leaves me wanting to throw the book across the room.

    • Orggre be jbefr sbe lbh guna gur fprar va Gur Fbhaq bs Ure Jvatf jurer Qrngu gnxrf gur FVQF onol? Orpnhfr gung bar uhegf zber sbe zr.

      But if we’re talking outright creepy, Matron’s children are in the top spot.

      • That’s a quick pang, but Death wasn’t behind that. She just showed up to do her job. It weren’t personal.

        It’s the active, intelligent, targetted malice against which there is no recourse that has me make fists with my feet.

        • Yeah likewise. I wonder, if Charlie had mustered the nerve to protest to the dead headmaster “pardon me sir, I’m the living boy and I need some fuel” would the old fellow have permitted it? Then again had Charlie possessed such nerve he likely wouldn’t have been in quite that fix in the first place.

          • I would have thought so, after all meals are part of the standard school routine so you’d expect the headmaster to be in favour of the general idea.

    • The whole “we’re dead ghosts that are powerful enough to torture and kill you and you are not powerful enough to do anything back” is the horror story that always freaks me out.

      Although in this case the ghosts are no more powerful than any group of 16-17 year old boys would be relative to a 13 year old.

      The part that really horrifies me is that the violence on display here is not supernatural – it’s entirely mundane.

    • Is it because Charles is a child that this is so bothersome to you? Because story-wise, what happens to Charles is better than what happens to the ppl in the diner in “24 Hours” – they are brutally tortured & killed by supernatural forces they can’t even comprehend; and no one saves them either, nor do they save themselves.

      You know, for a story that’s so much about stories, these stories don’t have the usual narrative shapes.

      Maybe if he had eaten his meat, he could have had some pudding.

      • Doctor Destiny was fought and defeated, though. Indeed, a few months later, Doctor D was back in Arkham Asylum sitting in a wheelchair and bragging about his newfound powers… he happened to be sitting in the wheelchair at the top of some stairs and so Batman gave him a push. (Well, more of a kick, really.)

        There was stuff, in theory, that could have been done (and, indeed, we saw some of it).

        Now, yes, I do get some small comfort in the whole “they’re still doing this to themselves, Hell is something you carry with you” thing at the end of the comic (something that I don’t think I had ever noticed before this reading… seriously, these kinds of stories really bug me and I zone out as a form of self-defense) but I find myself wanting to take Neil’s hand and explain to him that, no. The bullies were caught. And punished.

        • The bullies went to Hell. It’s a special exception that these bullies got to have one last victim. It is horrible, and it’s supposed to be. Gaiman had to pour all of the horror of Hell being let loose on the world into a single story. It’s terrible and unjust, and vg cebonoyl zbgvingrf gur Perngbe’f npgvbaf yngre va guvf nep.

  3. “crossroads of adolescence and death”

    Without veering too far into politics, the story definitely hints at the ways societies often train their young men in the art of violence and send them off to kill or be killed: the WWI monument, and the tidbit that Charles’ father is in Kuwait due to a spot of bother with Saddam.

    And this whole idea makes me think of certain themes riffed on by “Cabin In The Woods”.

    Plus, I want to listen to “The Wall” again. This story also happears to have “Mother” in it.

    • I believe Charles and his father live in Kuwait as a normal thing. Dad was an architect before he was taken hostage.

      • I don’t mean that Charles’ father was necessarily a soldier; but the outbreak of Gulf War I is what causes him to be at the school. It could have been any reason, but it was that one.

        IOW, though the story itself is not about “war”, exactly, Gaiman keeps using war as a backdrop in a way that seems very intentional.

  4. One of the most terrible things about this story is that Edwin Paine went to Hell because he was sacrificed to the Devil by evil bullies. Vg znxrf zr jbaqre jurgure ur trgf sbeprq onpx gb Uryy nybat jvgu rirelbar ryfr jura Uryy vf ervafgngrq.

    • And why did Miss Gribble’s children come back to life? Were they in Hell? Was that because they were conceived out of wedlock (she has probably always been a Miss)? That would be weird. Or maybe they’re being possessed by demons…hmm, I think that’s the best answer.

      • Unbaptized infants go to Limbo, yeah? I think it’s referred to elsewhere in SoM.

        It’s pretty clear that Gaiman’s Hell isn’t just for people who deserve it. Though on some level, it’s for people who think they deserve it.

    • V nz thrffvat abg, orpnhfr 1.) ur vf va n fcva-bss frevrf, naq 2.) Puneyrf rayvtugraf uvz gung “lbh qba’g unir gb fgnl naljurer sberire”; cerfhznoyl, vs gurl gel gb znxr uvz tb onpx gb Uryy ur pna abj whfg fnl, “abcr, orra gurer, qbar gung.”

  5. This chapter always made me uncomfortable. I refuse to skip it on principle, whenever I reread the series, but I always hate it.
    I read the “Dead Boy Detectives.” It was part of a larger Vertigo crossover, “The Children’s Crusade.” Unfortunately, I do not remember much about it.

  6. First thing’s first — “[Just another manic Sunday?]” Boegiboe! I am going to drive to Maryland and take away your card! “Manic Monday” was The Bangles, not Cyndi Lauper.

    The questions raised above about why the souls of the prematurely deceased infants ended up in Hell nettled me, too. But not as much as this:

    Turns out Paine was there for 75 years. Charles says he’s not afraid of dying, but Paine tells him he should be.

    Over and over in the whole series, we’re presented with the notion that Death is a much more benign and approachable figure than Dream. Indeed, the fear with which the former is treated rather than the latter is a source of much consternation to the two of them. And indeed, Death herself seems like an absolute peach of a incarnated representation.

    Ohg abjurer va gur ragver Fnaqzna eha ner jr tvira nal ivfvba bs gur nsgreyvsr gung vf nalguvat orggre guna qernel. Jura Becurhf qrfpraqf gb Unqrf fbzrgvzr yngre, vg’f abguvat ohg crbcyr fgnaqvat nebhaq gur tvtnagvp guebarf bs Unqrf naq Crefrcubar. Naq jr fcraq nzcyr gvzr va Uryy juvpu 1) vs fbzrubj crbcyr “pubbfr” gb tb gurer, gurl qba’g ernyyl frrz gb tenfc naq 2) frrzf dhvgr hacyrnfnag. Cnvar pregnvayl frrzf gb guvax fb.

    So it’s not Death per se that people fear. But in the Sandman universe, they’re certainly right to fear what follows her.

    • The questions raised above about why the souls of the prematurely deceased infants ended up in Hell nettled me, too.

      Because they weren’t baptized, of course. (Or infant damnation, if you prefer Calvin to Rome.)

      • I didn’t think they ended up in hell because of the line that said something to the effect of “I haven’t seen these babies in so long, I thought I’d never see them again. One of them, I never did see…”

    • “right to fear what follows her”

      Possible spoilers for multiple series (Buffy, Supernatural, Lucifer, Preacher) ahoy:

      V guvax qrcvpgvat “cnenqvfr” be “Tbq” vf fbzrguvat znal qenzngvp jbexf fgehttyr jvgu (pbzrql pna unaqyr vg), juvyr “Uryy” vf snve tnzr.

      Rira urer va Fnaqzna, jr arire frr Gur Perngbe, naq jr ner gbyq rkcyvpvgyl gung gur Fvyire Pvgl vf abg “Urnira”. V guvax guvf vf va cneg orpnhfr, ubj qb lbh rire znxr fbzrguvat rire vzcerffvir rabhtu gb nccrne gb or “Tbq/Urnira”; nyfb, vg vf vzcbegnag sbe gur punenpgref gb or va gur qnex, yvxr jr ner VEY, orpnhfr jr orggre pna vqragvsl jvgu gurve fgehttyrf naq qbhogf.

      Gurer vf n terng yvar va “Ohssl Gur Inzcver Fynlre”, jura fur vf qvfphffvat jvgu nabgure punenpgre gur Ybirpensgvna pbfzbybtl bs gung havirefr: qrzbaf, inzcverf, uryy qvzrafvbaf, Byq Barf, ner nyy pbasvezrq ol ure nf orvat irel erny.

      Fur vf gura, dhvgr ybtvpnyyl, nfxrq nobhg Tbq’f rkvfgrapr; fur ehrshyyl ercyvrf gung gur “Whel’f fgvyy bhg ba gung bar.” Rira jvgu nyy ure bpphyg naq fhcreangheny xabjyrqtr, fur vf ntabfgvp ba gung gbcvp. Fur yngre qrnyf jvgu “Gur Cbjref Gung Or”, orvatf gung nzovthbhfyl znl be znl abg or zvqqyr-znantrzrag glcrf va n cbffvoyr ubyl uvrenepul; ohg gurl ner abg ernyyl gb or gehfgrq rvgure.

      N ovt cybg cbvag bs “Cernpure” vf gung Tbq vf N.J.B.Y. – rira gur natryf qba’g xabj jurer ur vf. “Yhpvsre” xvaq bs qbrf guvf gbb. Gur GI frevrf “Fhcreangheny” nyfb obeebjrq guvf gebcr.

      • V pna pregnvayl haqrefgnaq jul Tnvzna zvtug jnag gb fgrre pyrne bs qrcvpgvat n “urnira” (naq V abgr gung jr arire npghnyyl frr nal fbhyf va Svqqyre’f Terra, juvpu zrnaf vg’f na vqrn bs urnira engure guna n erny bar) sbe nyy gur ernfbaf lbh zragvba. Ohg gung trgf onpx gb zl cbvag, gung Tnvzna vf gelvat gb unir uvf pnxr naq rng vg, gbb. Qrngu urefrys znl or xvaq naq tragyr naq abg gb or srnerq, ohg fur pbaqhpgf fbhyf gb cynprf gung ner (nf sne nf jr rire frr) qvfzny ng orfg naq hafcrnxnoyl ubeevoyr ng jbefg.

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