Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming,
In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove,
That, if requiring fail, he will compel. -Henry V
We’re kicking off Book 8, World’s End, with a storm a’brewin. Jason Tank will be handling issue #51 “A Tale of Two Cities” and James K will be handling #52 “Cluracan’s Tale”.
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.
Dream Country recaps here: Glyph reviewed Calliope then Jaybird and Maribou reviewed Dream of a Thousand Cats in the first review post for Dream Country. Alan Scott reviewed A Midsummer Night’s Dream then Mike Schilling reviewed Façade in the second.
Season of Mists recaps here: Jaybird reviewed the first two in this post. Jason Tank reviewed the next two here. Boegiboe reviewed the next two after that here and here. Ken reviewed the final two here.
Fables and Reflections recaps here: Ken and Jaybird reviewed the preview plus the first two issues here. Mike Schilling and Jaybird did the next two issues here. KatherineMW did the next issue here. Glyph, Ken, and Russell did the Sandman Special issues here.
Brief Lives recaps here: Jason Tank recapped Chapter 1 and Mike Schilling recapped Chapter 2 here. Reformed Republican recapped Chapter 3 and Jaybird recapped Chapter 4 here. Mike Schilling recapped Chapter 5 and Glyph recapped Chapter 6 here. Mike Schilling recapped Chapter 7 and Glyph recapped Chapter 8 here.
It’s very difficult to discuss this book without discussing the next one (or the one after 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!
A Tale of Two Cities
The issue breaks in this volume are hard to find, at least in my copy. You have to look for the internal page numbers where they appear and notice when they restart. However, they usually end at the same time as the stories being told end. The only problem might be trying to find when one story ends. All these stories are strung together within other stories, framed by the larger story of the “reality storm”, itself framed by the larger story of The Sandman.
Our hook into this mess is a couple driving through a snowstorm in June. (What luck that we’re reading this in June! Go drive tonight and try to imagine a snowstorm. Southern hemispherians must wait until December, though.) The snowstorm is described as tumbling through a field of stars, which is both beautiful and disorienting. Then something like a furry antelope jumps in front of the car, and the driver crashes the car. All of this is illustrated, but it’s also narrated to us by the driver: a story. (The way he describes the crash, explaining it through his emotionless state, reminds me a lot of Stephen King. It can’t be a coincidence that King provides the foreword to this volume.)
Brant, the driver, drags Charlene from the car and goes hunting through the snow for help. At one point, he’s prodded (figuratively and literally) by a talking hedgehog, and told to find the Inn. But if he doesn’t really believe it’s there, it’ll just be fireflies and trees. For a moment, that’s all Brant sees, but he pulls it together and finds it: World’s End: A free house.
Inside, the Inn looks like a standard D&D tavern with a large number of fantastic creatures. Charlene is helped by the centaur Chiron, who in mythology is dead and in the sky as the constellation Centaurus. Brant is given a drink by a woman who should look somewhat familiar, and calmed by an elf who looks even more familiar. Brant passes out and comes to some time later. Charlene is lively and well, and he joins her at a table. And a man begins to tell a story.
At this point, I have to point out that Gaiman owes a great debt to Chaucer. A bunch of people on their way from one place to another telling tales? That’s so obvious, Gaiman doesn’t even mention it. Instead, he tosses out a throwaway to Charles Dickens and lets fly with “A Tale of Two Cities”.
The story that follows has a brand new style, one that I like very much. The Inn scenes are by one set of artists, while each story gets its own separate artist. Each artist was paired for each story by Gaiman, allowing him to match styles for greater effect. This first story owes a lot to H.P. Lovecraft. You can tell, Gaiman has said, because he uses the word “cyclopean” in it. Ask Stephen King and he’ll tell you that Lovecraft, with his moist tentacles and unknowable angles, is all about being afraid of vagina. In Gaiman’s hands… well… why don’t we see?
The story is told in narrow boxes separated by narration on a field of white. Our protagonist looks an awful lot like Clark Kent, the classic image of Mr. Joe Average. He lives in a world that resembles a Soviet propaganda poster, but he finds wonder and beauty in it, and he wanders it often. Then, one day, he sees a silver road that vanishes before he can get to it. It haunts his mind, and when he next falls asleep, he ends up somewhere else, on a train with Morpheus. Frightened, he flees… into a city quite unlike the one he lived in.
He spends an unknown amount of time searching this city for a way out. He sees people now and again, but only really has contact with two. The first is an old man. He hints strongly at the greater horror we’re supposed to feel (another Lovecraft trope) before he suddenly disappears. The second is a woman who might be Death. It’s stated that if he takes her hand, he’s lost, (this is Lovecraft, so we need a vagina to almost get lost in) but she doesn’t know what his name is, and that’s something Death would know. There are no answers. But Robert avoids her and finds his way out.
The story ends with the storyteller visiting Robert in a tiny village, hearing the story he has now told us. In another Lovecraftian moment, Robert flat-out tells us what the horror was, just in case we hadn’t figured it out already. The storyteller is unnerved. And now he’s unnerved the rest of us.
And so with Mr. Gaheris’s tale done, Bryant takes the opportunity to use the facilities. What he finds is a subtle indication to what The World’s End really is. At first blush, it looks primitive: candles instead of light bulbs, unfinished wood walls, very medieval looking – apart from the modern (if grotty) urinals and fully-functioning plumbing (and “Spartan Quality Goatskins” dispenser). The World’s End is not some tavern from the Middle Ages, it’s something else entirely, something that doesn’t play by conventional rules. To underscore this point for Bryant, who is less clued-in than we are, he passes a gorilla in uniform in the corridor and holds a conversation with what looks like a Victorian undertaker who’s just been exhumed (his name is Klaproth, just Klaproth, and he’s from the Necropolis which sounds fitting if he’s a typical resident).
But enough about the intermission, it’s Cluracan’s turn to tell a tale. He feigns reluctance, saying he has no talent for fiction and embellishment so his tale is “Dry and unexciting”, but he insists on telling it anyway.
The tale begins by describing the city of Aurelia, the greatest city on the plains. Cluracan visited it some 1200 years ago, and found it quite grand, especially the tomb of Carys Carnifex, now palace for the temporal rules of Aurelia. And indeed Aurelia is to be the setting for this tale, as Queen Mab of Faere has a task for her feckless subject (a feckless subject of a feckless dominion, as Cluracan points out). It seems that the various rules of the plains are meeting to discuss an alliance of some sort, and they have asked Faere to send an envoy. Cluracan is to be her ambassador, and is also instructed to undermine the alliance. Cluracan has been meaning to go visit his sister, Nuala but since Mab is so insistent he’ll just have to do that later.
After passing a bog full of dead women (don’t follow the lightssss!) he emerges from a nearby portal and arrives in Aurelia. Unfortunately, in the millennium since his last visit the city seems to have become, a bit crap. Cluracan is met by a preist of some kind and is led to the palace of the Psychopomp – the tomb of Caris Canifex. Since Cluracan’s last visit it seems there’s been a shake-up in the power structure.
The nature of this change in power becomes clear as Cluracan is introduced to the Psychopomp … and the Carnifex, for they are the same man. Innocent XI / Carys XXXV (who I will hereafter call by his birth name, Marion to avoid getting caught up in titles), accepts Cluracan’s credentials and has him escorted to his room. A guard is posted outside his door “for his safety” but this a fae we’re dealing with, so Cluracan walks right past the guard without been seen and delivers his report to Mab, by messenger bat (George RR Martin – you have some competition in the “strange messenger animal” stakes). On his way back, he notices someone trying to bribe their way in to his room, so he goes into his room, and opens the door to invite him in. It’s Marion’s uncle, who introduces himself and laments the state his city has gotten into since his nephew finagled himself into the role of Carnifex. And lament he should; let’s review how things are going in Aurelia:
1.The city is a shadow of its former self, with the palace / tomb being the only major building that seems in good repair
2.Poverty is rife, and even the guard seems under-strength (no guards were at the gates when Clurican arrived)
3.The Pschopomp / Carnifex appears to spend his day eating while developing new taxes to impose on the citizenry on pain of eternal damnation
4.And worst of all, Marion wants to spread his influence across the plains using his power as psychopomp.
The next morning we get a lesson on the fae: They’re more than wizards with pointy ears, they are creatures of magic itself. And sometimes instead of using magic, the magic uses them. This leads Cluracan to interrupt the day’s discussion with a Foretelling he cannot help but utter:
Both Psychopomp and Carnifex,
you’ve gained great heights through death and lies:
But now the dead begin to rise,
and debts forgotten time collects.
The dogs will chew your carcass yet;
amidst your bones the rats will romp,
and even history shall forget
you, Carnifex and Psychopomp.
Marion takes this poetic interruption about as well as you’d expect, ordering Cluracan imprisoned (with cold iron, they’ve learned some things in the past 1200 years) and he threatens to enucleate Cluracan with his bare hands (a threat the guard adds credibility to). Bound and helpless, Cluracan lies dejected in his cell, until he is visited unexpected by his sister, Nuala. He can’t understand how she got in, but as she explains, she didn’t come to him instead he went to her in the Dreaming by falling asleep. Nuala (who looks very different to how we normally see her) is greatly distressed at her brother’s plight, and offers to help. Cluracan see nothing she can do, and so Nuala departs. But it turns out there is something she could do, implore Dream himself to assist. Dream explains to Cluracan that he doesn’t care about him, or his Queen (which he names Titiania, not Mab), but he does care about Nuala, and she’s unhappy that Cluracan is imprisoned, so here he is. Naturally, cold iron is no match for one of the Endless and Cluracan is soon free.
Dream asks if Cluracan plans to flee, but he can’t. He has to do something about this alliance before he goes (perhaps our storyteller is not quite so feckless as he appears). And so he gets to work. Throughout the city, a series of strange revelations occur. Not strange because they’re out of character for Marion, but strange because I doubt Marion would leave alive anyone who knew what these people (or Cluracan pretending to these people) are claiming.
This quickly leads to a city-wide riot. Marion is furious, but unconcerned, he just takes his flunky down into the tomb, and prepares to wait it out. And once the riot ends, he’s going to use his power as a Carnifex to decimate the peasantry, and his power as Psychopomp to damn those who are executed. This explains why Marion has been able to build his power so precipitously – the combination of power over the spiritual and the temporal makes his position difficult to overturn (no politics, also no religion).
But despite his seemingly-unassailable power, this is where it ends for Marion. His flunky reveals himself to be Cluracan in disguise, but before he can do more than taunt Marion, the previous Carnifex’s corpse rises up and reaches for Marion. This is no faere deception either, Cluracan is as surprised as Marion. Marion is defenestrated by his predecessor in short order, and so ends the reigns of Innocent XI and Carys XXXV. With the prospect of an alliance now broken beyond repair, Cluracan heads home, only to be caught in the storm, taking shelter in The World’s End.
So why is this story in this compilation? While the story itself doesn’t seem to have much to do with Sandman, it has some important thematic ties:
1.Things are, to a significant extent, what people perceive them to be. The riots that start Marion’s fall aren’t caused by armies or intrigue, but by a fey using his glamour to undermine Marion’s legitimacy in the eyes of his people. As Varys from Game of Thrones would put it: “Power is an illusion, a shadow on the wall.” If you block the light that creates a shadow, it disappears. We have seen this theme invoked in previous stories, particularly A Dream of a Thousand Cats, though also in Thermidor to some extent.
2.That power and constraint go hand in hand. There are duties to go with power, we’ve seen this most clearly in the Endless themselves. Death doesn’t decide who lives and dies, she’s just there to sort it all out afterward. This explains what the deal is with the previous Carnifex coming back to life for no particular reason – the traditional function of a psychopomp is to escort souls to the afterlife (Death is an example of a psychopomp, for example). If the souls of the dead in Aurelia aren’t resting easily, then who’s fault is that exactly? Seen in this light, Marion’s death is not some deus ex machina, but rather a direct result of his own negligence of the duties that came with the power of a Psychopomp. The theme is further reinforced by the decay of the city due to the negligence of its Carnifex (a title that literally means “butcher”, but is meant I think to show the position’s responsibility for the bodily (fleshy, if you will) needs of Aurelia. Ignoring your duties can hurt you, and others.
This second theme, that neglecting your duties can come back to haunt you, is something of a counterpoint to the final scenes of Brief Lives. Destruction’s walking away from his portfolio, and Dream killing of his son (Dream can only kill in very specific situations remember), were portrayed sympathetically at the time, but this story shows the other side of bucking the system for personal reasons.