After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun… –Wallace Stevens
Tonight, Ken puts this particular arc of our story to bed by recapping #55 “Cerements” and #56 “World’s End”.
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.
World’s End issues #51 (A Tale of Two Cities) and #52 (Cluracan’s Tale) reviewed here by Jason Tank and James K. Issues #53 (Hob’s Leviathan) and #54 (The Golden Boy) reviewed here by KatherineMW and Reformed Republican.
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!
Brant finds the stairs, or vice-versa, and returns to the main room. Charlene tells him he missed some stories; when he asks her if she told one, she stammers uncomfortably before saying she hasn’t. He comments on how bad the storm is, saying it reminds him of the old stories of angry gods.
Klaproth of the Necropolis Litharge, whom Brant met in the gents at the start of the second story, turns out to be a Master – we’re about to find out of what – and the rest of his party are his three apprentices. One of them, Petrefax, seeks and receives Klaproth’s permission to tell his story.
Except it’s not his story, or not entirely so. As Stephen King says in his introduction, we have stories within stories, with characters in one story stopping to tell a story, in which often as not one of the characters will break in to tell another story. Most of these are the ghoulish stories you would expect from Petrefax and his companions, and a few turn out to be part of the Sandman’s story.
The lettering and panels are pure genius, guiding the reader effortlessly through the nesting and layering of stories. Probably something similar could be done with HTML, but instead I’ll go the other way, flattening out the structure and undoing the nesting, even though it feels a bit like vandalism.
Petrefax’s story is one we’ve seen several times in Sandman. “I don’t have a story,” the storyteller says, “just my humdrum life,” and then what we hear is anything but boring. Petrefax thinks back to his studies in the Necropolis Litharge under Master Klaproth’s tutelage, and the day when – caught daydreaming – Klaproth quizzed him on the five approved methods of bodily disposal (fire, water, earth, air, and mummification, if you’re taking notes). Klaproth gives him a further assignment, to report to the class tomorrow on an air burial taking place that evening. Petrefax rushes to the mountain where the burial is to take place, wishing on the way that Necropolitans could pray on their own behalf. Arriving late, he finds Master Hermas and the ‘prentices Mig and Scroyle. He assists with dismembering the client and spreading his parts for the carrion birds to consume.
For the specialty of the Necropolis Litharge is the disposal of bodies, and they scrupulously observe all the funeral customs of their clients’ many cities and cultures. This client’s people do air burial, and afterward share a meal and stories. ‘Prentice Mig goes first; then Scroyle; and next Hermas. Finally they ask Petrefax for a story, but he says that he has done nothing worth telling, although he dreams of visiting other places and worlds beyond Litharge. So the three of them returned to the city. And that ends Petrefax’s story, except for a little epilogue which is also the epilogue to the whole issue, so will be dealt with in its own time.
Mig’s story is about a town where executions are by hanging. No one wants to be the hangman in a small town, so when volunteers are lacking, they recruit the next man scheduled to drop, postponing his execution as long as he’s the hangman. Billy Scutt was one such, and took the offer. Billy served many years, growing old with his wife and raising his family, until one day he could not rise from his bed. He knew it was time for his rendezvous with the rope, but Billy wished to die in his own bed. When the sheriff’s men arrived, they were surprised to see the stories of Billy’s ill-health were wrong, for there he stood, straight and tall in the center of the room. So they left, and that was when Billy’s family untied the rope that held him up and put him in his own bed, where he died that night. And Billy, Mig finishes, was Mig’s own grandfather.
Scroyle’s story is another where the teller remembers his life. He recalls his own arrival in Litharge, his ‘prenticeship having bought his father a grave in the city. Scroyle describes what growing up in Litharge is like. He remembers one day when a rare traveler passed through – many people come to Litharge, but few leave afterward. We recognize this traveler, a tall smiling redhead with a bindle, though Scroyle does not. The traveler respects the role of Litharge, and the importance of saying goodbye. He comments that the city has not changed much since he was last there, and when Scroyle says the city does not change, he corrects him – everything changes – and shares the story of the previous Necropolis (Hermas confirms some of that story, and says Litharge’s records go back over eighty thousand years). Then the traveler takes his leave, and Scroyle’s story ends.
The traveler’s story is about the previous Necropolis, and how it went bad. They regarded what they did as a job, not a task, which is a fine and noble distinction, and did their jobs with neither care nor love. Then one day six strangers arrived (editorially, I find it wonderful that we can recognize the six from behind) and announced that their sister was dead. They requested the cerements and books of ritual in the city’s keeping, and the Necropolitans mocked them. It was then that the oldest of the six announced a fact: This place is not a Necropolis. At that moment the city came to an end, and no remnant remains, not even its name. It was then that Litharge was given its charter as a Necropolis.
Hermas’ story is again his own, as he recalls his own ‘prenticeship alongside Klaproth under Mistress Veltis, who was very wise and very skilled, even though her right hand was withered. One night there was a bad storm, and Hermas and Klaproth were terrified. Mistress Veltris came to them, and told them stories to take their minds off the storm. In these, she revealed how her hand had been withered in the catacombs under Litharge. Later, as she neared the end of her life, she had Hermas and Klaproth take her to the catacombs, and wait for her outside. After a day and a night she ran screaming from the catacombs and died. They laid her out and the entire Necropolis paid their respects, and if anyone noticed that her hand was no longer withered they said nothing.
Mistress Veltis’ stories, the ones she shared with two terrified ‘prentices, are mostly old favorites served up a la Necropolis. We hear (briefly) of The Brave Little Mortician, and the Corpse Bride, and the travelers who took refuge from a storm in a tavern and passed the time with stories. Then Mistress Veltis told her own story; how when she was a young girl and ‘prentice, she broke a flask and, fearing punishment, hid in the catacombs under the city. There she found a chamber with six silver cerements and a locked book, and a voice asked WHICH OF THEM IS DEAD? Frightened, she explained herself, and the voice told her to leave it alone, and to return to her room where she would find all had been set right. But she doubted what it said, and it withered her hand. For the rest of her life, she told the two young ‘prentices, she searched the catacombs but could never find the room again.
In the epilogue, all the tales having been unwound, we are back in the tavern. Petrefax says that he later learned more of the book and the cerements, and upon becoming a journeyman he was told –
Klaproth interrupts and leads Petrefax through a little catechism, the gist of which is to hold your tongue and not reveal the Necropolis’ secrets. Jim and Brant object. Brant says they won’t tell anyone anyway, since he’s figured out what is happening: they’re all dead. Klaproth smiles (well, let’s call it that) and says he would certainly know if Brant were dead.
The Landlady then says she has a better explanation, and… curtain; at least, for the people reading this when it was first published. We get to move right along.
The Landlady doesn’t follow through, instead saying that the Cluracan is drunk. Brant and Jim and Charlene want to hear the explanation, and the Landlady says they are at the Inn at the End of All Worlds, and will leave when the reality storm ends, as will all the others here. We see the Inn now holds thousands, perhaps more. A reality storm, she says, is a kind of echo, when big things happen and the real worlds end. What remains are places like the Inn, not part of other realms. And she takes her leave to break up a fight between, um, I’m not sure. Devo and the Crab People?
Why the stories, Charlene wants to know. Specifically, why this kind of stories? They’re all the sort boys tell around campfires. Life’s not like that. There aren’t even any women in the stories, not really. So Chiron challenges her for a story.
Charlene, like nearly everyone else this evening, falls back on that one story we all have. And it’s real and it’s sad and by the end it’s clear she doesn’t really like her life but doesn’t see any choices, and she rushes off. After which Brant is an ass.
The storm is very bad and very close, but Chiron says the Inn will be safe – it is continually created, as worlds end all the time. His own theory is that the storms are caused when two conflicting realities collide, but this is difficult to test because they are so rare. This is only the second he has seen in his very long life.
Then Steven Brust yells that something’s happening, and calls everyone over to the window. And even though the windows look small, I’m sure everyone in the Inn can see out, because it’s that kind of place and that kind of event. And they see, they see…
It really can’t be condensed or summarized. Read it again.
But just to have something here, it is the cause of the storm, something more real than reality, a change big enough to end worlds. Or, as Brant truthfully mis-speaks, to end words. And Death follows the procession.
The storm is over, and departures can be made. Each person steps out the door, back to their own world, be that Earth or Faerie or whatever plane holds the Necropolis – although Petrefax leaves with Chiron, to see other worlds, and Charlene decides to stay at the Inn. The Landlady (whose shadow is… unusual) says anyone can stay at the Inn if they work, although it can only ever be an extended pause on their journey. Charlene kisses Brant good-bye, and he steps out the door.
And we pop out one last level of storytelling, as Brant tells a bartender how it all ended. He woke up in Charlene’s car in a parking lot, miles from the crash, and the car wasn’t even damaged. Except it wasn’t Charlene’s car, because there never was a Charlene Mooney. He’s the only one who remembers her.
Maybe you imagined all of it, including Charlene, the bartender suggests. Brant sometimes thinks that. But then he remembers the procession. That was real. And he remembers Charlene.