Title: Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1990 (issues from 1989-1990)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars
The Sandman collections are all, in their ways, about storytelling. In the first issue of Volume 2 is where it first becomes so patently obvious, though, as a man in the African bush tells a story to his grandson, as part of his coming-of-age ceremony: a tale of the great queen who once ruled their land, when it was a lush greenland instead of a barren desert, when their tribe, the first civilized humans of all, were wealthy and powerful; and how Dream of the Endless loved her, and how she rejected him out of fear; how he seduced her, but when the sun saw what they had done, it threw down a fireball that destroyed her city and blasted the land sterile; how she rejected him again and a third time, and how he then sentenced her to an eternity of suffering in Hell. We’ve met Nada before, when Dream journeys through hell, and says that he has still not forgiven her. The story itself is enchanting, authentically flavoured and authentically degraded from what the truth might have been, with bits of other parables and creation myths bleeding through, but perhaps most tantalizing is the hint at the end of the issue, that the women of the tribe tell another story. We don’t know what it is — it’s never told to men, after all, and the women tell it in their own private language — but the narrative implies that it may well show a very different side of the story.
This collection also includes one of my favourite stories in the series, “Men of Good Fortune”, which introduces one of my favourite characters, Hob Gadling. In 1389, Death coerces Dream into walking the world for a spell, and they wind up in a tavern on the southside of the Thames, listening to the local folk complain about taxes, the welfare system, the imminent end of the world, etc. They overhear Hob claiming that death is “a mug’s game” and that he’ll have no part of it; and so the Endless agree to grant his wish. Hob Gadling will never age nor die, and Dream will meet him, once every hundred years, in the same tavern, to see how he’s getting on. And so they do, through the years. The artwork in this issue is particularly lovely. Penciller Michael Zulli crafts each scene to show the passage of time without the need for any box telling you “1489… 1589… 1689”. It’s all there visually, in the clothes, in the setup of the tavern, in what the customers drink out of. You see the tavern fall into disrepute and then back up again, as London first grows into it and then changes around it. I also love this issue for a sidetrack in the 1589 meeting, when Dream overhears Kit Marlowe talking with the young and thus-far-unsuccessful Will Shaxberd. What William says about his dearest desire is something that, I think, must echo in the heart of any writer:
I would give anything, to have your gifts.
Or more than anything, to give men dreams
that would live on long after I am dead.
I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.
(It’s worth noting that Shakespeare speaks in iambic pentameter, and Dream does when speaking to him, though I don’t know if that’s as apparent to ears that aren’t as particularly tuned to that rhythm as mine are, thanks to my job). That moment always reminds me of Schmendrick the Magician in The Last Unicorn, saying that he would write his talent a letter, if he knew where it lived. Well, Dream decides to cut a deal with the man who will be William Shakespeare — to open a gate within him and let the stories through. We’ll be seeing him again, and Hob, and some of the others that the undying man’s path crosses through the years.
These stories are not the bulk of the collection, though. The main thread focuses on Rose Walker, who has become something called a dream vortex — precisely what this is or how it happens is never quite clear, but what it seems to mean is that she can make dreams collide with each other, which could, if left unchecked, permanently damage the subconscious minds of an entire version of reality. Her mere existence sets of a chain of coincidences which really aren’t, leading her to find her unknown grandmother (Unity Kinkaid, who we met in Volume 1, who was raped and gave birth to a daughter, Rose’s mom, while she was comatose from the sleeping sickness) and her long-lost brother, and accidentally leading Morpheus to recover four dreams that wandered off from his realm. Rose also wanders into a convention for serial killers, which Gaiman describes as “utterly banal evil” in the Companion, and it seems especially so right after reading the true horror story of Preludes and Nocturnes.
Overall, though I like Rose, I find her main thread a lot less compelling than the side bits. Parts of it become hugely important later on, but the setup is pretty bumpy. Rose will figure in later, as will other tenants of the house where she stays while searching for her brother. Several of the new dreams we meet will have a farther purpose to play. We meet Matthew, a raven (because the Dreaming must always have a raven), who’s new to this strange form of immortality and still adjusting to his responsibilities. It’s the story of Lyta Hall — who managed to gestate a child in the Dreaming for over two years, — that feels the most weird and forced — two of the rogue dreams kidnapped her (dead) husband and put him in a little bubble dreamworld so they could use him; he’s the Bronze Age Sandman, and it still feels too much like Gaiman’s trying to shoehorn in what was supposedly his base canon. This volume clearly demonstrates that the story does better when he shrugs that off.