The Sandman (Vol. 8): Worlds’ End by Neil Gaiman
Brief Lives, volume 7 of Sandman, told a single story, a road-trip, about Dream. It was preceded by Fables and Reflections, volume 6, in which nine separate tales were told of varying quality. Volume 8, Worlds’ End, blends the two approaches via Gaiman’s Chaucerian narrative: There are a series of separate stories told in Worlds’ End, but they are unified by a framing device. The framing device is that travellers from different worlds and realms have all been stranded at the Inn at the Worlds’ End, and to pass the time, those at the inn take turns telling different stories. Between the stories, we return to the storytellers at the inn, as they talk about the stories and decide who will go next. This approach allows Gaiman to employ a cast of artists in order to give each story a unique look, and all the events at the inn are visually unified by having a single artist, Bryan Talbot, draw all the scenes about the storytellers, including the opening scene to the volume.
In the opening scene, before the story veers into the fantastic, a young man is share-riding a car owned by a young woman he has just met. He is driving, and she is asleep. However, though it’s in summer, it starts to snow, the first sign of things being amiss, and then a creature not from our world steps into snow-covered road, causing the car to veer off-road. Ultimately the injured travellers are stranded in a deserted plain. Prompted by a strange voice in the air, the young man carries the severely injured woman to a mysterious inn. And when they enter, the dazed man is handed a strange cup of brew as a mystical creature, trained in the healing-arts, takes care of the woman. He sleeps for many hours, and when he wakes, he finds his friend has already joined the others in their storytelling. Handed a bowl of stew, he sits down to listen to the first story . . .
The first story seems inspired by a favorite novel of Gaiman’s, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Entitled “A Tale of Two Cities, it is illustrated by Alec Stevens. Visually the story lacks borders for the panels, which gives the story an interesting openness. And the images are vague, depicting a visual city-scape as dreamlike as the story being told. This story is about a young man named Robert, who like a character out of a Kafka novel, works a meaningless job in a room filled with identical desk after identical desk. Robert, however, is unique among his colleagues in that for lunch, he wanders the streets of his city. The story is about the one day he gets on a strange train and crosses path with a man we recognize as Dream. In the end, Gaiman wants us to think about cities as having a personality: “Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all… Each city is a collection of lives and building and has its own personality.” And personalities dream. So, the questions arise: Is Robert dreaming of this new bizarre near-vacant city, or is the city having a dream he has entered, or is it a combination of the two possibilities? And, even more alarming, if the city is dreaming, what happens when it awakens? If cities sleep and dream, what happens when any one of them awakens?
After a bathroom break in the inn’s facilities, we get the next tale. The second story has fairy-tale beauty to it (drawn by John Watkiss) because it is about a fairy being sent as an envoy to the waking world of reality. The fairy is Cluracan, whom we have met before: He previously left his sister, Nuala, in the realm of Dream as a gift to the Sandman. Queen Mab, Titania, calls Cluracan to her. She sends him off to the once-beautiful city of Aurelian. In a return to the subject of good and bad rulers that we saw in Fables and Reflections, this story introduces us to a very bad ruler who has combined in one person the previous jobs of secular leader and spiritual leader. Gaiman makes clear his views on leaders who combine both types of rule under one title of governance. Cluracan’s job is to stop this corrupt man in his attempts to unite the cities of the plain under his rule and thus extending his power even further. Cluracan’s attempt does not go quite as planned, and he is required to rely on Dream and on his sister for help. Cluracan is successful in the end, which isn’t surprising; however, his method of success is.
There is then another brief intermission in the inn, during which the next storyteller introduces himself and we find that time is fluid in the Inn at the end of the worlds: The young man and woman whose car wrecked are from 1993, but the young man named Jim who tells the third story, “Hob’s Leviathan,” was born in in 1899 and thinks it’s the early 1900s, and he’s right. It’s just as much the early 20th Century as it is 1993. “Hob’s Leviathan,” of course, takes us on a journey during which we spy a true sea monster, and the double-page splash image of the creature, illustrated by Michael Zulli and Dick Giordano, is one of the best single images in the volume. But the discovery of the creature is no surprise, given the title of the story; what is a surprise, however, are the secrets we keep and the secrets we reveal. The story takes place on a sailing vessel, and young Jim meets our old friend Hob Gadling who was given immortality by Dream earlier in the series. Hob, of course, has a secret we are privy to, but the other crew members, especially Jim, have their own secrets. Hob gets Jim to consider the secrets of the deep sea, but Gaiman’s story implies that human secrets have more depth and variety than does even the ocean.
“The Golden Boy,” illustrated by Michael Allred, is about an alternative Earth and a young, idealistic young man named Prez who decides to run for President of the United at a very young age. The story is beautifully told in a bright, bold visual style that tells of an almost utopian America in an alternative universe. What Gaiman seems to be interested in more than in politics is in the idea of fame and what an idealistic person does after achieving his goals. What happens after? Will the people of a country let such a man rest? What demands will they make of him? What does Prez want for himself after such political success as an ethical leader who never had to compromise? Does Gaiman paint an optimistic or pessimistic picture of post-fame life?
“Cerements,” seemingly the last story, is about Necropolis, a place where the sacraments of burial are respected and practiced in all their varieties. The story in the inn is told by a young apprentice, Petrefax. This story about mourning and respect for the dead is echoed throughout this volume, particularly in the final major event of the sixth issue. But this story is also Gaiman at his most playful: He has our storyteller tell of other storytellers who tell stories of storytellers. The box within the box within the box seems endless, particularly at one point when we realize that Gaiman is telling us the story of a man telling us stories that are being told in an inn; one of these stories, told by Petrefax, includes his telling the story of being told a story by a woman who recalls being told of an inn where people gather to tell stories. So, in effect, within the stories being told at the Inn at the Worlds’ End we hear echoed through the stories a tale being told of the Inn at the Worlds’ End: The circle is complete.
Though the stories seem to be over, we have three more stories to consider: First, Charlene, the woman who was injured in the opening of the volume, critiques the type of stories provided, and in saying that she has no story to offer of her own as a corrective, goes on a provides a simple story of her life in concise fashion. Secondly, the man who was injured at the beginning of the story looks out the window of the inn during “the reality storm” and witnesses one of the most beautiful scenes in all of THE SANDMAN. Rarely does Gaiman allow for double-page artistic spreads, and he already included one of the leviathan in the story of Jim and Hob. But now, at the end of this story arc, Gaiman instructed the artist to draw three double-page spreads in a row featuring the Endless and other beings of seeming immortality. We won’t find out until a future volume what is going on here, but the scene is hauntingly moving. Third, and finally, we find out the framing device for the stories told at the Inn at Worlds’ End is slightly different than what we expected: It turns out there is another layer of storytelling going on.
In the end, after all the stories wrap up and the “reality storm” ends, there are some decisions to be made. Will everybody continue on with the journeys that were interrupted when they found shelter in the storm? Who will continue their journeys and who will start new ones? What about the Inn itself? How will it be changed by these events? Might some travellers, finding the Inn an oasis, long to stay behind, finding a new future within the Inn? There is much bustling about as the Inn opens its doors in the calm after the passing of the storm, and not all will continue on with their present courses.
As the third collection of short stories in the SANDMAN series, Worlds’ End is a solid offering of tales. I think its unification through the narrative device of the Inn adds quality missing in Dream Country and Fables and Reflections. However, though the quality of stories is higher perhaps than those two previous short story collections, there are no stories that stand out on the level of “Ramadan” and the stories about Cats and about Shakespeare in Dream Country. So, because of its higher overall quality than those two previous collections, I rank it very high, taking off only half a star for its lack of a stand-out story of “Ramadan”-level quality.
After Vol 7: Brief Lives, which focused on Morpheus’ dysfunctional family and a road trip in search of Destruction, Vol 8: Worlds’ End is another stand-alone story collection similar to Vol 4: Dream Country and Vol 6: Fables and Reflections. Once again the Endless retreat to the corners of the stage, making way for a cast of characters gathered at the Inn at Worlds’ End to tell tales to while away the time during a fierce storm. The initial characters we meet are two young co-workers from our world who are driving to Chicago to save money. Suddenly it begins to snow in June (!) and the man swerves to avoid a strange beast in the road, and after crashing the car makes his way to the Worlds’ Inn.
The Inn is filled with a motley assortment of guests, including mythical creatures like centaurs and some desiccated-looking types who aren’t very human in appearance. But they are all amiable travelers, and decide to trade stories to pass the time. This provides the Chaucer-like framing narrative for Gaiman’s stories, and he delivers some very memorable ones.
As has been the case before, in additions to sprinkling allusions to various fantastic stories from literature and history, his favorite game is to embed stories within stories, tell stories about story-tellers telling stories, with those stories often featuring or critiquing the art of story-telling itself. This self-referential moebius strip-approach seems designed to make us more conscious of the story-telling process, and to highlight people’s desire (compulsion?) to tell stories that point to greater, more profound truths and ideas than we encounter in our daily lives.
The first story, “A Tale of Two Cities”, is an allegorical story of a man in a nameless city, working a dreary office job, living a solitary life, commuting from the suburbs each morning, then heading home in the evening in order to do it again the next day. The only distinguishing behavior for him is that during his lunch break he explores the city alone, observing other people in the city, and this makes him happy. Gaiman captures his feeling elegantly in the following passage: “All these sights, and many others, he treasured and collected. Robert saw the city as a huge jewel, and the tiny moments of reality he found in his lunch-hours as facets, cut and glittering, of the whole.”
One day Robert takes a different train and finds he has been decoupled from his drab reality and placed in an empty, unfamiliar city. This existential moment becomes his new reality, as he is trapped in the new place and explores it as much as possible. Eventually he does encounters some other people, which reveals more about his reality, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.
The next story is a fable about the lost city of Aurelia, one of the greatest cities of the plains in ancient times. The story is told by Cluracan, the faerie man who gave his sister Nuala to Morpheus in a previous volume. He is a bit of a knave, and has been sent to the city by Queen Titania on a mission to interfere with a corrupt ruler who has seized control of both government and church. This story is a lot of fun, as Cluracan initially underestimates his opponent, but eventually with some help finds ways to undermine the Psychopomp (what a great title!), who is quite odious in his power-mad quest. As Brad pointed out, this harks back to other stories about various rulers in Fables and Reflections, especially “Thermidor,” “August,” and “Ramadan.”
Following more discussion amongst the travelers in the Worlds’ End, we begin the next story “Hob’s Leviathan.” Its a very beautifully-illustrated tale of adventure on the high seas, with many sailing ships and even a sea serpent, but again as Brad has expertly explained, the story is more about the secrets that people conceal from each other. We even have a cameo from a man granted a powerful gift by Morpheus in a previous volume. I liked this one quite a lot.
The next tale is my favorite one, a bittersweet story called “The Golden Boy.” It’s about an alternate America where an ambitious but idealistic young man named Prez Rickard is determined to make the world a better place via the presidency. Thanks to his efforts, he is elected president at the incredibly-young age of 19. Before that, he encounters two sinister figures who take an interest in his meteoric rise, Boss Smiley (whose face is a smiley face like the iconic symbol, but who reminded me more of Yellow Bastard from SIN CITY) and Tricky Dick himself, Richard Nixon. They want some influence on Prez, but the young phenom is confident of his own abilities to make a real difference and rebuffs their approaches. There is a classic exchange with Nixon in which the latter extols the virtues of pure power, at which point Prez simply says, “Sir, what about making the world a better place?”, to which Nixon replies, “I, uh…I’m not following you.”
Prez does miraculously transform America into a utopian place, negotiating a Middle East peace treaty, avoiding the Oil Shocks, and ushering in prosperity and equality for all. It’s all very moving, as I was thinking how wonderful a world that would be, and how incredibly far away we seem to be in this world, our own reality, especially in light of the endless series of tragic, senseless terrorist attacks and racial conflict in the US, Europe, the Middle East, Bangladesh, and Africa. Sometimes it takes a seemingly-simple fable to make us question why we can’t have this glorious dream of peace and equality.
The story itself has a very ambiguous and tragic final act, as Prez retires after 8 incredibly successful years. As Brad discussed in his review, Gaiman is interested in what happens to leaders when the reach the end of their tenure, especially successful ones. However, I couldn’t help thinking, when is the last time the world has truly seen a successful leader who has made the world a better place for everyone?
The last story is “Cerements,” a very complex tale with stories within stories, ostensibly about a Necropolis called Letharge and some of the dutiful servants who tend to all the ‘clients’ who need to be properly disposed by one of the five proscribed methods: earth burial, burning, mummification, water burial, or air burial (that was a new one for me). There is much discussion of death and giving proper tribute to those who have died. We even have a very unexpected appearance from one of the Endless, who provides some insight into the history of Letharge before leaving.
At the end of the embedded stories, we are brought back to the Worlds’ End, where the travelers are treated to a sublime spectacle in the sky, which illuminates the previous discussion of death and commemoration in unexpected ways and really highlights the skills which Gaiman applies to this complex story. After this cathartic event, the travelers discover that the storm is past and they are free to return to their respective worlds, but not all of them choose to do so.
Once again Gaiman brings us closer to the final stages of his meta-story, with subtle foreshadowing and hints (some very tantalizing talk of watchmakers in “The Golden Boy,” for instance), whetting our appetite to know more about the Endless. When I initially heard all the hype surrounding the SANDMAN series and how amazing it was, I was skeptical at first, but I’ve come to understand the level of craftsmanship and love of storytelling that Gaiman has brought to bear, and it is worthy of the praise. Now on to the final two volumes.