Title: Preludes and Nocturnes
Series: The Sandman
Author: Neil Gaiman
Is this book for me? It’s a graphic novel – that’s a fancy way of saying “comics”. It’s also horror. I’m not fond of the drawing style. The writing is grand, each word falling as heavy as if it were engraved in granite, sent back in the past and reverberating at you from antiquity. This book is probably not for you. You should read it anyway.
I first read Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” back in the first year of university, when a friend shoved it towards me. I’d seen “Stardust”, but I had such a huge stick up my ass that I couldn’t believe fantasy to be worthy of anything (nor fanfiction, but that’s another story). Now, she’s a very convincing person and she made me read some scans. I hated the drawing style.
It was the story that got my attention, naturally. I knew next to nothing about comics and I had expected some sort of superhero running about saving the day, amidst corny lines like, “I will get you next time, Sandman!!!” and “That dastardly enemy, he killed me! I’ve been shot!” Not so. The series begins with “Wake up, sir, we’re here”. An old man gets out from what seems to be an early 20th-century car – we’re told it’s 1916. He walks to a rich mansion and delivers a mysterious tome to somebody looking very much like your standard villain. The comics cheese steps in for a second on the second page as the villain declares that “The Magdalene Grimoire was all that the order needed. We can hold the ceremony at the next full moon… and then… No one need ever die again.”
But Gaiman doesn’t detail what exactly that’s all about. He doesn’t step into the evil plan. One corny line of exposition and then we’re thrown into four panels that break our expectations – the third page and Gaiman is already working his magic. The Sandman is not about superheroes. It’s about stories. It’s about dreams and tales and the imagination, about the way each person is made of feelings and dreams and aspirations and desires and hopes – and all that comes together into a web that’s so large, so complex that by the end of the series I was standing in awe, crying with the inability to even figure out how one goes on to create a Sandman.
The panels are the real hints of what will happen. In Toronto, Canada, Ellie Marsten is listening to “Through the Looking Glass” and, despite knowing that it’s just a bedtime story, she’s terrified. Elsewhere, in Jamaica, Daniel Bustamonte sleeps despite the noise and the rustle and dreams a dream that sounds comforting. In France, Stefan Wasserman looks scared shitless on the battle front – he’s almost 14, but he lied about his age to enlist. In London, Unity Kinkaid dreams of a man with stars in his eyes.
The Sandman is a story of stories. In “Preludes and Nocturnes” it picks up its wings to fly – somewhat unskillfully, as Neil Gaiman hadn’t gathered the courage and the following that would propel him into greatness yet, but even the first flight is darkly beautiful. Whereas the rest of the series will draw from the entire world to build itself, “Preludes and Nocturnes” draws mostly from other comics and the comic genre – the Sandman, Morpheus, Oneiros, the Lord of Dreams who is in charge of dreams, the imagination and stories, first appears dressed in his battle regalia, which he actually doesn’t often wear – he has a helmet, a pouch and a ruby (all of which get taken from him). Summoned by Roderick Burgess, our villain, he remains entrapped in a magic circle for seventy years, biding his time until he can escape. In the mean time, people all over the world fall into deep slumber or remain unable to sleep.
His escape and the recovery of his artifacts are, to put it simply, not pretty. To put it simply, this IS a horror series, complete with graphic descriptions of heads rolling off, of drugged people, insanity and violent murders. The stories, episodic, read like general cautionary action/adventure plots, with descriptions of hell and Lucifer and what happens if you play with the forces of the universe. Your run-of-the-mill sort of plot – but the details shine through dialogues and inner monologues and little ironies.
One that appealed to me especially was the story of Bette Munroe (“24 Hours”). Quote: “On her days off, after she’s tidied the house, Bette Munroe writes stories. She writes them in longhand on yellow legal pads. […] Most of her stories, however, are about her customers. They look at her and they just see a waitress; they don’t know she’s nursing a secret. A secret that keeps her aching calf-muscles and her coffee-scalded fingers and her weariness from dragging her down… It’s her secret. She’s never shown anyone her stories.” She pictures her success, people wondering how such an accomplished writer could know so much about being a waitress – she fancies herself gathering material, just playing her life’s part, but one day she will move on. “She isn’t small-minded; a writer can’t afford to be.” She writes lesbians into married girls, young men into success – she wants everybody to be better off, to have a good life. “All Bette’s stories have happy endings. That’s because she knows where to stop. She realized the real problem with stories – if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.”
As it happens, Bette has less than 24 hours left to live before she dies gruesomely. Her killer has much longer. But the diamond of Gaiman’s style shines from within the roughness.
If horror is far from your thing, however, another option is to simply skip most of “Preludes and Nocturnes”, although you’ll be missing a lot. The last issue in the volume, “The Sound of Her Wings”, has Dream/Morpheus/The Sandman hanging out with his sister, Death, at the end of his quest for the artifacts. And it’s where Neil Gaiman starts revolutionizing the world of comics. By turning something that was horror/adventure into a huge story about stories, life and everything in between.
The Sandman is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US (click the pictures to get there):