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Terror in a Handful of Dust: Neil Gaiman and the Sandman (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 2)
If any one work could define mythorealism it would be The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s fantasy epic in comic book form (which was originally marketed as a horror comic, with the slogan “I will show you terror in a handful of dust”).
The original Morpheus was an obscure Greek god, the son or brother of Somnus, the god of sleep, and brother of Phobetor (a giver of nightmares) and Phantasos (a giver of fantastic dreams). Despite being referenced in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Spenser’s Fairie Queene, not much is known about him. Gaiman’s Morpheus is now the real Morpheus- ask anyone who has read The Sandman, which has become the defining mythos of the modern world for so many of its fans. An atheist friend of mine once told me that if he could believe in anything, it would be in Gaiman’s Morpheus, which felt somehow more real to him than any established religion.
Not that Neil Gaiman has created a religion, or anything like one, but he has certainly created a mythology, and the thing that makes his mythology so special is that it feels so real. Mythopoesis- the deliberate creation of new myths, of true stories that never happened- is what mythorealism is all about. This particular mythopoesis achieves a unique magic, because it really feels as if Gaiman isn’t making up anything in these stories. That is not an easy effect for a writer to create, or maybe it only happens when it is easy.
The story opens with the Sandman imprisoned, drawn down into our reality by an arrogant occultist and held captive in a magic circle. Here, myth incarnates in the waking world, but against its will. The sorcerer seeks to control the magic rather than to evoke it or incarnate it- to reduce it to a mere technology. The Sandman will exact a horrifying vengeance for this violation, but for the next several decades all he can do is wait, sitting in stubborn silence while his captors study him. The intended target of their spell was Dream’s sister Death, but they accidentally captured Morpheus instead. The realm of Dream, meanwhile, descends into chaos, and the waking world suffers the ill effects- in the form of bizarre sleep disorders and nightmares unleashed, getting worse and worse as the years go by.
Morpheus, or Dream or the Sandman, is one of the Endless, a family of archetypes even older than the gods, and more powerful than most of the gods. Dream’s sister Death (a perky goth!) is the first of the siblings to appear, but we also meet Delirium (who was once Delight), Despair, the androgynous schemer Desire, the grim Destiny, and eventually the prodigal Destruction. Destruction has abandoned his duties, leaving mortals to destroy things without his help. These entities (or “anthropomorphic personifications”) exist in different aspects simultaneously throughout the universe, appearing in different forms to all sentient beings.
When Morpheus eventually escapes, he first must set his affairs in order, recapturing his magical tools, which have fallen into a variety of very wrong hands. This necessitates a journey to Hell, which is ruled by the fallen angel Lucifer, one of the only beings in the universe more powerful than he is. Here he is reunited with a long-lost love, whom he condemned to Hell many centuries ago for insulting his pride. The realization that he has done wrong is the first step in a series of changes that will result in his destruction, and his reincarnation as a new version of himself.
Morpheus is a proud character. He is aloof and distant, a brooding and sometimes arrogant aristocrat. He takes himself and his duties extremely seriously, and for thousands upon thousands of years he has changed not at all, with tragic results for those few who have loved him. Now events are converging toward drastic changes, to which he must somehow adapt himself. Lucifer empties Hell and closes the gates behind him, giving the key to Morpheus. All of the gods of every mortal mythology converge on his court, begging for the key and the control of Hell. The angels of God Himself are among them, revealing that Gaiman’s mythology is henotheistic- the God of the monotheistic religions is the ruler of the universe, but any number of lesser gods and divine entities are also in the picture, scheming and plotting and engaging in wars and conspiracies.
The Sandman simultaneously evokes and accepts all mythologies, which are portrayed as being alive and powerful in the modern world. Many of the Sandman’s adventures happen within our world, including his meeting with the occult detective John Constantine (hero of another mythorealist series from DC Comics), his encounter with the mass murderer who has acquired his gem of power, and his search for his missing brother Destruction in the company of his sister Delirium.
Still, even though these interactions of the mythic and the mundane are part of what I mean by “mythorealism,” it is the simultaneous acceptance of all mythologies that really makes the series into the modern mythos. It is no longer possible to have a single worldview to the exclusion of all others; not without becoming a fanatic. We live in a world now where our perspectives must overlap, where they must coexist side by side with neither cognitive dissonance nor loss of faith.
Of course, Gaiman’s decision to place the God of the monotheists at the center of his mythology would find no acceptance among contemporary pagans, but any mythology must have a structure of some kind and he has chosen this one. What I consider important about his mythology is the acceptance of every vision at once, the simultaneous embrace of all the different kinds of magic, from the transcendent glory and horror of the monotheist’s God to the multiform and fluid poetry of the pagan mythologies.
Everything Gaiman has written to date is worth reading, but not all of it is equally brilliant. His novel American Gods, while thoroughly mythorealist, doesn’t work as well as The Sandman does. The protagonist, a man named Shadow, is hired fresh out of prison as the bodyguard of a Mr. Wednesday, who is actually an American incarnation of the Norse god Odin. His powers are slowly weakening in this prosaic land, and Mr. Wednesday needs a way to regain his strength. An epic war between the ancient gods of mythology and the new gods of modern technology is what he has in mind, with the help of his old friend Loki.
The story is captivating from start to finish, and there are elements of it that haunt the reader- such as the all-too-idyllic little town of Lakeside. The trouble is that Shadow as a hero is far too passive, never really making strong decisions until late in the game. The other characters in the book- including the gods- treat Shadow as a serious player, someone almost to be feared. Yet it is unclear why. Shadow’s passivity is frustrating and it ultimately keeps the story from being very satisfying, despite its many appealing qualities.
Neverwhere, on the other hand, which was originally a BBC TV series, is nearly as evocative and mythopoetic as The Sandman. Many large cities have legends of people that live underground in bricked-over alleyways or abandoned subway tunnels, like New York City’s “Mole People” or the huge community of thieves and prostitutes that thrived in the vaults beneath Edinburgh from 1780 until 1830.
What Gaiman has done in Neverwhere is to imagine such a community as an urban fairyland, whose inhabitants are actually invisible to the people of London Above. London Below is a place of magic, the dark magic of the Night Bridge and the Floating Market. I’ve spent a number of hours exploring the empty rooms and dark corridors of abandoned factories, old bunkers from the Second World War and other such places, and in my experience they always have that otherworldly feeling, the numinous eeriness of a magical kingdom. Abandon a building for just a few years and it seems to become a gate to fairyland.
London Below not only feels that way, it is that way, inhabited as it is by a motley assortment of out-of-time Roman legionaries, medieval monks, and even a disgraced angel, as well as by a variety of bizarre underground tribes such as the Rat Speakers, who worship and wait on the rats of the tunnels. It’s as if Gaiman has given fictional life to the things you imagine when you’re exploring such places, the forgotten corners of the urban landscape.
The assassins Croup and Vandemar are two of the scariest villains in all of fantasy fiction. Advertising themselves as “Croup and Vandemar, the Old Firm. Nuisances eliminated, obstacles obliterated, bothersome limbs removed, and tutelary dentistry,” they have wandered the earth for countless centuries, never once failing a contract or losing their prey. Mr. Croup enjoys collecting- and then eating- T’ang Dynasty porcelain, while his associate Mr. Vandemar prefers dining on live animals. Their current task is to hunt down a young woman named Door, a member of a magical family that can unlock any lock. Pursued by the Old Firm, Door stumbles across Richard Mayhew, a young businessman of London Above, who agrees to help her. Naturally this draws him into the world of London Below, and into the sights of Croup and Vandemar.
The quest to find out who set this pair after Door- slaughtering her family in the process- takes the two on an adventure through the labyrinth of old subway tunnels beneath the city, in the company of the Marquis de Carabas and a legendary bodyguard named Hunter. What makes Neverwhere so special is not the fairly straightforward plot, but the vivid sense that this is a real world, albeit one you could never find just by crawling around a tunnel or two. Gaiman shows us a magic that lives right under our feet, a magic that walks beside us, and lurks behind us, and lives all around us.
Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest
“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)