Reading “Sleep of the Just”

If you’re a fan of comic books and/or fantasy fiction, odds are pretty good that you’ve heard of Neil Gaiman.  He’s kind of a big deal, even when he’s doing things that are boneheaded (like the recent debacle over the title of his latest short story collection Trigger Warning; that’s a subject for a different post, especially since the concept of trigger warnings and safe spaces has been on my mind recently due to some drama in one of the small communities in which I participate), and for good reason; Gaiman’s writing is good.

Probably his most famous work is the 75 issue comic book series The Sandman, which he wrote in the late ’80s through the early ’90s for DC Comics’s mature reader imprint Vertigo.  It follows Dream, third sibling in the Endless, a family of anthropomorphized universal forces.  Dream, who’s more often referred to as Morpheus (he collects names as a sort of hobby), reigns over the dream world and occasionally interacts with the physical world (initially much to the detriment of people who encounter him).  While Sandman is definitely Morpheus’s story on the macro level, Gaiman isn’t afraid to shift focus to other characters and treat Morpheus as more of a side character who influences events from a distance. Anyhow, I’ve read the entire Sandman series a couple times, and I recently got the itch to read it again.  I don’t yet know if I’ll make this a regular feature, but I think, given the rich texture that the series contains, it would be fun to analyze the individual story arcs as I progress through them again.

And strips him naked. It’s understandable why Dream might be angry when he finally escapes. Not pictured: the fried chicken that he steals from a guard’s dream as soon as he gets out. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The first story that we get is called “Sleep of the Just,” and this single issue goes a long way towards setting up tons of development for Morpheus down the road.  For now, it’s simply a large, forty page horror story that explores the consequences of an occult society from the 1910’s (meant as a parallel to Aleister Crowley’s own real world occult society, which gets mentioned in passing as a rival of sorts) performing a summoning ritual that’s meant to capture Death, but which only succeeds in trapping the yet-unnamed Dream.

What we see once Dream is trapped is that various people around the world suddenly become afflicted with a variety of sleep-related afflictions, with some people suddenly becoming incapable of staying awake for extended periods of time and others losing the ability to sleep at all.  Several of these stories, which appear as background to the more immediate story of the intrigues, victories, and hardships of the occultist who traps Dream and his son, who carries on the imprisonment after his father’s death, will feed into larger storylines later (one victim, Unity Kincaid, figures in significantly in the story arc that occupies Sandman‘s second trade paperback).  For the occultist Roderick Burgess and his son Alexander, this is a story about sunk costs and lost opportunities.  The elder Burgess succeeds in catching one of the Endless, and he hopes to turn this event into an opportunity for expanding his own power, but Dream, being eternal, is patient and refuses to even speak to his captor.  Decades pass, and gradually Burgess’s power wanes as his second-in-command absconds with the artifacts that he had stolen from Dream.  His occult society falls out of fashion, and eventually Burgess dies, raging against the silent man that he’s kept captive in his basement.

From Roderick Burgess’s death, we then follow his son Alexander, who was present for the original summoning, and now carries on as head of the society.  Alexander’s an interesting character in this first story, because his primary failing seems to simply be an inability to move beyond his father’s dreams.  Having Dream trapped in the basement, Alexander knows that there’s really something to the occult, but he allows the society to fade into more of a psychedelic commune where its members prefer to explore drug use and sex rather than any significant magic (this assessment comes off as somewhat ironic in light of future stories where sexuality figures heavily in various types of magical power other characters wield).  Alexander continues to be fascinated by Dream, whom he continues to imprison because he fears retaliation, but he doesn’t really seem that invested in trying to get anything from his prisoner.  He’s just carrying on his father’s legacy in a sort of begrudging manner (we see in a few scenes that Alexander bears a great deal of resentment towards his father).

It’s in the last ten pages of the story where things become surreal, as Dream finally seizes his opportunity to escape when Alexander accidentally disrupts the magical seal that’s holding him in place, allowing him the chance to steal some dreamstuff from one of his guards and escape his physical prison.  Dream’s personality is on full display here, as he wreaks havoc on the dreaming of his captors, culminating with his confrontation with Alexander.  As punishment, Dream traps Alexander in a nightmare where he continuously wakes only to realize he’s still dreaming.  It’s a horrific end, and it serves to show that our protagonist’s judgments are frequently harsh and absent any kind of mercy.  Dream is undoubtedly a victim in this story, having spent over seventy years trapped in a glass bubble (which he notes doesn’t pass any faster just because he’s an eternal being), but we’re left wondering at the severe asymmetry of outcomes for the two Burgesses.  Roderick Burgess is allowed to lead a full, if in his own eyes ultimately disappointing, life before dying suddenly and without ceremony, while Alexander Burgess, whose actions, while not right, are clearly motivated from a place of fear that he will be unjustly punished for his father’s actions, gets a subjective eternity of torture.  It’s a complicated ending, because Dream’s inscrutability leaves the reader wondering whether Alexander’s punishment was unavoidable and he was right to continue to imprison Dream.

Of course, the vast majority of Dream’s story centers around how he relates to humanity and in what ways he changes following his extended imprisonment.  I’m looking forward to revisiting it all.

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