[Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual assault]
The last time Gaiman really got deep into horror territory with a story in The Sandman, he wrote “24 Hours.” “Collectors” feels like a similar sort of vibe, but here there’s an undercurrent of humor that was missing before. The panels depicting the inner thoughts of various serial killers who have gathered for the convention in this issue are all tinged with a kind of bleak, shuddering pallor that makes you wonder why a writer would go to such dark places for the sake of characterizing someone who won’t appear for more than a page in this one story. Then you realize that it’s not about fleshing out these individual characters so much as aiming for a certain mood where hidden just behind the darkly comic absurdity of a bunch of serial killers getting together for a convention is a sense of real unease and danger for our heroes of this issue, Rose and Gilbert. They’re not just stuck hanging out at a hotel while they wait on the police investigation surrounding the explosion at Jed’s house that Dream caused a couple issues ago; they’re also surrounded by deeply disturbed, deeply disturbing killers.
But the brilliance of the story is that Gaiman never spends too long dwelling on the horror of the characters in the scenario; at most you get a full page delving into the psyche of any one killer (and that one page belongs to one of the most pathetic of the bunch, a guy who seems to be aware that his behavior is harmful and wants to stop, but doesn’t know how to seek out help), but then Gaiman snaps back to the scene and overlays something horrific with a joke about the near universal frustrations and experiences of attending a convention.
And it works. While much of the other stuff in Doll’s House has been pretty good leading up to this point, and has explored different areas of Gaiman’s vast storytelling interests (to wit, in the last three issues he’s done an homage to Sandman‘s superhero roots while also completely deconstructing that premise; made passing references to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Marlowe as a historical and literary backdrop to the experiences of some guy who shows up maybe three or four more times in the entire series run; and has now presented serial killers as a metaphor for the way we sanitize the worst stories we tell ourselves), this issue really nails the horror that Sandman was originally supposed to be about without being as heavy-handed as what we saw in the earliest stories.
Moving past the gushing praise though, there’s some interesting stuff going on here with the nature of retelling different versions of the same stories over and over again. The strongest example I can see in this issue is the early scene where Gilbert tells Rose an early version of the Red Riding Hood story that involves the wolf getting the girl to unwittingly cannibalize her grandmother before instructing her to burn her clothes and climb into bed naked with it so it can eat her. Gilbert points out there are earlier, less savory versions than this one (I’m presuming there’s probably a version involving explicit sexual assault, though the wolf’s instructions that the girl climb into bed naked is pretty suggestive already), but the popular one that gets retold the most is the sanitized version with the happy ending. Later in the issue, this whole business with Red Riding Hood gets a call back in the form of Rose being attacked by one of the serial killers who apparently likes to rape and kill children at one of the Disney theme parks (Disney’s never mentioned by name, but with allusions to the Small World ride and the character’s description of his “special place,” it’s pretty obvious).
It should be noted that this is the second time in the course of Doll’s House that Rose has been threatened with sexual assault (I barely mentioned the first occurrence because the scene was extremely brief and didn’t do anything besides introduce Gilbert), and it’s more than a little problematic that our female protagonist’s brushes with physical danger always seem to involve a threat of sexual violation; I know this was written in ’89, but you still have to call these things out when you notice them.
At least this time Gaiman is doing something interesting with deliberate calls back to the Red Riding Hood story (the attacker is wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a grinning cartoon wolf, he gains entry to Rose’s hotel room by pretending to have a message from her grandmother, etc.). We’re probably supposed to take away that this whole incident, leading right up to Dream’s summoning to the convention (he acts very much as a deus ex machina for this issue, arriving only when Rose calls for him and then immediately setting about resolving the problems established at the story’s start), is like the worse versions of Red Riding Hood that Gilbert alludes to. Gaiman seems to be suggesting that our cultural stories are cyclical, repeating ad nauseum in various forms through our lives, and often we clean them up and pretend they aren’t as bad as they really are for the sake of actually being able to bear the stories at all. That Dream shows up after this and punishes all the serial killers by ridding them of their delusions about their own natures would support this reading, I think.
For this issue we’re finally back to the regular art team of Dringenberg and Jones, and they do a spectacular job with the diverse cast of characters. Dringenberg’s faces are really on point in this issue, with a multitude of panels that convey such precise character emotions. Besides that, the panels depicting the various serial killers in action are suitably horrific, with just the right details highlighted to emphasize what makes each killer scary and unusual.
Next time Rose’s story will reach its climax as she finally realizes her abilities as a Dream Vortex and accidentally forces her housemates to confront some difficult truths about themselves.