It’s time for the obligatory interlude story stuck right in the middle of the longer arc. I continue to suspect (because this issue has a guest art team) that this story was intended as a stopgap while Kelley Jones and George Pratt (there were a lot of different inkers on this arc, now that I think about it) worked on the art for Chapter 5. However, unlike the last interlude, “Men of Good Fortune,” this issue is actually much more closely related to what’s going on with Dream in the present. A consequence of Lucifer’s shut down of Hell is that all the mortal souls who have been housed there now need somewhere to go, and so they’ve begun reappearing on the physical plane, which is giving Death a huge headache (we saw a glimpse of her dealing with this problem in the previous issue when Dream decided to ask for advice from his sister at the worst possible moment).
This story just deals with one particular incident involving the dead returning, and Death’s involvement is more like a driveby cameo than anything (she’s present for precisely one page plus an extra panel before she has to dash off to the next emergency; despite this scarcity, she still has a larger part than Dream in this issue, whose appearance is basically just as decoration for a page describing a dream the issue’s protagonist has). The important characters are Charles Rowland, a young boy who is staying at St. Hilarion’s School for Boys while his father is working in Kuwait (seeing references to major international events like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 is totally what I read The Sandman for), and Edwin Paine, a boy who was murdered by some classmates in a demon summoning ritual who has returned to his boarding school because he apparently couldn’t think of any other place to go once he was thrown out of Hell. Paine befriends Rowland after a multitude of dead people associated with the boarding school return and resume classes, including the boys who murdered him. Rowland has a horrific week trying to fit in with all the dead people, and the bullies who killed Paine eventually corner him in the kitchen and torture him so that he dies from his untreated injuries several days later.
The whole episode gets back to Sandman‘s horror roots in some interesting ways with the premise of undead schoolboys juxtaposed with a lot of genuinely terrifying aspects of boarding school culture (the scenes of torture between Rowland and the old boys are really evocative of the sequence in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne is repeatedly assaulted and raped by the gang of inmates; the fact that the parting joke for the old boys as Rowland and Paine take their leave of St. Hilarion’s is a reference to the buggery subculture of English boarding schools that even C.S. Lewis documented in one of his memoirs). While Rowland’s week at undead school is incredibly awful (it does culminate in his death from torture after all), we get the sense that his regular school life isn’t so great either. It’s heavily implied he’s been sent away because his father doesn’t know how to relate to him, and the not-dead faculty that are looking after Rowland over the holiday break are pretty alienating before Gaiman introduces their hidden parent issues (everyone at St. Hilarion’s seems to have parent issues).
Ultimately, after Rowland dies he has an epiphany about not needing to stay at the school, and he invites Paine to come with him to explore the larger world while Death is too busy to escort them on to the afterlife. Rowland’s closing remarks as the panel borders lighten from black to blue to white note the fact that the dead from Hell are just trapping themselves in the same destructive patterns over and over, refusing to move outside of their own experience (it’s an idea echoed after Lucifer’s own take on Hell, which is that the mortals in Hell are all there because deep down they believe it’s where they’re supposed to be).
Overall as a story, this issue isn’t the most memorable, but it’s a nice enough diversion. Being someone who grew up in America where boarding school as a concept is a very foreign one, the premise here strikes me as pretty intriguing, but the compactness of the narrative keeps it from being too terribly interesting. Gaiman seems to be writing here mostly for people who already know about boarding school, as there just isn’t the space devoted to explaining things that you might find in a longer work that revolves around the setting (e.g. the Harry Potter series).
The one uptick on the story is that it features art by Matt Wagner, whose choppy character style helps highlight the surreality of the story’s setting. Dead characters lack pupils so that their eyes are always presented as blank white orbs gazing out at nothing in particular, even as they menace Rowland in various ways. Even Paine, who is entirely sympathetic to Rowland’s situation, comes across as more than a little creepy while also appearing totally adorable when Wagner draws him having a pleasant thought (with his eyes closed, of course).
While I feel like this issue isn’t particularly strong in comparison to the story that it interrupts, it’s certainly not bad, and it does offer a pleasant change of pace from the relentlessly fantastic proceedings in the Dreaming of the previous issue. When we get back to that story in the next issue, it’ll be with more than a little anticipation (if Gaiman does anything right here with his relentlessly slow pace in this arc, it’s building anticipation for what happens next).