The Power Cosmic Screams:

The Death of Reality in Sandman #56

The Worlds’ End Inn: here, reality goes to die. That is the conclusion one can draw after finishing Sandman #56. Existing outside of time, this nexus of infinite zeitgeist is constantly being remade and destroyed with the beginning and ending of worlds. The pattern in Worlds’ End thus far, a flowing narrative that draws the reader in only to expel them back at a distance, establishes a narrative universe that spans a multitude of worlds. To place the tale of the Endless within a realm like the Worlds’ End is appropriate, and allows the reader to catch a birdseye glance of the multiverse that they are familiar with. Though not exactly Morrisonian in cosmology, Sandman #56 is highly experimental. Gaiman’s narrative style is characteristically straightforward, built on standard narrative tropes and rhythms, but not so here. Placed at a distance from the main arc, looking through the eyes of Brant Tucker, Gaiman’s objective is to create the final end of Dream and subjects the reader to a non-linear tale. It can be assumed that Sandman #56 strongly hints at the death of Dream. Gaiman shows the aftermath of this sorrowful affair, reluctant to specifically mention what has happened. Though some of the Endless are present in the funeral march, it remains ambiguous who holds the casket, the figures only appearing to be formless shadows. Everything is shrouded in mystery, and the impetus is placed on the reader to surmise what could have happened. This same ambiguity is present in the Inn likewise, where the hostess of the bar, later to be revealed as Lady Shiva, is also unaware of the source of cosmic upheaval. Needless to say, this dense ending lacks full disclosure. What can be known for certain is a simple matter: something terrible has happened and all reality has cried out in anguish.

Reality in Sandman #56 equates to the spacial universe initially. It is not until the end of the the Worlds’ End narrative cycle that reality becomes synonymous with “life,” if not at the very least the essence of life. Hinduism, and its philosophy on life and rebirth, is the foundational subtext of Sandman #56. This is an appropriate choice given the nature of the inn, which Shiva, the hostess, suggests is being constantly built and remade by the continual death and genesis of alternate realities. The inn is synonymous in ontology with several religious traditions, namely Purgatory and Samsara. Both traditions have tremendous weight in Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. The Right Reverend Tom Wright speaks of purgatory as being popular and persistent in Christian Theology, despite having no mention in traditional cannon, for its analogous relationship to life itself. In an online question answer series featured on 100 Huntley Street Tom Wright briefly reflects on these beliefs:

“I think actually that purgatory is a good metaphor for being a Christian in the present. That is, a struggle to be holy. A struggle to finish off whats still bad about us. The suffering that goes with that, with the world as we know it. That’s why Dante’s purgatory is the most popular of his trilogy because we know that place. That’s where we live.”

In his book on the nature of the Christian hope, Surprised By Hope, Tom Wright continues this line of thought by suggesting that the harsh living conditions of the early Medieval period supported this enduring belief (first posited by Saint Augustine in his Meditations), because it gave the people of that age tangible reasons to suffer through the squalor they faced on a daily basis. The Worlds’ End Inn at least implies that it is such a place to receive closure, where perspective outside of time can be gained on the way to the next destination of eternity. This is especially noteworthy given Shiva’s observation that the dead have arrived at the inn during their journeys to the final afterlife. Hinduism, and all of its variants considered, holds that the Wheel of Life, also known as Samsara, acts in a similar capacity. It is the idea that sentient life passes ad infinitum through multiple stages of lifetimes, in a state of continual reincarnation, until finally attaining escape (grasping moksha). Like the presuppositions that support purgatory, the need to be “holy” in one’s lifetime determines the cause and effect flow that will ultimately decide whether someone advances higher or lower in status. Though each concept is divergent from one another, and not one and the same, the concept of extending one’s life for the sake of existential contemplation is the common thread. Each stands as a rejection of death, which Brant Tucker finds so unnatural. This is inferred by his constant confusion over the nature of the Inn.

The key moment of Sandman #56 is the funeral procession for Dream, and Brant Tucker’s observations throughout the pages. The procession is headed by Destiny, who knew when Dream would ultimately die. Being the oldest of the Endless, it is only appropriate that he should oversee the final departure of his younger brother from existence. Though it is ambiguous who died, the funeral train that follows suggests it to be the Dream Lord. Populating the procession are the minor characters of his realm, along with those that he influenced in life. Joshua Norton, the man whom Dream gave hope in Sandman #31, walks downcast amongst Dream’s fortress waitstaff, like Mervyn and Lucien. Also with them are the fantasy creatures from the A Game of You arc Martin Tenbones, Wilkinson and Luz, following with the entire Nordic Pantheon and Bast. At the end of the train is Delirium and Death, who walk somberly in tow. The heavy occasion that makes Brant weep, despite not knowing the identity of the deceased, is described as being the epitome of mourning. Recounting the death of his father, Brant recognizes that his father’s service, among many others, was hollow and disingenuous. The nature of modern funerals in American culture is to celebrate the life of the individual, but rarely is the finality of death dealt with. Generally it is only a little while after the funeral that the real grieving begins. Brant’s vision of the procession describes a scene of final mourning, stripped of its pomp. Here, someone has died, and the feeling is real. In the local context of the Inn, the tales of life’s pursuits are parodies of life itself. Furthermore, it is ironic that Shiva would own and operate an Inn that is constantly remaking itself, and hold travelers telling stories that are characteristically unrealistic and fantastic. Charlene Mooney’s denouncement of what she refers to as Horatio Alger stories is appropriate, considering that these stories were extraordinary, and hardly the norm of the era they existed in. Poor disheveled children do not commonly meet wealthy benefactors after years of struggling during the peak of the Industrial Revolution. They simply die impoverished and without hope. Charlene’s assertion that these stories are the salve of boyhood fantasy lampoons the listless nature of the Inn, thereby magnifying the potency of the funeral march. It is ironic as well that Charlene would then choose to escape from her life to the inn after thoroughly denouncing the stories of the other men; she is practicing escapism. Even if her life in reality is thankless and full of confusion and marginalization, it is still real. The death of a dream is still meaningful. In the context of life, humans fail constantly. Failure is proof that we are alive, and always are growing into our roles in society.

What then is the nature of Dream’s death, and how is it significant? Though it is only implied that Dream has died, the reader must take the funeral march seriously. A world without dreams, in Brant’s mind, is a world that has nothing left to live for. If one remembers Destruction’s words from earlier conversations with Dream concerning the importance of the Endless’ activities, clearly the world has not ceased to destroy themselves, but whether or not this can be the same for the Dreaming remains to be seen. In the very first issue of the Sandman, a world without Dream led to modernization and disillusionment en mass. Both World Wars occurred along with the outbreak of Encephalitis Lethargica and a host of sleep related phenomenon. Above Death, the crescent moon in the final frame bleeds for Dream until it turns to blood, showcasing the tainted night, affirming the dramatic transforming of reality as result of Dream’s passing. Allusions to Christ’s death on Golgotha are apparent in the cosmic nature of the event. According to the New Testament the death of Christ caused earthquakes and other cosmic events showing the instability of nature at the climax of the Passion. Here, it is the same with Dream, whose passing fills the inn to near capacity in the resulting reality storm. Chiron, the centaur, who patches up Charlene at the beginning of the comic, claims that in his long life he has encountered only one other reality storm. This fits the continuity of the Sandman well, considering that Despair of the Endless, as we know her, is not the original incarnation of Despair. It is likely that the previous reality storm is related to her passing.

Death confuses and bewilders, and the process to recover from the passing of a loved one is long and difficult. This issue shares similarities with those experiences. The surreal nature of death saturates the funeral march. Also, as the parties leave, the event stirs characters to return to work or abandon their duties, both of which are common coping mechanisms. Cluracan instantly sobers up, which appears to be an act of magic. The swiftness by which he rouses himself from a stupor of intoxication shows that he is forcibly recommitting himself to work, which is uncharacteristic for him, as he is generally irresponsible. Petrefax, the apprentice attending Klaproth, is suddenly convicted to abandon his post and go on an adventure. It can be argued that this is a healthy response of coping, that Petrefax, confronted with the brevity of life, is emboldened to embrace it. (Whether or not this is the case, or that he is simply running away from his problems, is subject to discussion.) Being left with nothing, the reader is put in a position similar to Brant at the close of the comic. Without Charlene he is left confused and bewildered, having returned to a reality where she never existed. Everything he remembered is surreal, and the concluding conversation between him and the bar tender at the end of the comic suggests that he is trying to justify to himself that what happened was real. After seeing the funeral march Brant walks away from his job in Seattle and abandons his old life. Without Dream he consigns himself to justifying the legitimacy of his life in the face of stagnancy. The final panel captures his loss for words perfectly, as Brant shuffles off into the night, down the lonely streets of Chicago.

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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