Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fables of Monsters, Nightmars of Ourselves

art by Dave McKean
"Evil comes I know not from where. But if you take a look inside yourself--maybe you'll find some in there." -Jarvis Cocker

There is always pleasure in remembering our favorite stories, those tales which once read never leave us. There is arguably even greater pleasure in revisiting those same narratives and discovering that you still find them as well-told, if not more so, many years later. When I was in high school, I discovered and quickly grew obsessed with Neil Gaiman's comic book series The Sandman. Gaiman's tales of Morpheus, The Lord of Dreams, captivated me so much, both in terms of their mythology as well as their human drama, that years later specific scenes remain clear, poignant memories. (Credit must also be given to the wide range of highly talented artists who worked on the title over the course of its run). Recently, I began, for the first time in nearly twenty years, rereading the series from its beginning. Now, I will admit that some of the arcs I read only once and cannot recall much what happened within them. Others, however, I remember as well any piece of literature I have ever read. And, I shall call Sandman literature, as it was, and still is, a work that I rank equally with any of my favorite prose novels. Is this verdict flavored with tinges of nostalgia? Why, yes, of course (more than once I have caught myself grinning upon seeing a favorite supporting character once again -- oh, Lucien and Matthew, I never realized how much I have missed you). Yet, there is also a deeper grasping of the full extent of what Gaiman accomplished in these tales, how complex they truly were. This is especially true of the second volume, The Doll's House, which I just completed.

When I was younger, the earlier more horror-flavored stories were never among my favorites. Now that I am older, though, I see beyond the gore to the themes that Gaiman was exploring. A good example of this is found within the fourteenth issue of the series, "Collectors." This issue takes place at a large gathering of serial killers, modeled after any mundane trade (or fan?) convention. (The sign outside the hotel discreetly welcomes attendees to the "Cereal" Convention). When I first read this chapter in the early 90s the idea of such a gathering seemed an exercise in slightly outrageous, morbid black humor. When I picked it up to revisit last week, I wondered if, in this pop cultural moment of Dexter and Hannibal Lecter, it might seem prophetic.

The truth is certainly less glib. Holed up in one room are the only two non-collectors in the hotel at the time: the arc's heorine, Rose Walker and her mysterious companion Gilbert. Rose is on, if you will, a quest to find her long-lost brother and is stuck inside while awaiting an update from the police. Restless, Gilbert tells her stories, including a rather un-sanitized verision of Little Red Riding Hood. Here not only does the Wolf murder the grandmother, but also "poured her blood into a bottle and sliced her flesh onto a plate." (Artist Mike Dringenberg illustrates the Wolf up on his hind legs, employing a carving knife on what looks like any ordinary piece of meat). Riding Hood arrives and is told by the Wolf, now dressed as the Grandmother, to enjoy the food and drink he has prepared for her. She does, and the Wolf calls her "slut" for consuming her own kin. Then, she is instructed to undress and get into bed with the Wolf. When she asks what she should do with her skirt, she is told to toss it onto the fire as "you won't need it any more." This is repeated with each article of clothing elicting the same repsonse from the Wolf. (The language chillingly echoes what we have come to expect from a contemporary child predator). Eventually the naked girl gets into bed with the animal who devours her. When Rose expresses disgust at the tale, Gilbert replies "There are earlier versions that are even worse."

So, why do we keep telling these stories then? Why the constant, universal need for fables soaked in blood, mythologies of gore? How many times need Apollo flay Marsyas? Why does Little Red Riding Hood's Wolf need to be reborn with the mischievous grin of a Hannibal Lecter?

Dream himself provides the answer when he arrives at the hotel to confront their guest of honor, The Corinthian. Dream created The Corinthian, but the nightmare slipped loose during his master's recent absence. Dream expresses disappointment at the battered trail of bodies his creature has left in his wake. Dream wished for this nightmare to be his masterpiece, "A black mirror made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront." Evil is within us all; we all contain the potential for terror and cruelty. This is part of who we are, a piece of our nature that we should be aware of, because it is only by acknowledging our darker urges that we can overcome them. None of us are pure, and thus we should not pass easy judgement on the failings of others. This is the lesson that Dream hoped The Corinthian could haunt into humanity, only to be let down. "In the end," Dream decrees, "You've [simply] told them that there are bad people out there. And they've known that all along."

We don't need stories that tell us that there are monsters, we need narratives that help us understand why there are, where they come from. If we stared into the eyes of a cornered child molester would we act any differently than Dexter? Should we?

Having dealt with The Corinthian, Dream offers his own fitting punishment to the hall of mass murderers. He explains that over the years they have been able to justify their crimes through elaborate illusions in which each of them was the misunderstood hero of some grand drama, "Comforting daydreams in which, ultimately, you are shown to be in the right." Dream evaporates this deception of self-righteouness, leaving behind something much harsher: "you shall know, at all times, and forever, exactly what you are. And you shall know just how LITTLE that means."

A poetic justice more fitting, I suspect, than anything that Showtime shall concoct for Dexter's final fate . . .


ps: Can I also say how good it was to see Hob again? We should all be so lucky, if Death overhears our drunken tavern boasting.

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