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Preludes and Nocturnes by Jerod Brennen

April 8, 2011

Horror comics.  They can be traced back to the Japanese Gaki-zoshi (Scroll of Hungry Ghosts), although most modern comic book fans are more likely to point to the Tales from the Crypt series that EC Comics ran in the 1950’s.

But have you read any of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman?

I confess, I’m a Gaiman junkie.  American Gods?  Loved it, but not nearly as much as Good Omens.  And as much as I love Fragile Things (his audiobook recording of “Other People” is chilling),  I can’t deny that his children’s book The Wolves in the Walls is one of the creepiest stories I have EVER read.

Next to Sandman.

I first read Sandman years ago in trade paperback form.  DC published Sandman as part of their Vertigo storyline, a series of horror titles targeted at mature readers.  A friend / fellow comic book geek / Lutheran minister raved about how great the books were, and he offered to let me borrow his copies.

How could I refuse?

The story begins in 1916, as a practitioner of the dark arts conducts a ritual to capture Death.  The ceremony is a spectacular failure.  Almost.  The magician fails to capture Death, but instead captures Death’s brother: Dream.

The Sandman.

Dream is stripped of his possessions and imprisoned in a magic sphere for decades.  The world beyond the sphere is haunted by nightmares as the Lord of the Dream Realm is held hostage.  When the magic circle surrounding Dream’s prison is broken, Dream makes his escape and exacts his revenge.

And it’s brutally brilliant.

Sandman1_medium

The first eight issues of the Sandman series are collected in the trade paperback Preludes and Nocturnes.  After Gaiman introduces us to Dream, he takes us on a journey with his dark hero as he recovers his possessions: his bag of sand, his helm, and a ruby composed of the essence of Dream himself.

Of the eight stories in that initial arc, “24 Hours” is by far the darkest.  Gaiman takes a forgotten DC villain, Dr. Destiny (or “Dee”), and resurrects him from the bowels of Arkham Asylum to play a key role Dream’s return to his kingdom.  The Sandman’s ruby falls into Dr. Destiny’s possession, and this bat-shit crazy reject from a Vault of Horror story decides that he wants to use the ruby to destroy the world through madness and nightmares.

Drdestiny1

His first stop: a little 24-hour diner whose handful of patrons are about to go through a hell that none of them could have ever imagined.
Hour by godforsaken hour, Dee subjects these people to one unspeakable horror after the next.  While Gaiman’s tale centers on Dee, the same story told from the patrons’ point of view could be a modern horror movie that rival any Hollywood horror film produced in the last 30 years.  Imagine being a pawn at the mercy of gods, praying for a release from hell, knowing that death is your only chance at freedom…

If you’re one of the “lucky” ones…

My favorite story from this arc, hands-down, is “A Hope in Hell.”  Having tracked his helm to a demon in Hell, Dream literally knocks on the Gates of Hell and demands an audience with Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Azazel: Hell’s triumvirate.  Dream has come for his helm, and he demands that the lords of Hell return it to him.

Sandman-character

Dream is lured into a game with the demon who possesses the helm, winner take all.  This battle of wits requires each being to become anything in reality, with the intent of destroying his opponent.  The game continues until one of the combatants falters.

How does it end?  You want me to ruin one of the most fantastic stories I’ve ever read?

Too bad.  You’ll have to pick up your own copy to find out.

While Gaiman’s Sandman series is clearly a horror book in the beginning, it evolves into a dark fantasy over time.  However, characters like The Corinthian and storylines like the Cereal (Killers) Convention will leave horror fans more than satisfied.

As for a Sandman movie, don’t hold your breath.  Rossio and Elliot, the team behind the Pirates of the Carribean franchise, drafted a Sandman screenplay that never made it out of development hell.  With The Walking Dead bridging the gap between horror comics and horror television, maybe Gaiman and company need to take another look at their options.

As horror comics go, however, Sandman needs to be at the top of your must-read list.

Jerod Brennen

www.jerodbrennen.com

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