Friday, April 12, 2013

Stories Within Stories at "World's End" (Sandman and Related Topics)

Sandman is a complex and multi-layered work, with all sorts of themes and motifs and subtexts running through it.  One of the most prominent  and most often discussed being that is a story about the power of stories; a celebration of tales and their tellers.  This theme comes to the fore most forcefully in the "World's End" story arc/collection of short stories. 
Tim Callahan, in his post on "Brief Lives" at, noted that the series, at least as collected as a series of numbered trade paperbacks, broke down into a pattern of what he dubbed "quest, aid, potpourri."  That is, there would be a story focusing on Morpheus in which he went on some sort of quest, such as his efforts to regain his symbols of office in the series' initial arc, then a story in which the Dream King was essentially a bit player in someone else's story, as in "A Game of You", then a collection of one issue shorts like Dream Country or Fables and Reflections.  In monthly form,  Neil Gaiman mixed it up a little more, with the stories that made up Fables and Reflections appearing both prior to and following "A Game of You." He goes on to note that as the series entered its second half, the pace quickened.  "Brief Lives", for example, was, according to Callahan, a combination of "quest" and "aid" stories.  Morpheus was featured prominently, but it was really Delirium's story.  Now, as I write this I have not yet read Mr. Callahan's assessment of "World's End," though by the time you read it I will have, but he may well note therein that "World's End" mashes together the "aid" and "potpourri" categories.  It is essentially a series of one issue short stories, though connected by an over arching framing narrative.  (Update: As it turns out, Callahan says nothing of the sort.)
The frame story focuses on co-workers Brant Tucker and Charlene Mooney, who are driving home late at night when they are caught in "reality storm."  Apparently, the storm has been caused by a big event of such cosmic significance that it causes ripples throughout all realms and times.  In our world in 1993, it manifests as a freak June snowstorm that, along with the appearance of a strange, otherworldly beast in the middle of the road, causes Brant to crash Charlene's car into a tree.  Seeking help for himself and his wounded companion, Brant is directed by a mysterious disembodied voice to the Inn at World's End.  The inn is people by other refugees from many worlds and eras who have also been waylaid by the storm.  The wary travelers while away the time entertaining each other by telling stories, most of which happen to feature Morpheus in a small role.
As the reality storm abates, the refugees look out the window of the inn to see the sky dominated by giant, ghostly figures marching in what appears to be a funeral procession.  Whose funeral isn't explicitly stated.  However, the mourners are members of the Endless, denizens of the Dreaming, and characters from previous stories.  So, I guess its rather obvious for whom they mourn.  This ethereal funeral foreshadows the next, and final, big story line in the series, "The Kindly Ones."
As a story in itself, "World's End" is somewhat insubstantial. It provides a bit of a respite before Gaiman begins the process of tearing down all he's built up over the course of the series in "The Kindly Ones."  As a collection of shorts, it has its hits and misses.  The weakest installment, unfortunately, is the tale of a man trapped in the dream of a ghost city that starts off the story telling session.  The highlights include a rousing tale of high adventure told by Cluracan of Faerie and a high seas adventure featuring Morpheus' immortal friend, and, as I mentioned previously, my favorite character in Sandman, Hob Gadling.  "World's End" is also the Sandman arc that included Gaiman's much talked about revival of the goofy Bronze Age character Prez. 
As I am not the most original or insightful thinker you are likely to read, I shall assume that I am not the first person to note that the structure of "World's End" resembles a set of Matryoshka, or Russian nesting, dolls.  Those are the dolls that contain a smaller doll inside, with the smaller doll itself housing a still smaller doll and so on.   "World's End" is very much like one of those dolls, with multiple layers of story.   There's the main story of travelers trapped at the inn by the reality storm.  Then there's the stories told by the refugees to amuse themselves.  Most of those stories have within them a character who stops to tell a story.   The penultimate chapter of the arc takes this to an almost ridiculous extreme.  The story told by Petrefax of the Necropolis Litharge contains several stories within it.  In one of those tales, the teller encounters Destruction, the prodigal sibling of the Endless, who, it just so happens, has his own little story to tell. 
It kind of sounds like you could get lost in all those multiple layers of story an reality. However, "World's End" is really more straightforward and much less confusing than I probably made it sound in the previous paragraph.  It is possible, of course, to get lost in lost in Sandman, but mostly in the good way of becoming so totally absorbed in the story that the real world just sort of fades away for the few minutes that you're reading it.

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