In the sixth issue of Sandman, Doctor Dee enters a diner for twenty-four hours. He is the only one to leave. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Sandman.
The horror genre can be a tricky thing. I initially got into horror through a few means. I owned those Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark books that were illustrated by Stephen Gammel (FUCK THE NEW ARTWORK), and that led me to both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. After that, I moved on to Stephen King and those awful Goosebumps books (which I adored at the time,) and soon became obsessed with The Twilight Zone and The X-Files. All of those do horror completely differently, and as my taste for horror has grown, I’ve found that I like all manner of things that scare me. Still, I don’t think I know a genre where people have such disparate opinions and taste. What frightens each person can vary so much that two horror fans can enjoy completely separate movies.
Because horror and terror is so deeply tied to our emotions, I get that this creates such a fascinating dynamic for the genre. Personally, I really do like being scared, and it’s why I sought out so many movies and books growing up just to feel frightened. I always wanted to find something new that would bring that sensation back. I remember when I finally got Netflix nearly four years ago, I spent a great deal of time just trying to find the most fucked up and terrifying films in the world. I had discovered a thread on a message board (I think it was on Something Awful?) that had recommendations for disturbing and frightening films or scenes. Within a day or two of getting Netflix, I had nearly 150 films on my queue, and every single one was from that thread. Unfortunately, I discovered about ten films into this experiment that what others found disturbing either didn’t do anything for me, or it was so extreme and ridiculous that it held no real value or substance for me.
I don’t personally like torture or violence for the sake of it, which is unfortunate as a modern horror fan. Most of what comes out these days is increasingly brutal, bloody, and gory, and there’s no story attached to it aside from the fact that traditionally attractive people get butchered for ninety minutes. I suppose it’s still strange that I can enjoy or tolerate violence as long as there’s a story that goes along with it, but I honestly think that makes a huge difference for me. (That being said, the story attached to the film Martyrs doesn’t alleviate the absolute disgust I felt for the highly misogynistic violence that proceeded it. WHICH SUCKS BECAUSE THE FIRST 35 MINUTES OF THAT FILM IS FUCKING AMAZING. Oh god, I can’t un-recommend that movie enough. NOT WORTH IT, WAY TOO DISTURBING, NO NO NO NO.)
I’ve found that the suggestion of violence or terror is much more effective on me. Of course, I have specific fears that can make a movie frightening to me. I don’t defend the fact that I adored the first Paranormal Activity movie; I totally get that people might think it’s utter garbage. But I have a really intense fear of home invasion scenarios, so that film completely pressed all of my buttons. At the same time, I went and saw it with my friend, and he thought it was boring. There’s nothing wrong with that, though! Some things just don’t scare other people, you know?
Out of everything, though, I find that any sort of use of psychological fear and manipulation of reality scares me the most. The Exorcist was visually frightening, but it was that slow erosion of sanity that felt so horrific to me. If you’ve seen Frailty or Who Can Kill A Child?, it’s the disturbing implications of the story that make me want to curl up into the fetal position under a million blankets and never come out. Cigarette Burns (A FANTASTIC MASTERS OF HORROR STORY WITH NORMAN FUCKING REEDUS AS THE MAIN CHARACTER) terrified me just on the basis of the theological point of it alone, and then the brief flashes of certain images towards the end are just enough to do me in. (Someone please validate what I’m feeling. It’s that one scene with (spoiler!!!) gur zna srrqvat uvf ragenvyf vagb gur zbivr cebwrpgbe that makes me want to NEVER WATCH ANOTHER MOVIE AGAIN.
I’m bringing up all of this to give you some context for what I’m about to say: This issue, “24 Hours,” is honestly one of the most disturbing things I’ve read in a really, really long time. There have been things in Harry Potter, The Book Thief, and most certainly His Dark Materials that have upset me on a very visceral level. I don’t want to deny that. And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, you also know that he’s a master of creating upsetting, horrifying imagery and sequences. (PLEASE EVERYONE IN THE WORLD READ THAT BOOK IT IS THE BEST OH MY GOD THE WORLDBUILDING HELP ME.) There are so many things here that are just fucked up. A large part of it is the framing device which Gaiman uses throughout this issue. The count of the hours, for some reason, just fucks me up. It makes this all seem more methodical, as if Doctor Dee believed this would all be more fun if he changed up what he was doing to the people in this diner once an hour. It also gives this issue a sense of scope that’s impossible to ignore. He did not waltz into the diner and enact havoc for an hour and leave. He sat there for over an hour. We learn about these people’s lives. We learn so much about them, from the way Bette uses the diner to build stories in her head, to the rough patch Judy is going through with her girlfriend, to Marsh coping with his wife’s death. For these few pages, they matter. They have lives, they are full (if damaged) people, and Doctor Dee sits there, waiting, learning, preparing.
When the manipulation starts, it’s unbelievably subtle, and that makes this so much worse to me. He wanted to prolong their suffering, and when that suffering begins, he’s bored by it. It’s not enough. And so the hours begin to pass by more rapidly, but I have to acknowledge that this is hours worth of time that’s passing. Doctor Dee exploits the fears of the people in the diner, turns them against one another, and then turns them against themselves. That entire panel for hour 22 is just fucked up. It’s literally and metaphorically dark, a sign of just how powerful that ruby is, and of the capacity Doctor Dee has to be completely and totally evil. And I think that’s what scares me about it so much. There’s no hope for redemption in this issue. It’s just the actions of a person who finds joy and renewal in destruction.
Seriously, this is fucked up. WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO.