In The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, a wager between a fox and a badger sets a tragic tale into motion. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Dream Hunters.
There are two basic elements of this novella that I need to talk about when discussing The Dream Hunters, so here goes:
There really is nothing in the entire Sandman series that even comes close to what Yoshitaka Amano has done for this novella. I’m glad that Gaiman eschewed the traditional comic book style to write prose, allowing Amano to paint these gorgeous, haunting images spread through the pages of The Dream Hunters. First of all, Amano’s use of watercolors give the art a dream-like quality to begin with. And that’s really why this partnership works so well. These paintings were meant for this story.
There was one particular collection I thought of while I read The Dream Hunters. I grew up reading the Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark retellings. I had the first two books in the late eighties, and was lucky enough to get the third collection just days after it came out. Obviously, my love of things like The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, and Edgar Allan Poe was all related to this. (At that point, I’d only read Poe and seen episodes of The Twilight Zone. When The X-Files debuted a couple years later, it took exactly one episode of the show (the pilot) for me to fall in love with it.) I loved being scared and creeped out, and many of the urban legends were reworked in remarkably scary ways.
But for anyone who owned these books (and I had to own them because they were never available at the library at school), the stories inside were only a small part of why they were so frightening. They simply would not have been as effective if it weren’t for the work of Stephen Gammell. I’m not going to repost his stuff here, especially since some of it is quite graphic FOR A CHILDREN’S BOOK. (I still don’t get how everything else in the world was “satanic” and “evil” according to my mother, but this book was totally fine. What?) I had nightmares about some of those watercolor paintings. His linework was so detailed; he was able to evoke terror from a facial expression. And many of his ghouls, ghosts, zombies, and creatures had this organic, Lovecraft-ian biology to them. They all felt like they came from the earth, as if they sprung up from the roots, soil, and rot beneath the surface. He could illustrate eyes that penetrated through you from the pages of the book.
There was never anything like it ever again. I’ve never come across an artist who was able to do this in this way. I love Stephen Gammell’s work so much that I have the ghoul from “The Haunted House” on the back of my left leg, and Harold from “Harold” on my left shin. (Shout out to Kim Saigh for doing the most stunning black and white tattoos ever, MY GOD.)
Now, this is not to say that Stephen Gammell is better, but I wanted to talk about how art that’s so fucking good can be the reason a story truly resonates with a reader. I’ll talk about the story inside The Dream Hunters in a bit, but I’ll remember this novella for Amano’s art more than anything else. I’ll think about how many pages are shrouded in darkness, and how his line work brings things out of the shadows in these scenes. I’ll think about how stunning that image is of the monk bending down to comfort the woman in the rain, and how you can feel the rain falling on the two of them due to the vertical lines of color in the background. Hell, there’s that two-page horizontal spread on pages 16/17 that feels like a Stephen Gammell work, too! It’s so dense, and I feel like the more I stare at it, the more details I’ll find.
Oh god, the giant two-page spread of the fox’s dream. I CAN’T. It’s so gorgeous, and I love that Amano chose to use black and white here, too. In fact, there are a lot of monochrome and simplistic color schemes throughout The Dream Hunters, and that’s what makes this feel so haunting. And I use that word because many of these images stick with me after I close the book. Like the gorgeous watercolor painting of the night sky on page 37. The fact that there are so few details on first glance makes it seem like it’s not a complex work, but I keep staring at it. I find new stars. I try to make out what those lines are meant to represent at the bottom. I love the way the horizon fades into night. There are even some surreal as hell drawings in here, such as the red, white, and black motif represented in the monk’s second dream. Those stark color contrasts make it so memorable!
For real, I could spend so much time analyzing just the art (THE GOLDEN MOON AND THE WHITENESS OF SPACE IN THE DREAM REALM AND THE REPRESENTATION OF CAIN AND ABEL’S PLACE AND FIDDLER’S GREEN AND MATTHEW’S PURPLES AND BLUES AND THE GIANT FOLD-OUT DREAM I CAN’T STOP), but I do want to talk about this story, too!
So, it seems that there might be an original tale this is based on, or it could have been entirely an invention of Gaiman. Ultimately, I don’t think this affects my opinion too much at all. This is a heartbreaking, emotional story about love and duty. And I really should have expected this to be so sad when this is how chapter one ends:
And that was to be the cause of much misery in the time to come. Much misery, and heartbreak, and of a strange journey.
The story told me to be prepared for this, and I still wasn’t. WHOOPS.
The Dream Hunters is ultimately about what someone will do for love. The wager that opens the story is what inevitably leads the fox to fall in love with the solitary monk. When she discovers a plot to steal the monk’s life to give power to a fearful onmyoji, she does what she feels she must to save the man she loves. So what we end up seeing are two paralleled journeys to the Dreaming. First, the fox visits Morpheus, who appears as a giant black fox to her, to devise a plan to save the monk. Her sacrifice, though, does more than just save the monk’s life. The terrible irony of this situation is that by giving her own body for the monk, she unknowingly inspires him to set off on the exact same journey.
And that’s where we see their contrasting (and similar) sense of duty come in. The monk’s dedication to his temple is what initially keeps the fox and the badger at bay. The fox is, in part, attracted to this, and she believes it is her duty, as one who loves him, to save his life. So we have these conflicting elements at work in the story. Both characters believe they are saving each other, but the tragedy is that they both can’t get what they want.
Morpheus’s role in this reminds me more of his earlier days, and chronologically, I’d like to imagine that this took place long, long ago, maybe even before he was kidnapped in the beginning of The Sandman series. But at the same time, his willingness to get involved in a situation like this, one so thoroughly about love, makes me think that this might also be a more recent occurrence. Either way, he listens to the concerns of both the fox and the monk, but his words are cautious and commanding. He tells the fox, “These things rarely end happily.” When the monk comes to him, he is even more forthright, outright criticizing him for leaving his temple and warning him that this path will not end with happiness.
To me, that’s why this love is pure. Both the fox and the monk give up their mortal bodies at one point and suffer so that the other may live. At the end, though, he makes a choice to give the monk the gift he wants, even though it upsets the fox. He has two important lines after this moment. He tells the fox that the monk’s advice, not to seek revenge, is good advice to follow. Is this foreshadowing for what Morpheus will later do, or is he speaking from experience? We don’t know, and I like that we don’t know. At the very end of The Dream Hunters, Matthew questions whether there was a point to all of this. “Lessons were learned,” Morpheus responds. “And did you also learn a lesson?” the raven replies.
Morpheus’s silence is just… god damn. God damn.
I also enjoyed that the fox didn’t quite take the monk’s advice, as she sought out revenge on the onmyoji as a way to get closure for herself. And even if the final page suggests that she might be in the Dreaming with the monk or she might not be, I’m comforted by the idea that both the fox and the monk did what they thought they should do for the ones that they loved.
Seriously, y’all, this novella was fantastic. Oh god, ONLY ONE MORE LEFT. 🙁
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