Preludes and Nocturnes, the first volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels, came out in 1988. Instead of growing less popular with time, the series has grown in audience year by year. This Summer, over thirty years after DC published that first volume, Audible released a voice-acted audio adaptation of the first three volumes in the series.
Audible’s Sandman Audible Originals Volume 1 covers the stories from Preludes, going on to The Doll’s House and concluding with the Midsummer Night’s Dream story from Dream Country. Ending on a note that includes Puck’s realization about fiction: “This is magnificent. And it is true! It never happened, yet it is still true. What magic art is this?” seems, somehow, appropriate.
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The audiobook presents the Sandman stories in a dramatized format featuring a variety of talented actors, among them James McAvoy as Morpheus (the Sandman of the series title,) Michael Sheen as Lucifer, and Andy Serkis as Matthew, the Raven. I also enjoyed very much hearing Bebe Newirth voice the Siamese Cat.
Neil himself provides narration, filling in with words what images conveyed in the graphic novels. Not all authors are good narrators. I once went to one of Gaiman’s lectures in Seattle and recalled him observing that if you have an English accent and live in America, people think you’re either smart or evil. Fortunately, Neil’s voice is perfect for narrating the types of stories that he writes. Am I saying that I’m an American who thinks he sounds evil? Not most of the time, but Gaiman can give the ending of a sentence a particular inflection that lends a sense of foreboding. 1
For those note familiar with the Sandman series of graphic novels, it sits firmly in the fantasy/horror genre and bounces between the two, with a hefty helping of myth on its plate. Gaiman is a fan of mythology (as a fantasy author should be.)
The story concerns Morpheus — the king of dreams — who is one of the Endless, a pantheon that Gaiman made up for the series. The Endless are the embodiments of various forces and, apparently, all favor “D” names: Destiny, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Destruction, and (Morpheus himself) Dream. However, the Sandman series pulls in myths from many sources, including the Judeo-Christian heaven and hell and Norse mythology.
Gaiman’s appreciation for northern myths shines forth in many episodes in the series. A battle of wits between Dream and a demon brings to mind both the Poetic Edda and Song of Amergin. 2
Some stories in the series are genuinely horrific; if you don’t like horror, you’ll want to avoid this series. The audiobook, like the graphic novel, is appropriate for mature audiences and contains some disturbing and explicit scenes. Other stories are a bit more lighthearted, but Gaiman has a talent for infusing just about anything with a dose of creepiness or melancholy.
My favorite stories in the first three books of Sandman — and this audiobook — fall into the non-horrific camp. “The Sound of Her Wings,” about Dream’s sibling, Death (who, it turns out, is a cute goth girl) is a favorite. It’s also poignant and poetic. Morpheus reflects on an ancient Egyptian poem,3 realizing that, though people fear Death, it’s a necessary part of life and recalling that he also has a job to which he must return.
Men of Good Fortune is another favorite. The story follows the friendship of Morpheus, and his friendship Hob Gadling — a man who he’s gifted with immortality — as they meet up in the same pub on the same day once every century.
Cat lovers — especially those of us who love a Siamese cat — will appreciate A Dream of a Thousand Cats. You might have a new perspective on what kitty dreams about while asleep.
Do you need to have read the graphic novels to appreciate the series? Not at all, though I think it likely that you’ll like one if you like the other. Listening to the narration while following along with the graphic novel is a treat. The Audible adaptation is almost spot-on faithful to the original. A couple of the stories differ from the sequence of the books; if you’re following along with the graphic novel, you’ll need to pause the narration temporarily and find your place. But you do not need to have read the book to enjoy the audio version. It’s entirely possible to lay back in your hammock, close your eyes, and follow Morpheus’ journey. Gaiman’s narration aptly fills in with words details conveyed by illustrations in the book.
As I mentioned previously, the first edition of Sandman came out in 1988. Over many years, societal attitudes shift. A later story in the Sandman series, in particular, has been criticized for its treatment of a trans character. However, it seems, to me, that Gaiman was progressive, particularly for the time. A recent review in Polygon questions whether Gaiman and Dirk Maggs should have taken the opportunity to update some elements in the series. A couple of the suggested items to change: the choice of the pronoun “it” used to describe Morpheus’ sibling Desire or the fact that the first same-sex couple in the series is physically abusive. A question worth of consideration: Do we keep stories as-is, allowing them to reflect the attitudes of their age? Or should stories be changed in small ways to make them more up-to-date and inclusive?
Will Audible be making more of these Sandman productions? The fact that the audiobook’s subtitle is “Sandman Audible Originals #1” seems promising. Netflix is also jumping on the Sandman bandwagon with an upcoming series. The platform allowed me to add it to my list, though it’s not due to be released until at least 2022. And you can preorder a huge boxed set of the entire book series, due for release in September. Does it look like Morpheus is making a big comeback? I don’t think he ever really left. After all, he’s Endless.
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- Note that the Polygon article I referred to in this post doesn’t agree with that and notes that where “actors are crying and hissing and roaring, his storybook monotone sticks out.”
- Disclaimer: I’m passingly familiar with both but have to admit that I have read neither Snorri Sturluson nor Robert Graves through.
- The poem is “A Dispute Between a Man and His Ba from approximately 2000BCE.