When the Human Nature/Family of Blood episodes of Doctor Who first aired, I remember thinking they were the most Gaiman-ish that the show had ever been (in fact, I think they might be more Gaiman-ish than the episode Neil Gaiman actually wrote). I didn't connect the boarding school to this issue of Sandman at the time, but it did have that peculiar Sandman-y mix of horror, otherworldliness and imperfect humanity. And the way the Doctor deals with The Family is precisely how one might imagine Dream dealing with them.
There's something so quintessentially British about the boarding school setting. We have boarding schools in America, but they're not really places of horror, as they frequently seem to be in British fiction. Certainly, Enid Blyton and Tom Brown's School Days were written for children, but even those lighter portrayals had an undercurrent of malevolence. The darkest ones I remember were P.G. Wodehouse's schoolboy stories (yes, believe it or not, Wodehouse did write a few horrifically dark novels). Which is not to mention the most famous depiction of all: Pink Floyd's The Wall. Remember this video for "Another Brick in the Wall"?
Let's take a closer look at Gaiman's iteration of this most hellacious of places.
Charles Rowland, Bird-Brain
First things first, this issue is beautiful, isn't it? Set on black paper instead of white, all the shadows really come alive.
We meet young Rowland as Paine wakes him from a nightmare. Back when I wrote about "Passengers", I pointed out that it seemed that whenever we're caught in the nightmare of a character, that character is likely to face an unpleasant visit from Dream in the flesh. Unusually, we do not run into a Dream again in this issue.
So while this appears to be a standalone issue in the ongoing political narrative, the content of Charles' nightmare explicitly links back to the previous issue:
"It was the skeletons of birds, falling from the sky. They crunched underfoot as I ran. And Then I saw that they were trying to move, even the ones I had crunched to bits. The whole world was covered with dead birds...trying to fly."
As birds are the most augurous of augurs, it's safe to assume that Charles' dream shouldn't be ignored. If you read the line at its most literal, it means the dead are crashing down to earth. Even the ones that had been completely mangled. In a nutshell, Dream has granted Charles a preview of this issue.
But we're not done with the birds yet. Remember the last issue, and the poem by Keats that we looked at.
"The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies."
And what happens when the swallows fall to earth? Just something to think about in the larger narrative. When all those grappling for the impossible role of governing Hell give up on that dream, and reality settles in once again, how will they react? Think about that in connection with the way that Dream has been drawn, at the center of a spider's web. Are we learning that he is in danger, and that that danger is being communicated to all of his charges?
The Dead Begin to Return
I enjoy the way that Gaiman has put us directly in the story, so we can actually experience the dead returning. He could have given us a lot of clunky exposition about the "ramifications of the dead returning," á la Season 4 of Torchwood, but he shows us instead of telling us. Telling us through the eyes of a child is perhaps even more effective, as the orphaned child is not filled with superstitions and preconceptions. As he says, "adults were strange, and he had few criteria by which to judge them."
But according to the criteria for Hell that Lucifer laid out for us, why the Hell are some of these characters returning? We established a couple of issues ago that those who are in Hell are there because they believe they belong there. So then, it logically follows that when Lucifer kicked everyone out of Hell, the only people who are sent back to Earth are those same miscreants. Many of the characters clearly belong in Hell according to the internal logic of the series, but many of them don't.
So why have the matron's babies returned? One baby died in a cot, one miscarried. And would a baby really feel that it deserves to be in Hell anyway?
Why is Paine here? He was clearly murdered by the bullying boys. He wouldn't have gone to Hell. It makes sense why only one Headmaster would return; perhaps he's the only murdering bastard Headmaster. But not all the boys, not the murdered, not the suicides, not those who died of disease.
I expect there's some reasoning behind this that I'm not aware of, and I look forward to it being revealed.
And thusly we learn that Charles has been dead all along.
We already know, from the story of Hob, that rejecting Death is significant. Though I have to say, Death has never been easier to reject, as she seems to have appeared from the set of Olivia Newton John's "Physical."
I do like the idea that Hell follows the sinners around, even though as punishments go, it's pretty meaningless. It doesn't stop the bullies from hurting other people, as we learn.
I was hoping to find some clever reason for the school being named St. Hilarion's, but basically all that I learned is that St. Hilarion was sainted for the dumbest reason ever, for refusing to succumb to temptations that he made up in his head. Perhaps that ties in with the fact that we are introduced to St. Hilarion's on a war memorial. Many lives are lost in fighting enemies that are invented.
I will leave you with the Literal Video Version of my personal favorite depiction of a boys boarding school: