When it was announced that an audiobook adaptation of The Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman was being produced for Audible, it sounded like the sort of thing I’d like to check out; I’d heard how good the comics were but I hadn’t had a chance to read them. Having finished listening to the production, I’m left with complicated feelings – part of me liked it, and part of me didn’t.
The Sandman begins in the 1910s, with a pagan cult performing a ritual intended to summon and trap Death itself. Instead, they get Death’s younger brother, Dream – who also answers to Morpheus, and many other names besides – the lord of sleep and the dream world. After decades of imprisonment, Morpheus manages to escape; subsequent chapters follow him as he seeks to reclaim the magical items that were stolen from him, and capture some stray dream entities that went rogue in his absence. It’s not exactly a linear story, however: mixed in with the events directly following on from the first chapter, are a number of isolated episodes, in which Morpheus only tends to have a small part (and, in one case, doesn’t appear at all). I found these a bit disorientating, though perhaps that’s just because I’m not familiar with the source material and wasn’t expecting them.
There’s no denying that this production is very well made. It features a distinguished voice cast including James McAvoy, Taron Egerton, Michael Sheen, Kat Dennings, Arthur Darvill, Riz Ahmed, Andy Serkis and Samantha Morton, with Neil Gaiman himself providing narration. I’ve previously heard Gaiman narrating his own audiobook on Norse mythology, and his voice is very well suited for this sort of thing: soothing but a little mysterious. The combination of acting, dialogue and sound effects all come together to make a very immersive radio play; and as you would expect from Neil Gaiman, it’s incredibly imaginative as well. As well as Gaiman’s original, fantastical contributions, the story is actually set in the DC Comics universe: there are references to the Justice League, and cameos from characters like the Scarecrow, which I definitely liked. Some references appear to tie in to Gaiman’s novel American Gods, too.
But part of me also went into each listening session with some trepidation, as The Sandman is a very, very dark story, where the less pleasant side of human nature is put on full view. Violence, abuse and rape feature heavily, with sound effects that are all too believable: one part that stands out to me – and that’s saying something – is when a woman, mind-controlled by a malevolent puppet master, is forced to gouge her own eyes out. Assisted by moments of introspection from the central characters, this is the kind of story that reminds you how scary both the world and the human soul can be, which is bound to be uncomfortable. Even the “lighter” chapters leave a lasting impression, such as when Morpheus accompanies his sister Death as she goes about her work. Obviously, this chapter contains plenty of talk about the fear and inevitability of death, yet somehow there’s something reassuring about it; perhaps it’s because it wouldn’t be so bad if this friendly, empathetic version of Death was the one who came for you at the end.
I think I will end up listening to The Sandman again at some point, though definitely after a cooling-off period. If you’re okay with the mature themes, I say give it a try; however else you feel about it, it’s definitely not an audiobook that one forgets in a hurry.