You never know where a dream is going to take you, something that readers of THE SANDMAN are reminded of the moment they get to issue #6 of the series and the story known as “24 Hours.” A nearly standalone tale, “24 Hours” is commonly acknowledged as one of the most disturbing comics ever written. DC All Access ranked it at the top of their list of scariest DC stories of all time. Yet, it was hardly the first horrific story in Neil Gaiman’s ever-popular Vertigo series. In issue #3, we journey through a flesh-strewn hall to confront a strung-out woman who’s become addicted to the sand in Morpheus’ lost pouch. In issue #4 we literally travel with Morpheus to hell and back. In fact, it’s easy to lose sight of now that it’s close to thirty years later, but The Sandman was actually quite frightening in its early issues, brought to terrifying life by the art of Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg.
So why is it “24 Hours” is such a morbid standout? In a series of dreams, why do so many people still have such strong memories of this one nightmare?
Well, for starters, it’s really damn unsettling.
For those of you who haven’t read the story, or perhaps could use a memory refresh, “24 Hours” takes place over a single day within a single setting: an all-night diner. Doctor Destiny has stolen a ruby from Morpheus capable of manipulating the fabric of dreams, which he then uses to control the minds of the diner’s handful of patrons. What follows is a slowly building parade of atrocities as the patrons are gradually forced to confess their deepest secrets and darkest fantasies, indulge in their basest instincts, worship Doctor Destiny as a god (complete with offerings and sacrifice) and eventually murder each other in some of the most sickening ways ever put to paper.
There’s no hope of escape. The ruby’s power keeps the victims firmly under Doctor Destiny’s control. There’s no escape for us, the readers, either. The entire comic is set inside the diner, with the only glimpses of the outside world being provided by occasional news broadcasts on the diner’s small television. “24 Hours” is an issue-long nightmare that never lets up. We’re given no hope of reprieve. Any glimmer that this may somehow end with Morpheus’ sweeping in and saving the day is all but destroyed when, in a moment of clarity and understanding, the victims ask Doctor Destiny why he’s doing all of this to them and he responds, simply: “Because I can.”
Let’s talk about Morpheus, while we’re at it. He barely appears in this issue, emerging for the very first time on the final page, after the damage has been done. If you’ve read The Sandman, you know this isn’t exactly unheard of in the series. In fact, some of the comic’s best stories feature Morpheus in only a limited role. But this is the first time it happens in the series (and rarely does it happen in such a disturbing story). Prior to now, we’ve had Morpheus as our guiding hand. Even when things turned dark and frightening, he stood tall and confident, giving us confidence that everything would work out as we hoped.
That’s definitely not the case in “24 Hours.” When Dream does make his appearance, he’s hardly the voice of confidence we would want. In fact, he doesn’t say anything at all, leaving Doctor Destiny to comment, “You don’t look strong enough to even make it interesting, do you?”
“24 Hours” also just feels realer than what we typically see in Gaiman’s comic, or even horror comics in general. While the forces driving the diner patrons to commit their extreme acts are supernatural, the acts themselves are grounded in reality. There’s nothing that happens in “24 Hours” that couldn’t happen in real life. This is human horror, drawn from our worst, darkest, most terrifying impulses, and it begins so gently, with everyone getting what they want out of life. One woman dreams of dislodging Stephen King from the bestseller list. Another man envisions himself as the influential executive director of a major company.
The man will later get his throat bitten out by another patron as the hopeful author cheers him on.
The horror genre trappings all work, but there’s another layer here that adds to the story’s success and memorability. Story is one of the biggest themes in The Sandman, and Gaiman makes a powerful early point about it in “24 Hours.” The story begins by introducing us to Bette, the diner waitress who secretly writes stories about her patrons when she gets off work. These stories, we’re told, all end happily. The key is simply ending them at the right time. After all, every person’s story, if it goes on long enough, always ends in death.
It’s an ironic opening, but also all too true. A story may end happily if you finish it at the right time, but it also may be incomplete. And anyone who knows how The Sandman ends knows that it’s not an incomplete tale.
In short, there are plenty of reasons why “24 Hours” remains unnerving. Really, just pick a page and flip to it and you’re likely to unearth a couple. But it remains memorable because of what it taught us about The Sandman. Morpheus’s tale was much like a dream itself, once you thought you had a handle on what to expect, it would take an unexpected turn and surprise you. And when it does, there’s no escape.