Meet Cain and Abel. They’re brothers. You might remember them from such classic stories as the Bible. However, what you may not know is that Cain and Abel both starred in their own DC comics series, The House of Mystery and The House of Secrets, both of which were popular 1970s horror comics.
We first meet the two of them in a dark house near a graveyard. Cain is trying to get Abel to open a present, but Abel is hesitant considering the fact that Cain is the kind of brother who “kills me whenever he’s, uh…mad at me, or bored, or just in a lousy m-mood.” Cain’s comical response to this is, “Let’s just let fraternal bygones be bygones.”
At this point, there’s a knock on the door. Cain rushes to see what it is, but once again Abel is hesitant, thinking it might be something nasty. It turns out that it’s Gregory the Gargoyle carrying the Lord of Dreams in his mouth. He is weak, and blacks out moments after he pleads with Cain and Abel to help him.
Dream wakes up in a bed, and Abel comes to check in on him. We learn that both Cain and Abel are actually dreams from “the first story,” and that this is Cain’s House of Mystery. Cain appears a few moments later with food, and Dream asks them if they have anything of his that he created. Although Cain denies it, Abel chimes in that they both have letters of commission, suggesting that there was some prior agreement between Dream and the brothers. Abel offers his letter, and Dream absorbs the dream material back into himself, becoming stronger.
Here we receive an interjection. At Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Ethel Dee (who we met in Sleep of the Just) is attempting to see her son, John Dee. John is a super villain known as Doctor Destiny, who appears in a few of the Justice League of America comics. After some discussion, she convinces Dr. Huntoon to let her see John, but is horrified by how John has changed. He appears skeletal, almost alien. He claims that someone took his dreams from him.
Returning to Dream, we see him walk through the Gates of Horn and Ivory. As Dream says, the dreams that pass through the Gates of Ivory are lies, while those that pass through the Gates of Horn are truthful. This concept appears to have been first introduced to literature in Homer’s The Odyssey, although it was probably a common belief among many of the Greeks.
Passing through the Gates, Dream discovers that his castle is completely in ruins. A man with pointed ears and a garden hoe stands looking at it. This is Lucien, who also had his own three-issue comic book called Tales of Ghost Castle by Paul Levitz and Joe Orlando. As Gaiman himself puts it in The Sandman Companion, “…it occurred to me that Ghost Castle was really the Sandman’s castle during the period when Dream was imprisoned and his castle was becoming nebulous.”
Lucien informs Dream that much has changed since the time before his imprisonment. Certain dreams have simply left the Dreaming, while others have changed so dramatically that they can no longer be recognized. Cain’s present to Abel, for example, turns out to be a harmless baby gargoyle. Such kindness is against Cain’s nature, although we learn that things haven’t changed so much when Cain kills Abel for wanting to name the gargoyle Irving (names for gargoyles always begin with a “G,” as Cain informs us).
Although things like this will remain the same, Dream understands that things have changed to the point where they will never be as they were. Thus, he absorbs what remains of the Castle of Dreams back into himself, resigning himself to reconstructing it from scratch. Some power returns to him, but he will never be the same without the tools that were stolen from him.
Lucien suggests that he call the “Three-in-One” for advice, and Dream does so. This deity (or these deities) seem to have been around since the dawn of time. They make appearances in almost all of the European mythologies, and are referred to as the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They also had their own comic series called The Witching Hour, which is exactly the time of night that Dream meets up with them. One is a young maiden, another a middle-aged maid, and the last an old crone, although they appear to all be connected at the waist.
They inform Dream that he may ask them three questions, and he will receive three answers (one answer from each of them). He asks the maiden where his pouch of sand is, and she informs him that it was last seen in the possession of John Constantine, an English wizard. The maid informs him that his crown was traded to a demon, although she will not tell him which demon. The dream ruby, the crone tells him, was taken from Doctor Destiny by the Justice League (here we get a picture of Green Lantern binding Doctor Destiny while Batman holds the dream ruby).
Dream thanks the Weird Sisters (which is something you just don’t do), and decides that it would be best to seek out Constantine first. One human, he decides, will likely be less of a threat to him in his weakened state than the armies of Hell or a league of super humans (clearly, Dream has never read a single John Constantine: Hellblazer comic in his life).
The end of this issue shows Abel’s corpse crawling out of a ditch, slowly coming back to life. As he cleans his wounds, he tells his gargoyle (who he refers to as Goldie, although he will always think of it as Irving) a story about two brothers who lived together, were very nice to each other, and would never hurt each other. As he tells the story, a single drop of blood drips from his bruised eye, and he informs Goldie that, “I’m not crying. I’m really not crying. It’s only blood…” As a result of this story, we learn that it’s possible for the inhabitants of the Dreaming to have dreams and desires. However, Cain seems to believe that every death he puts Abel through teaches his brother a new lesson. While Cain may very well love Abel, he has an abusive way of showing it.
There’s not really a major theme of Preludes and Nocturnes: Imperfect Hosts other than setting out on a journey. Dream discovers that he has lost much of himself, and goes out looking for it. He doesn’t want to change; he wants everything to be as it was, though he will find that avoiding or fighting change is a losing battle. Nevertheless, this new journey continues to present the theme of Dream’s rebirth. In Sleep of the Just, he is born into the world anew, and in Imperfect Hosts he has reached almost an adolescent stage where he begins to question who he is because he cannot be who he was. This “growing up” theme continues throughout the entire Sandman series.
Next: Bring Me a Dream.