Dream’s next stop is to Hell, searching for his helm. As Dream uses the sand of dreams to open a portal to the Underworld, he remembers “another” who fell, “his eyes still proud.” It is obvious that he speaks of Samael, better known as Lucifer. This short introduction to the fourth issue of Sandman gives us some idea of how old Dream really is, and also a notion of the power he must have.
Dream falls through the Naked Space into Hell, where a demon named Squatterbloat greets him, as well as poking fun at him for losing his helm and ruby. Dream is insulted enough by these jibes that, for the first and last time, we see him punch another character (Squatterbloat) in the face.
Another demon, Etrigan, appears and declares that he will guide Dream through Hell. Etrigan is another character who has appeared in previous DC comics, usually lending aid to the Justice League. A bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Etrigan shifts back and forth from his demon form and his human form, Jason Blood. Dream makes the comment that Etrigan has risen in Hell’s hierarchy, considering he now speaks in rhymes.
Etrigan leads Dream through the Wood of Suicides (which used to be a grove, but now looks like a true forest), and to a place where souls are imprisoned. Here, Dream sees his past love, Nada, who has been imprisoned for ten thousand years. She pleads for him to release her, and though he loves her, he says that he has not yet forgiven her. We will, of course, find out what happened between them in Sandman: Doll’s House.
They arrive at Dis, the hell city, where Etrigan leaves Dream in the presence of Lucifer. Lucifer asks if Dream has come to accept his offer to ally the forces of Hell and the Dreaming, but Dream (again) refuses. He explains that his helm is in the possession of a demon, and that he has come to reclaim it. Lucifer explains that things have changed in Hell since Dream’s last visit; that Hell is now a triumvirate of Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Azazel. Since Dream does not know the name of the demon who has his helm, they summon all of the demons of Hell before them, and tell Dream to point out the one who has it.
Dream uses the dream sand to point out the demon Choronzon, who eventually admits to having the helm. However, because it was traded fairly to him by Ruthven Sykes, Dream must challenge Choronzon to a battle of wits to win it back. The game they play is, indeed, one of the oldest games in existence. The object is to name an object (it can be almost anything). Your opponent attempts to name an object that will defeat the object you’ve named. Dream and Choronzon’s game goes as follows:
Choronzon: “I am a dire wolf, prey-stalking, lethal prowler.”
Dream: “I am a hunter, horse-mounted, wolf-stabbing.”
Choronzon: “I am a horsefly, horse-stinging, hunter-throwing.”
Dream: “I am a spider, fly-consuming, eight-legged.”
Choronzon: “I am a snake, spider-devouring, poison-toothed.”
Dream: “I am an ox, snake-crushing, heavy-footed.”
Choronzon: “I am an anthrax, butcher bacterium, warm-life destroying.”
Dream: “I am a world, space-floating, life-nurturing.”
Choronzon: “I am a nova, all-exploding, planet-cremating.”
Dream: “I am the Universe–all things encompassing, all life embracing.”
Choronzon: “I am anti-life, the beast of judgment. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything. And what will you be then, Dreamlord?”
Dream: “I am hope.”
Choronzon is unable to think of anything that could ever defeat Hope, so Dream wins. Choronzon is taken to be tortured, and Dream’s helm is returned to him. However, Lucifer claims that dreams have no power in Hell, suggesting that–even though Dream has won–there is no reason why Lucifer should let him leave.
Dream replies that, while weakened, Lucifer is foolish to think dreams have no power in Hell. “What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned could not dream of Heaven?” he asks. Lucifer realizes defeat, and allows him to pass, declaring that one day he will destroy Dream.
The epilogue of A Hope in Hell shows a security guard at Arkham Asylum giving John Dee the protective device Ruthven Sykes received in his trade with Choronzon. Dee’s mother has died, and so John inherits the device. While it no longer has any power now that the trade has ended, John thanks his mother, saying that it’s what he’s always wanted.
Many reviewers have pointed to A Hope in Hell as the point at which readers began to see Gaiman’s voice, and I would tend to agree. The Lucifer of Sandman is much different than the Lucifer portrayed in many of the John Constantine: Hellblazer graphic novels (as revealed in later volumes of Sandman), and Gaiman employs only one previously created DC comics character in the issue. The worst of this issue is that the demons portrayed come off as a bit cartoony–more likely to belch loudly than to torture souls for eternity.
A Hope in Hell is mainly the issue that shows us Dream’s incredible power. At times, we don’t know whether we should love him or fear him–should one love a being that demons fear? It also shows us his astonishing intellect–how many people would think of Hope as the one thing that could defeat the end of all things? Granted, it seems obvious when Gaiman points it out to us, but would we have thought of it were we in Dream’s position? Not many people can think that quickly. In short, A Hope in Hell sets things up for the final battle of Preludes & Nocturnes by showing us what Dream is capable of. It also shows us a few of Dream’s weaknesses–when he battles Choronzon, he doubts his own abilities, fearing that he is too weak to win. These doubts, too, make him seem more human so that we identify and sympathize with him more easily.
Next: No Direction Home