The Sandman graphic novels are intended for mature readers and though this post doesn't go into explicit detail there is discussion of events in the collection, including corpses and corruption. Just so you know.
Worlds' End is a collection of stories, illustrated by different artists, told within the framing narrative of a group of travellers swapping stories as they wait out a storm in the Worlds' End Inn.
A Tale of Two Cities
Illustrated by Alec Stevens
There once was a man called Robert, who lived in a city all his life and commuted between suburbs and the centre for work each day. A dreamy fellow, he spent his lunch breaks wandering the city taking in its sights. One evening he left work late and caught a sleek black train, the only other passenger was a pale man with dark hair and eyes. Robert realised he didn't know where the train was going and got off at the next opportunity. He found himself in a strange station, in an area he did not know. He ran and ran and saw no one, except for shadowy shapes at windows and briefly flickering people who vanished. The sky when from dark to light, but there was no sign of a sun or moon. For an unknown length of time Robert wandered empty roads past unfamiliar buildings, unable to find anything he knew or anyone else. On a bridge over a river he met an old man, who was also trapped in that place and reckoned they were in the dreams of the city. The old man spotted something he recognised and raced towards it, hoping to be restored to the real world. Robert spent the rest of his time there searching for something familiar. In a roof garden he met a woman and beyond her he saw a door that he had passed each day on his way to work. She asked his name and reached out to him, but he raced past her and rushed through the doorway. Blinded by sunlight he emerged, ragged and disheveled, on a street in his city. Mister Gaheris met Robert in a small village in the Scottish isles where he told his tale. Robert no longer lives in cities, he fears what will happen when they wake up.
Brant meets a corpse-looking man in the gents and in the tavern the fairy Cluracan offers to tell the next story:
Illustrated by John Watkiss
Cluracan was summoned by his Queen and sent as envoy to Aurelia, one of the greatest cities of the plains, in order to stop an alliance. He saw Aurelia had decayed since his last visit and was guided to the palace. He met Innocent XI, the spiritual leader of the Aurealian Church, and Carys XXXV, the ruler of Aurelia; they were the same unpleasant man. That evening he snuck invisibly out of his rooms and sent a message to Queen Titania. He met a nobleman who explained the current situation. The roles of ruler and spiritual leader used to be held by different people, but a treaty said the positions could be held by the same man, which coincidentally happened just after the ruler's heir was killed in a brawl. The nobleman wanted a spiritual leader who believes and a ruler who wants the best for the city. Cluracan attended a boring meeting, felt a prophecy come upon him, and recited a threatening rhyme to the spiritual leader/ruler. Cluracan was clapped in irons, the Aurelians had learned how to deal with fairies since he was last there, and thrown in a cell. In dreams he saw his sister Nuala, who he was meant to visit in the Dreaming, and told her of his situation. Later Lord Shaper appeared, he doesn't care what happens to Cluracan, but Nuala is a faithful servant and implored him to help. He released Cluracan and took him into the city. Cluracan used various guises to go around Aurelia spreading rumours and swearing all sort of terrible things about the spiritual leader/ruler. The people rose and the spiritual leader/ruler took refuge in the tomb of previous rulers. Cluracan removed his glamour to reveal that he is the cause. One of the corpses in the tomb rose (nothing to do with Cluracan) and threw the disgraced spiritual leader/ruler out of a high window. Cluracan left the city, got caught in the reality storm and came to the inn.
Cluracan is questioned about his story and gets annoyed when his sister is brought up. He suggests someone else tell a story.
The next story is told by a lad called Jim, who wants to know where they are. The landlady explains that the Worlds' End is its own place. An exterior veiw shows the Inn on a cliff surrounded by rocks. Jim was on a ship, and there shouldn't have been any land there, and the lad wonders whether it's all a dream or a hallucination. Brant says it's June 1993, but Jim says its September 1914. Jim is told to get on with the story:
Illustrated by Michael Zulli and Dick Giordano
Jim was born to a widow in Sydney in 1899, and from his father inherited a fascination with the sea. When he turned 13 he borrowed old clothes and ran away to sea. Jim served on a few ships before the Sea Witch. A rich gentleman called Mr Gadling came aboard in Bombay as a passenger, though the Captain disapproved of passengers on a working ship, and Jim was told to steward for him on top of his other work. The ship had sailors from many countries and it's clear Jim loves working on a tall ship, though steam ships are becoming more popular. 5 days out of Bombay a stowaway was found in the hold, a small Indian gentleman. The Captain wanted to kick him off at the next port but Mr Gadling paid for the Indian gentleman's passage to Liverpool. One evening the two passengers talk with Jim. The Indian gentleman tells story about the fickleness of women:
There was an Indian King who loved his wife more than life itself, and when he obtained fruit that would bestow immortality he gave it to his wife. She gave the fruit to her lover, the Captain of the Guard, and he gave it to courtesan he was infatuated with. She wasn't sure of the fruit and wanted riches, so she went to the palace and offered it to the King. He had her rewarded, and ordered his wife and her lover killed without torture. Then he dressed in rags and left the city, eating the fruit as he went.
Jim thinks the story is stupid and Mr Gadling agreed, pointing out that it's people who are unfaithful, and menget more opportunity to mess around than women. When a storm hit Jim spent more time with Mr Gadling, who tried to tell the secret of not drowning, though Jim thought it was a joke. Jim found an old tin picture, which must have been of Mr Gadling's father. After the storm the ship was becalmed and then bombarded by thousands of fish swimming past. The ship lurched on swells as an enormous sea monster appeared above the waves. After it descended no one on the crew would talk about it. When they docked at Aden Jim discussed it with Mr Gadling, who suggested getting a newspaper correspondent to come and ask around the ship in order to find the truth. After returning to the Sea Witch from shore leave Mr Gadling guessed that Jim didn't tell anyone about the sea monster, because she didn't want to draw attention to herself. Jim is shocked that Mr Gadling knew, her real name is Margaret, called Peggy by her mother. She overheard that Mr Gadling owns the Sea Witch, and he told her that when he's in Liverpool he'll tell the company that his Uncle Bob died and he has inherited the shares but wants to sell them. He threw the tin picture into the sea. Mr Gadling won't tell her secret and she last saw him on the dock in Liverpool.
She ends her story by saying that he was the only person in all her travels who ever realised she wasn't a boy. She worries that she's getting too old to keep passing, and will have to take on a new life and a new name.
Brant describes his stay in the Inn, it was bigger than it first seemed and he listened to stories all night, which seemed longer than it should. As the storm raged outside the innkeeper showed him to a room upstairs and he slept for a time. Trying to get back downstairs he came upon an alcove filled with books, sitting in the middle was an Oriental man who isn't sheltering from the storm and asks him where he's from. Brant answers Seattle and the man asks which America, then asks him the order of recent presidents. He is not impressed with Brant's answer and tells the story of the person he follows:
The Golden Boy
Illustrated by Michael Allred
In the USA a woman gave birth to a blond boy and called him Prez - short for President. Prez lived in Steadfast, a town famous for its many clocks, which all ran at different times. At 13 Prez was found by his mother at the town hall, impressing the city leaders by discussing civics. When he was 16 Prez adjusted every clock in town to the correct time. That year 18-year-olds were given the vote and voted themselves into the Senate and Congress. Prez was visited by Boss Smiley, prince of that world, who told him he would make him president, as long as he remembered who he owed it to. Prez turned down the offer, wanting to be president on his own terms. Prez worked hard on his political career. One night the current president visited Prez in his room and told him that presidents don't get to make a difference. Prez disagreed. On election day there were various omens and Prez was elected president aged only 19. Prez started Middle East peace talks, averted the energy crisis, reduced the deficit, appeared on Saturday Night Live. Prez also stopped the arms race and remained popular. In his third year Prez was visited by Boss Smiley, who appears in no files and advised him not to run again. Prez, who appears to be neither Democrat nor Republican, was re-elected and in his second term he reduced pollution, sorted out trade agreements, received a Nobel peace prize, and got engaged to his high school sweetheart Kathy. Kathy and Prez were shot by a deranged woman who was obsessed with boxer Ted Grant. Kathy was killed and Prez injured, the young president visited the shooter and offered her clemency but she still went to the electric chair. After that Prez stayed in the White House more, but was still loved. One night Boss Smiley appeared on Prez's TV and offered to return Kathy to him, Prez ignored this. Prez left office quietly though people suggested he should have another term, a lifetime presidency or even be made Emperor. Prez retired to Steadfast and repaired clocks in seclusion. The new President sent people to ask for Prez's advice, but he refused all offers and one day he disappeared. There were stories and sightings of him travelling America, none confirmed. One day Prez died. No one knew how and there was no body, though there were various theories, but the whole nation went into mourning though no one could say how they knew he was dead.
The Oriental man describes the next bit as what happened after Prez died, it is his personal belief:
Prez met Death, who was interested in his situation but handed him over to 2 grim-faced angels, who represented not the Creator, but the guy who runs the local franchise. They took him to Boss Smiley, who was clean and bright on an enormous throne in the clouds. Prez said he never worked for Boss Smiley, but the big yellow face disagreed, and revealed that there are many worlds and Americas. Prez refused to stay and wanted to help the other Americas, Boss Smiley tried to stop him leaving but Morpheus appeared and said that as Prince of Stories Prez is under his jurisdiction. Morpheus sent Prez through a door that led to other worlds. Prez explained how he repaired his first clock, a pocket watch that belonged to his dead father. He gave it to Morpheus and went out across the worlds.
The Oriental man tells Brant that he seeks and follows Prez, spreading his word.
Brant eventually finds downstairs and the landlady tells him that the interior of the inn can be confusing. He sees Klaproth again. He joins Charlene's table, where there have been more stories, though Charlene looks alarmed when Brant asks if she's told a story. A young, pale man called Petrefax asks Klaproth if he is allowed to go next, Klaproth is his master and features in his story:
Illustrated by Shea Anton Pensa and Vince Lock
Petrefax describes being an apprentice and sitting in his schoolroom in the Necropolis Litharge. When he didn't seem to be paying attention Klaproth questioned him on types of burial and sent him to observe and report on an air burial happening that evening. Petrefax rushed across the city to the mountains and met Master Hermas and his two apprentices, Mig and Scroyle. Petrefax watched as they carefully and professionally dismembered the body of the client, describing the process for him as they went. They threw the pieces to the birds, and ground down the bones to be mixed with barley. This done they sat, ate sandwiches and told stories, as is the custom in the client's land. Mig goes first:
He tells of the land where they hang criminals and had trouble finding hangmen, especially in small communities. Billy Scutt was due to be hanged for body snatching, but was offered the chance prolong his life by working as hangman, so long as he was hanged before he died. He was a good hangman, but when he fell ill he told his wife that he wanted to die in his bed. When the Sheriff's men, hearing Billy was ill, came to hang him they found him standing and proclaiming his good health. After they left Billy's wife cut down the rope that had held him up and he was able to die in his own bed, and the town lost the right to have a hangman. He was Mig's grandfather.
Scroyle tells his story next:
He was sent to the Necropolis when he was eight, accompanying his father's body on a barge down the river. He had been pledged to the Necropolis in return for his father getting a grave there. As an apprentice he has learned funerary arts and skills from many lands, he has cared for clients according to their own beliefs and cultures, and he has done the things apprentices do. One day he saw a traveller, a rare sight in the Necropolis, who sat with him and observed that Litharge hadn't changed much since he was last there. Then the stranger told the story of the first Necropolis, before Litharge:
That Necropolis is no longer named and it went bad because they regarded what they did as a job and worked without care, love or respect. They disposed of bodies -not clients- and said no payers for the dead. The place decayed as no one cared for it. One day six strangers came to the city, their sister had died and they had come for the cerements and book of rituals. The Necropolitans laughed and called them mad because there was no body and no offering. The eldest raised his head in his grey cowl and declared their charter revoked. A great wind came down and the city died, swallowed by the earth or crumbled to dust. The village of Litharge was given a charter to be a Necropolis.
The traveller finished his tale and his food and left.
Petrefax asked if that is how Litharge was founded and Master Hermas said the histories go back over 80,000 years. Then Master Hermas told a story himself:
When he was a child he was 'prenticed to old Mistress Veltis, along with Petrefax's Master, Klaproth. She was very skilled at her worked, her skills all the more impressive because her right hand was withered. One night the boys were woken by a storm and Mistress Veltis came and told them old stories from her childhood and she told them her own story:
When she was a girl she had smashed a flask of embalming fluid and fearing punishment she had fled deep into the catacombs and got lost. She had found a huge room with six silver cerements hanging in the darkness and a huge book. A voice asked her: Which of them is dead?Not knowing what it meant she explained how she had gotten there. The voice said the embalming flask was fixed as though it had never broken and her Master would not notice her absence. The girl asked how could she know the voice spoke the truth, and as punishment for her lack of faith the voice provided proof by withering her right hand. The girl went up and found everything as the voice had said. Over the years she searched the catacombs but never saw the room again.
When Mistress Veltis was close to death Hermas and Klaproth escorted her to the catacombs and waited by the entrance for a day and night. When the old woman returned she died and they laid her out so that all Litharge could pay their respects, and no one commented that her right hand was whole again.
Petrefax was offered the chance to tell a story, but he didn't think he had one. He revealed that he wanted to do well as an apprentice and become a journeyman, but he also dreams of travelling lands beyond.
He says that now he's become a journeyman he has learned more, but is viciously interrupted by Klaproth, who warns him that he is saying too much to outsiders. Jim and Brant object, saying Petrefax should be able to tell them anything he wants. Brant reckons they're all dead anyway, but Klaproth points out that he knows death. Brant wants an explanation, the landlady says she has one.
Illustrated by Bryan Talbot, Mark Buckingham, Dick Giordano, Steve Leialoha, Gary Amaro and Tony Harris
Brant, Klaproth and Jim all demand a explanation from the landlady. She explains that they are in the Inn at the End of All Worlds. None of them was brought there, they were all travelling and got caught in a storm, and were lucky enough to find refuge. Charlene asks what a reality storm is. The landlady says that when big things happen they echo and create ripples in the fragile fabric of reality, which often manifest as storms. Brant angrily disagrees that reality is fragile, but when challenged he can't explain how he got there. The landlady tells them that the Inn is what's left when real worlds end, behind her the formerly cramped space becomes huge, spreading out as far as they can see, full of people. She assures Jim that they are not dead, though sometimes dead people visit. She cannot tell Petrefax what event caused the storm, just that it is very big. The landlady leaves to break up a fight that's brewing. Charlene asks why all the stories are boy's stories with no women in them. Jim points out that hers was a woman's story, but Charlene carelessly states that the point of Jim's story was that there weren't any women in it. She goes on to say that there were no real women in any story she heard, just pretty figures in the background. The centaur asks her what her story is. Charlene angrily explains that she doesn't have a story. She talks about her life with disappointment; an OK job, a bad apartment, an ex-husband, loneliness, lack of talent, dull routine. She embarrasses Grant by talking about a drunken incident at an office party, and as she describes how she doesn't really need other people she gets sadder and runs off in tears. Awkwardly Brant tries to save face, but makes things worse. The storm destroys a tree just outside, its getting closer, or worse. Someone calls everyone to the window.
Brant sees the sky is full of colour, when it clears he sees enormous figures walk across the sky. He doesn't know who they are but readers recognise Destiny. Then a coffin is carried by familiar figures. A group of mythical figures follow, including Merv Pumpkinhead, Wilkinson, Queen Titiania, Despair, Bast, a raven, an angel, Odin, Emperor Norton I, Thor, Martin Tenbones and others. Finally Delirium and Death walk across the sky and though Brant doesn't know who she is he catches the sadness on Death's face and falls in love with her.
Back in the Inn the mood is sombre and the storm has passed. The landlady says everyone can leave. Cluracan, abruptly sober, must report to his Queen. Petrefax refuses to go with Klaproth and leaves with Chiron, to his Master's annoyance. Charlene says she won't leave, she'll stay and work at the inn. The landlady says she herself came there on a jounrey and stayed, as she speaks her shadow has extra arms. Charlene says goodbye and Brant leaves.
Brant is sitting in a bar, telling a barmaid that he found himself in Charlene's car in a McDonald's car park. The car was fine and all the papers were in his name. He can't find any trace of Charlene's existence and he never returned to Seattle. The barmaid asks if he imagined it. He often thinks that he did, but he remembers how he felt when he saw the funeral in the sky and knows it was real. The barmaid closes up, Brant thanks her for listening, then walks into the night.
In the introduction Stephen King points out that a lot of the stories are nested like Russian dolls. Stories are told within stories, within stories, and at the very end we discover that the whole thing is a story Brant is telling. There is one place in Cerements where we see a glimpse of possible circularity, among the old stories that Madame Veltis tells the boys Hermas and Klaproth is one "about a coach-full of prentices and a master, swept away from Litharge by dark magics, who took their refuge in the tavern, where the price of haven was a tale." This is clearly a description of the Worlds' End, in which Petrefax is sitting, recounting the tale of the time he heard Master Hermas tell of that story. Whether the story is about what happens to Klaproth, Petrefax and their companions that has reached back into the past, or whether it is from a similar event that happened long ago, doesn't really matter. It's the resonance that gives this throwaway reference it's power, just as happened with a lot of the dialogue in Brief Lives.
The theme of cities reappears. A Tale of Two Cities is eerie and it's suggestion of cities as entities that can dream and might one day wake is unsettling, in a similar way that A Dream of A Thousand Cats in Dream Country was unsettling. Cluracan's Tale featured Aurelia, which looks rather Roman when Cluracan remembers its glory days, and is shown to have decayed and become squalid over time. The man who should represent the spiritual and physical realms of the city is corrupt and it seems that Cluracan becomes an agent of what's best for the city itself, which luckily corresponds with his mission. Cerements tells us about the Necropolis Litharge (and its unnamed predecessor), a city entirely devoted to the dead and organised entirely around this principle. All the inhabitants are in the funerary profession, they wear the clothes of the dead, are fed on offerings, look rather like corpses and learn a huge variety of skills as part of the function of the Necropolis. Cities were also important in Fables and Reflections, with San Francisco, early Imperial Rome and medieval Baghdad all being important settings. Plus in A Game of You contemporary New York played an important role as the setting for most of the real world scenes, with opinions of the city and life there mentioned regularly.
There are lots of references to other things throughout Worlds' End, I doubt I spotted all of them. Chiron the centaur is a character from Ancient Greek myth. The landlady seems to be the Indian goddess Kali. One of tasks mentioned in Cerements is guarding clients to stop witches stealing their faces and tongues, an obvious reference to Thessaly's treatment of George in A Game of You.
The story with the most references I noticed was the Golden Boy. The mention of Saturday Night Live is significant because in Prez's America Jim Belushi lived into old age,
and his shock that Prez did all he did while sober seems to have
inspired him. Ted Grant the boxer, also known as Wildcat, is a character
in the main DC superhero universe (or was, I don't really get how the
DCU operates). The "joke" campaign for Prez to be elected Emperor
starts in San
Francisco, and is clearly a reference to Norton I, though it's not clear
whether that gentleman actually existed in the world Prez came from.
The yellow smiley face symbol of Boss Smiley has resonance with Alan
Moore's Watchmen (Moore and Gaiman are friends and Moore's work was influential in getting Gaiman into comics) where it was the symbol of the Comedian. There's also the fact that Prez fixes clocks and watches, clockmaking was an important part of the back story of Dr Manhattan. In fact as an alternate history of 20th Century America it has perhaps the opposite tone of Watchmen, presenting a bright utopia with a slightly supernatural feel to the story. Of course the biggest reference in Golden Boy is basically the American, civic version of Jesus. A bright star is shown in the sky at the time of his birth. At 13 his mother loses him in town then finds him impressing civic leaders, much like a young Jesus did with learned men in the temple. During the missing years of Prez's story there's this image above (a blond Jesus picture if ever there was one). It doesn't say how old Prez was when he died, I wouldn't be surprised if he was 33.
Morpheus appears in most of these stories and those he doesn't appear in have other familiar characters. He is the pale, silent stranger Robert sees on the mysterious train.
Cluracan of course already knows Lord Shaper when he is rescued from the Aurelian dungeon, though Cluracan does not seem to explain his rescuer to his audience.
Hob's Leviathan features Morpheus's centuries-old friend Hob Gadling, as a wealthy ship owner who is having to move into another new life. Hob never appeared in Brief Lives, despite the focus on people and entities with long lives, but Hob is full of life and didn't really belong in that more morbid story arc. The Indian stowaway is clearly telling his own story when he mentions the King who ate the fruit of immortality, this is made clear when Hob says there aren't many people like them around.
Death appears in Golden Boy, she tells her brother about Prez's situation and Morpheus takes Prez from Boss Smiley and allows him to continue with his mission. Both Boss Smiley and Morpheus recognise Prez as a powerful narrative symbol, but where Boss Smiley wants to add Prez to his own glory, Morpheus allows Prez to continue his story.
In Cerements Scroyle's travelling stranger is Destruction. It isn't clear at what point in his journey Scroyle encounters him. He isn't accompanied by Barnabas and he carries a similar handkerchief-on-a-stick to the one he made for himself at the end of Brief Lives, suggesting it could be after that. However it's likely that this encounter happened years earlier, in Petrefax's timeline at least. Of course Jim and Brant's comparison of dates shows that people are there from different times, as well as different worlds. Destruction's story concerns events that happened after the death of the first Despair and shows that the Endless have their funerary rites too, which is backed up by the tale of what happened to Mistress Veltis as a girl.
The giant funerary procession in the sky features lots of familiar faces, probably more than I can identify/name, from across the span of the series. Destiny leads. A coffin is carried by pallbearers, one of whom looks like Desire. Despair walks among the mass of mourners. Delirium and then Death are in the rear. This, it seems, is the big event that caused that storm.
Charlene's anger at all the boys stories is great, because it's true and not only does her outburst acknowledge this, it points out why it's a problem. The women are pretty background figures and not people (though unlike Charlene I'm willing to give Jim a pass as I enjoy female cross-dressing stories). Sandman story arcs alternate genders. Most of the masculine books are about Morpheus and have his POV, so the story-gender isn't surprising. Worlds'
End is the first masculine story that doesn't feature him, and
so there's no reason most of the characters, narrators and POVs should be
male. The fact that they are, and this is used to make a very valid point about literature in general, is brilliant. Sometimes it's hard to believe this was being written 20+ years ago, few current works seem this self-aware about gender representation. I also note that there are a lot of main female characters in the feminine story arcs. In fact there are a lot of ordinary, relateable female characters in Sandman, which I suspect may be part of the reason why I've never got into superhero comics so much.
As in earlier collections there are different artists illustrating different stories. In this case there's the framing narrative of the Inn, which means that different artists' work can appear on the same page, especially at the beginning and end of the stories.
All the inn scenes have black gutters, as does any scene from Brant's point of view, including the bar at the very end. Otherwise the only black gutters appear during Mig's story and parts of Master Hermas's story in Cerements.
The Tale of Two Cities story has very stylised art combined with its broad white gutters, it is a huge, airy contrast to the dark gutters earlier in that issue. The words are in the white spaces, there are no speech balloons or dialogue boxes. The pictures and the words seem more separate than is usual in comics, informing each other without actually sharing the same spaces on the page. The pictures are mostly small, showing fragments and glimpses of the action. Growing larger only to emphasise a character in an important moment.
Cluracan's Tale has more stylised art, contrasting to the inn scenes, but in a very different way to the story that preceded it. It makes bold use of colour and is set out in a more traditional page layout. Cluracan is probably the most changed character, looking entirely different (and more human) within his story than in the inn scenes, in most other cases the different artists seem to have agreed on the look of characters. Of course Cluracan is a fairy and therefore is changeable. Compare the long-haired, pointy-eared blond here with the short-haired, round eared brunette up the page
Hob's Levithan is drawn in a very naturalistic style, which makes the inn scenes look a little cartoonish by comparison, though the inn sections appear more naturalistic than both Cluracan's Tale and A Tale of Two Cities. This fits with Jim's real life, historical story and makes the overblown supernatural element all the more ridiculous.
Golden Boy is very bright and clean cut, much like it's protagonist.
Cerements has a looser art style, but the characters that reappear at different ages are recognisable and those that appear in the story and the inn are drawn to look the same though by different artists. Compare the picture of Petrefax just above with the one further up the page.
Worlds' End is drawn by several artists. The regular inn scenes continue to be Bryan Talbot's expressive and realistic (if not naturalistic) art. The procession in the sky and the final two pages are darker and more moody, with the last panel only picking out the highlights against a black background.
Foreshadowing is underneath the cut as ever and includs me speculating on timelines, and possibly over thinking it.
Next: The Kindly Ones*
Last week: Brief Lives
* As the Kindly Ones is the biggest collection, over twice the size of most of the others, I may take longer to read, write up and post about it.
Foreshadowing (and aftshadowing?)
For the purpose of this section where I say 'current' I am referring to the time between Brief Lives and The Kindly Ones. The people in the Inn are all coming from different times with history and the wider story arc, so although this collection is between, the characters are mostly from elsewhen.
In a Tale of Two Cities Robert gets on a black train and sees Morpheus, this is probably the sleek, black train that Morpheus uses to return to the Dreaming in the later part of The Kindly Ones.
Mister Gaheris met Robert some years after these events, and it isn't clear how long it was between him hearing and recounting the tale, though based on his appearance it might not have been that long. This would suggest Mister Gaheris is coming from a time ahead of what is current to the series.
Nuala asks Cluracan to come and visit her in the Dreaming, and clearly has been asking for a while. He will go and visit her at the start of The Kindly Ones, but only after reporting what he has seen to Queen Titania and being sent. Despite his independent and unconcerned attitude Cluracan is his mistress's servant.
I think Cluracan is fairly current. His adventure in Aurelia could have taken place place before or after Brief Lives, but I suspect after. Here Morpheus describes Nuala as faithful, and it's at the end of the preceding collection that we see him praise her work. Despite being incredibly drunk Cluracan is sobered and concerned by what he sees in the sky, which is no surprise as an image of Titania appears in the funeral procession.
We know Jim is from 1914, and her story probably took place somewhere between 1912-14.
The Golden Boy could have taken place at any time, it's an alternate history story based on a world very similar to our own. It looks like it's set mostly in the 70s and 80s, which is interesting as (in our timeline) Morpheus was imprisoned then.
As mentioned earlier Cerements has the most nested stories. Petrefax's story seems to take place at least a year earlier, possibly a few years before, when he was an apprentice. Mig and Scroyle were also apprentices then, but further along in their education, so probably older than Petrefax. Scroyle's story featuring Destruction seems to have been reasonably recent to the telling, he didn't look much younger in the story. Master Hermas tells of a time when he was a boy, so that has to be a few decades past at least (assuming the Necropolitans are human and/or have similar lifespans to humans). Mistress Veltis is described as being very old back then, meaning the events of her own childhood story could be a century or so back. The stories that were old when she was a girl could be two or more centuries old, including the one about the necropolitans stuck telling stories in an inn. It could be a story about an earlier reality storm under similar circumstances. Possibly even what happened when Despair was killed, though it sounds as though that event took place over 80,000 years previously and the changing of the necropolis charter suggests the histories of the previous necropolis were erased.
I like the idea that the story is in fact an account of the same night that we are witnessing as current in Worlds' End. This could mean that Petrefax is from over a century (perhaps centuries) in the future, and the tale was carried to Litharge another way. Or perhaps it was carried by someone who heard the story there but came from a much earlier time. As the Inn seems to exist outside normal time it's hard to tell. Either way I like the idea that the story is being told as layers of remembrance long before anyone in it has been born. The changes in the details (dark magic as opposed to a reality storm) sound like a story having its rough edges smoothed off and interesting ideas added on over numerous retellings down the years. This would mean that when young Klaproth is told the story one stormy night, and when Petrefax hears it decades later at the air burial, it is in fact a description of their future.
Worlds' End shows us the funeral procession of Morpheus, depicting events from The Wake. Of course it doesn't look exactly the same as the funeral in that collection (art styles massively different for a start) but the blue rose on top of the coffin is a telling detail.
The final two pages show that the whole story within the Inn is being told by Brant. It's not clear how much later this is happening, long enough for him to have grown a ponytail, so a good few months at least. I've heard theories that the barmaid he's talking to is Thessaly. I can see a similarity, but never thought it was her on my earlier readings, she didn't seem to have the same manner as Thessaly. Looking again I see that the barmaid has a pendant that looks like the one Thessaly gave Nuala before the events of Brief Lives. It's not an uncommon type of pendant and could mean nothing, or could be a red herring.
If it is the same pendant then that would suggest that Brant is telling the story before the events of Brief Lives, before Morpheus and Thessaly get together even. Alternatively it could be a different pendant, but still one owned by Thessaly, meaning that Brant could be telling the story after the events of The Kindly Ones or after the main story arc. Personally I didn't get the sense that Thessaly knew what was coming during the events of The Kindly Ones, and the bar maid's emotions and reactions show no hint that she has any greater understanding of what Brant is telling her. She says that she doesn't think Brant is crazy, but she also says that she perhaps she ought to, which really doesn't seem like something Thessaly would say. Of course that's just my take on it.