Christian Holub
October 20, 2017 AT 09:59 AM EDT

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Neil Gaiman’s iconic comic series The Sandman was a story about stories. Its focus on Morpheus, the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, allowed Gaiman to flit among a wide range of genres: There were issues modeled after The Arabian Nights and Shakespeare plays; there were high-fantasy installments alongside road-trip buddy comedies. But very early on in its run, The Sandman dipped its toe in horror and produced the single most terrifying comic of all time: The Sandman #6 (1989), a story called “24 Hours.”

“I think I was definitely trying to find my voice,” the American Gods author tells EW. “I was trying on different hats over those first eight issues, but that one was just mine. I wanted to sail the horror ship out as far as I could in Sandman because even if I never went that far again in the rest of the run, people would know this thing was dangerous. They would know the ship could sink under you at any moment, and that felt like the right way to do it.”

The Sandman begins with our hero Morpheus losing all of his tools, including his magical ruby, which by issue #6 has fallen into the hands of the insane Doctor Destiny. Destiny eventually puts it to use controlling the minds of everyone in a 24-hour diner, making them worship him, then confess their darkest secrets (necrophilia is one particularly salient example), then ultimately brutally torture and kill one another — usually with their teeth — over the course of 24 hours. One of the more brutal injuries comes when a woman named Donna stabs her own eyes out with skewers, a deliberate evocation of the classic horror comics that were published by EC Comics during the ’50s and shut down by Dr. Frederic Wertham’s infamous anti-comic crusade (Wertham was particularly repulsed by what he called the “injury-to-the-eye motif” that often appeared in such comics).

Gaiman says the inspiration for the story’s structure came from a 1988 art-house film by Peter Greenaway called Drowning by Numbers, in which the numbers 1 through 100 count down over the course of a story about three women drowning their husbands. The movie sparked the idea to count down 24 hours of increasing depravity inside the diner.

“Normally, if you’re talking story and people ask for the inspiration behind it, the answer is ‘I have no f—ing clue, I made it up.’ With ’24 Hours,’ I actually know how I got there, which is very unusual for me,” Gaiman says. After seeing Drowning by Numbers and remembering that comic issues back then were 24 pages, Gaiman had the idea to do a story of 24 hours told in 24 pages … until, of course, he realized that he would need the first few pages to set up the plot. But there was an easy fix: “Suddenly I went, ‘Hang on. I’ll stay in one location, and awful things are going to happen in this one location over 24 hours.’ And it came into focus suddenly and beautifully. I knew roughly what had to happen in each hour and just brought a bunch of people onto the stage and destroyed them. And it was an awful thing. It was like, ‘Okay, where does my imagination go? What would I do to these people?’ And then going, ‘This needs to be relentless. It needs to be horrible. And it can never be torture porn. You can never enjoy what is happening to these people.'”

There were 75 issues of The Sandman in all, but early on “24 Hours” helped set a course that the series followed until the end. The inclusion of Betty, a waitress in the diner who likes to write stories about the other customers, centered the series’ storytelling philosophy.

“The lovely thing about having Betty the waitress was that I could have her line in the beginning, where she’d realized the problem with stories which is if you keep them going on long enough, they always end in death. And that, to me, was the key line. None of these people are gonna get happy endings,” Gaiman says. “Whenever people would criticize me because characters who they liked died in Sandman, I would point out to them that pretty much everybody dies in Sandman. It’s set out there that if you keep a story going long enough, it will end in death, and everybody, including Morpheus, is gonna get it. And that, I felt, was where that was established. I got to push that pin in in ‘24 Hours.’”

By the time the 24 hours are over and Destiny’s victims are all dead, the message has been conveyed to both overwhelmed readers and a haggard Morpheus: This comic will never again go the way you expect.

As for whether Gaiman will ever return to Sandman again (the way he did in 2015 for his  The Sandman: Overture miniseries with artist J.H. Williams III), the author says he’s keeping the door open. After all, a different version of Dream recently appeared in DC’s ongoing crossover event Dark Nights: MetalAll these years later, Sandman seems just as entrenched in the zeitgeist as ever.

Sandman should be this thing I did a long time ago that people have forgotten about now, and it really isn’t,” Gaiman says. “So why it feels relevant, I don’t know, but it still does. That people are still excited about it is thrilling to me. What the future holds for Sandman, I’m not sure other than I can confidently say that there will be more.”

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