During the late 1950s, DC Comics struck gold with the release of a number of horror titles, notably House of Mystery and House of Horror. Both of these have since gained cult classic status thanks to the legendary creative teams spinning chilling narratives around beautiful blood-curling macabre panels—very in sync with the classic Hammer and Grindhouse horror movies. In later years, with restrictions imposed by the CCA (Comics Code Authority), the element of horror gradually waned in mainstream comics. It made a sporadic resurgence during the Bronze Age of comics during the late 1970s, and using their Vertigo imprint titles, DC managed to keep the dread alive, especially through The Hellblazer and Sandman titles. Therefore, in the post-Rebirth era, DC Comics’ creative team’s perceivable interest in rejuvenating the horror themes in even mainstream series like Detective Comics and DCeased must have elated horror fans like myself.
Doubling down on the success of the trend, DC has released a line-wide crossover horror event, Knight Terrors, which, as the tagline suggests, will manifest the worst nightmares of the DC universe. Writer Joshua Williamson teams up with an ensemble of artists to showcase the story on the panels. Aside from the main storyline, which begins in the prelude and four issues of Knight Terrors, the overarching narrative continues in a number of other titles as tie-ins along with a separate ending, which I’ll go through in a separate article. In this one, let’s briefly discuss the prelude chapters and the main storyline to get an idea about the latest nightmare crisis.
A Premonition: Why Doctor Destiny Gets Haunted In Dreams
The initiation of the main storyline occurs in Knight Terrors: First Blood, where readers are introduced to a dream vision of John Dee, aka Dr. Destiny. Long-time readers might remember that Dr. Destiny is a psychopathic supervillain who is obsessed with the concept of dreams and that he gained possession of the Dreamstone, which belonged to the Dream of the Endless (Sandman), and wreaked havoc on the planet. As the narrative in Knight Terrors unfolds, Destiny is seen to be dreaming of a happy family life with his wife and kids until it changes into a nightmare as they become gnarly monsters.
Destiny realizes that even he, the master of dreams, is being manipulated through nightmares and gets transported to the Hall of Justice, where corrupted versions of the Justice League start attacking him. Destiny comes across the mastermind (unseen to readers) behind the attack, who asks him about the location of the Nightmare Stone. As he is unwilling to reveal the secret, Destiny is presumably subdued in the darkness. In another prelude issue, it is shown that Batman’s son, Damian Wayne, gets a nightmare attack by the same assailant but eventually wakes up.
Deadman’s Role In The Narrative: How Did Boston Get Drawn Into The Crisis?
The scene moves to Deadman, aka Boston Brand, the friendly neighborhood ghost who perceives the world of the living and the dead as being forever stuck in a haunted existence. As we know, Boston was a circus trapeze artist whose stage name was Deadman; unfortunately, that became his real identity once he was murdered by an assailant mid-performance and was resurrected by the goddess Rama Kushna as a ghost to help other unfortunate victims like him attain peace and justice. In the present narrative, Boston notices a ghostly aura emanating from the Hall of Justice and decides to follow Superman and Wonder Woman, who are also heading there. Along with Batman, who was already present there, the Trinity finds the disfigured remains of Doctor Destiny inside the Hall of Justice’s inner private quarters. However, Harley Quinn, who is now working with the Bat family, lets Batman know that Doctor Destiny is still alive in Arkham and is having severe convulsions in a dream.
Mostly unseen by the living (the ones who have experienced death can see him), Boston tries to enter the fake corpse of Destiny but fails and senses the probable cause of the situation. Desperate to let the heroes know about his findings, Boston possesses Batman’s body (the only way he can communicate with the living) and reveals that the realms of dream and death (the eternal ones) are somehow connected in the crisis that is about to unfold. Adhering to the warning, Diana goes to seek help from adept magic users like Zatanna; Superman flies to check up on a possible cosmic connection with the event; and Batman rushes to Arkham Tower, with the Deadman tagging along.
Living Nightmare: Who Is Insomnia?
Reaching the Arkham Tower, Bats, Harley, and Boston witness Destiny mentioning the Nightmare Stone while still in a nightmare and immediately getting gruesomely killed in front of them by unseen forces as his body gets ripped from inside. Batman speculates it might be due to Destiny’s connection with dreams, but all of a sudden, Destiny’s corpse gets reanimated and seems to be possessed by an entity. The mysterious entity speaks through Destiny’s corpse and states that Destiny had hidden the nightmare stone in the dreams of one of his enemies, i.e., the superheroes. The controller wants to acquire the mystical artifact in order to showcase to the world the way he sees superheroes—not as saviors but as horrors.
Soon, nightmare constructs start rising all over the world, and gradually, almost the entirety of the populace, including the superheroes, succumb to a deep slumber. Batman almost gets pulled into slumber as well, but manages to fight it momentarily by activating emergency protocol and pumping adrenaline into his system. However, the resistance is futile, and he, too, gets trapped. Boston decides to save him by once again possessing his body. The villainous Insomnia, a corpse-looking entity with pulled-out eyelids and a self-proclaimed god of nightmares who was behind the entire ordeal, makes his first appearance and subdues a Deadman-possessed bat.
Boston enters Insomnia’s body to tap into his memories and learns that an ancient sacrifice ritual led to the creation of the Nightmare Stone, which was manifested in its true form when Destiny stole the Dreamstone and corrupted it. However, the terrifying ability of the artifact scared even Destiny, who decided to hide it in the dreams of one of his many superpowered adversaries. Now, Insomnia, a former inmate of Arkham who gained his nightmare-manipulating powers from Lazarus Rain (Lazarus Planet event reference), wants to get his hands on the sinister relic to manifest horrors into reality, and he also has a vendetta against the heroes for reasons unknown.
Insomnia expels Boston out of his body, who again takes hold of Batman to escape the scene. During his time inside Insomnia’s mind, Boston witnessed the Golden Age hero Wesley Dodds, aka the first Sandman’s connection with the crisis, and went on to resurrect him using Lazarus resin to seek answers.
A Ghost And Detective Trio: Did The Team Finally Get The Nightmare Stone?
Wesley Dodds, as readers might remember, was the former JSA member, an expert chemist turned vigilante wearing a fedora and a WWI-era gas mask who was intricately connected with the dream realm and fought crime using various kinds of sleeping gas concocted by him as his weapon. Upon Boston’s questioning, a now-zombified Dodds shares his memory of apprehending a cult that committed organized suicide to manifest the Nightmare Stone. On the other hand, Insomnia viciously kills one of the last descendants of the cult’s members in his nightmare by bursting him inside out after failing to know the location of the stone.
Boston-Bat and Dodds go to Terrifictech (the lab of Mr. Terrific) to seek help but get attacked by nightmare creatures sent by Insomnia, who have traced their location using Boston’s previous connection. Fortunately, Damian Wayne comes to the rescue, as it is revealed that his past experience of nightmares led him to safeguard his physiology by forcing himself to not fall asleep. Boston’s connection to Insomnia still exists, through which he peeks into his past, which reveals his disturbing history of self-mutilation and tendencies as a psychopathic killer. Boston also learns that the Nightmare Stone doesn’t exist either in the physical realm or in the dream realm, which makes Damian speculate on its existence in the plane that is in between the two realms.
Dodds takes the trio to his former workplace, where, as a chemist, he created unique versions of sleep and dream stimulants, one of which he uses to send Bat-Boston and Damian to the plane between waking and dreaming—the ‘Hollow. The plane is untouched by Insomnia, and if they can get the Nightmare Stone from this plane, they can finally undo all the horrors the psychopath has brought with him. The duo ventures through the phantasmagoria and shares their common experience with death. Damian was brought back to life after dying multiple times, while Boston never valued his life when he had it and realized the meaning of it after losing it once and for all. In the Hollow, the duo finally arrives at the circus arena where Boston breathed his last and sees a version of him still lying there, moments before death, writhing in pain from a gunshot wound. Boston-Bat realizes the reason he is being shown all this is because the Nightmare Stone demands sacrifice to be extracted. Finally sacrificing his desires to live once and for all, Boston extracts the stone from Deadman’s lying, squirming body.
How Did Insomnia Unleash The Nightmares?
Sensing that Insomnia’s physical body, which is still inside the Arkham Tower, might be the key to using the Nightmare Stone to proper effect and undoing the situation, the team goes to the location. After almost being tricked by Insomnia, Boston enters his body with the Nightmare Stone and witnesses his most private, haunting memory, which turns an apparently regular, happy-go-lucky family man, Christopher Lukas, into a deranged psychopath. Boston sees that Christopher’s entire family perished in front of his eyes in the impact of a battle where the Justice League was defending Earth against invading threats. His last memory of them continued in his brain in an inescapable nightmarish loop; he blamed the existence of superheroes for the tragic fate of his family and gradually went insane.
Boston tries to comfort Insomnia’s nightmarish presence, to no avail, as he is too driven to be convinced otherwise and demands the stone from him. Boston is unwilling to do so but realizes too late that Insomnia has set him up to bring the stone right to him. As a form of sacrifice, Insomnia slices open his throat, which kills Christopher in the physical world and transfers the possession of the stone to Insomnia. The world finally wakes up from the dreadful slumber, but Deadman and the rest of Earth’s protectors have lost the battle, as Insomnia uses the stone to bring the nightmares of the heroes into the physical plane. He succeeds in showing the world the way he perceives the caped do-gooders.
Knight Terror manages to bring a pretty simplistic yet engaging element through the use of classic horror tropes and continues to add to the successful incorporation of horror elements in mainstream DC comics. Each of the four main issues started with a metanarrative-styled monologue by Boston Brand, posited in different arenas like a circus ring, a live news broadcast, a theater performance, and lastly, sitting beside a fireplace, reading the issue Strange Adventures #205, his own first appearance in comics. The beautifully crafted opening sequence emphasized the loneliness and inferiority complex associated with the character and set the tone of the comics; unfortunately, the following content does not do justice to that. However, the rough sketch-styled art of Howard Porter; the strong, articulate, and splashy line work and shadow-color interplay of Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Nesi; and the tranquil, contrasting art of Caspar Wijngaard make the series a must-collect for horror comics fans in particular. The series will conclude with Knight Terrors: Night’s End, which will reveal the overall impact of this line-wide event on the DC universe.