I don’t know whether Jason Brock wears a hat or not. But if he does, he must have been kept busy tipping it while writing his singularly effective novella, Milton’s Children.
The story begins, perhaps a bit oddly, with a question: “Why are you a vegetarian, Carter?” This relatively non-horrific question introduces both a primary character, Adam Carter (the name is highly suggestive, given the novella’s title and the headnote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost), and a key issue … although for several pages the ensuing dialogue between Carter and his equally suggestively named antagonist, Chris Faust (c.f. Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus, another Renaissance disquisition on pride, sin, forgiveness, and hell) seems more a one-sided rant than the introduction to a short story.
The two characters cover a number of issues, although Faust is more often than not limited to a few words or sputtered phrases while Carter is given full play for his arguments, which include the possibility of animal communication before broadening to incorporate pollution, global warming, overuse of antibiotics and chemicals, and a range of additional appalling side-effects of human arrogance. Finally, Carter asks his own question, “I mean, where does ‘evil’ begin to enter into the picture, Faust?”
After a brief hiatus for some necessary backstory, the tale reaches a transition point and moderates into what is essentially a finely crafted throwback to the Golden Age of Creature Features. One of the crew has discovered a mysterious, unknown island, revealed only when global warming causes the Antarctic floes to recede. Perhaps never trodden on by humans, the island offers a temptation none can resist. They must explore it.
The first impression the landing crew receives is of an Antarctic Garden of Eden … but as with all great Creature Features, first impressions prove woefully, disastrously, horrifically and bloodily wrong.
And thus the deaths begin.
In addition to those already mentioned, Brock incorporates layer upon layer of allusion to strengthen his modest tale. Several are referred to by name: Jonathan Swift and A Modest Proposal; Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (with its insistence on Paradise Lost as a proof text for the creature’s moral inquiries); H.P. Lovecraft and At the Mountains of Madness; Skull Island and the various film versions of King Kong. Others seem more incidental, although still powerful: E.R. Burroughs’ Pellucidar series (one of Brock’s characters is Darrell Mahar). The captain of the rescue ship in the final chapters is Commander Merritt (c.f. A. Merritt?) and the Communications Officer is surnamed ‘Adams,’ underscoring at least two major themes in Milton’s Children.
(And one intriguing echo — which I can’t lay this on Brock, of course, since I don’t know what films he has watched — by the end of his story there are a number of key resemblances in Milton’s Children to one of my favorite ’50s pieces, Roger Corman’s The Attack of the Crab Monsters.)
Tying all of these disparate threads together is the introductory note, Satan’s speech as he surveys the newly created Earth (Paradise Lost, Book IX, ll. 135-139) and brags of the destruction is he about to wreak on it and on unsuspecting humanity.
Although it is clear from the poem as a whole that Satan is here being self-delusive and that the Father has in fact planned all that occurs, his words remain powerful. Like others alluded to in Milton’s Children — Milton’s Adam, Marlowe’s Faust, Frankenstein, Lovecraft’s multifold meddlers in Cosmic affairs, generations of fictional explorers invading unknown landscapes where they have no right to be—Satan is about to assert dominion over that which is not his … and pay the ultimate consequences.
In total, Milton’s Children is fascinating. It blends elements that seem on the surface antithetical. It encourages reminiscence even as it suggests far-reaching, futuristic possibilities. It combines an elegant command of language with a relatively fundamental but thoroughly enjoyable plot. It incorporates clichéd characters and situations in ways that bring them new life. And all within the confines of fewer than seventy pages.