We’ve been conditioned to not make mistakes… but I can’t live that way.
John Milton, as I said last month, never lived at the Villa Diodati, but for the sake of a good story we’ll go along with Mike Carey’s claim that he hung around there all the time, scribbling Lucifer into existence and changing religious studies for decades to come in the process.
Milton’s creation of Lucifer within Paradise Lost is a fallen angel who believes he is right to be angry with everything that’s happened to him, and the offhand dismissal he believes that Heaven offers him. His pride stops him from seeing the whole truth around him, and he instead grows resentful, letting his intelligence simmer and boil over into something rotten and powerless.
The start of this issue directly compares Lucifer’s fictional motivation to the other major creation of Villa Diodati: Frankenstein’s Monster, which Mary Shelley wrote within the walls. As we begin the issue we get two pages of adapted prose wherein Carey and Gross repeat the ending of Shelley’s masterpiece, as Frankenstein confronts his Monster in the arctic. Shunning and denying his creation, Frankenstein looks to kill the new life he brought to the world – but that new life grabs him by the arm, picks him off the ground, and demands the right to tell his story as he sees it, from his perspective.
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed”, the monster quoth. As Milton’s Lucifer sees himself as a new protagonist who is being held back by the god who created him, so Shelley’s Frankenstein himself is set aside by his creator and left to understand the world without any guidance or faith. In both instances, the bitterness left inside those who have been shunned turns them into cynical and defeated wrecks of their once-shimmering former glories. The cyclical nature of these stories – let’s remember that we’re not talking about items of Christian faith here, we’re talking about Paradise Lost – is a reminder that in the world of The Unwritten, we’re led to believe that there’s a secret faction of people who are weaponising stories. Clearly something in the story of Paradise Lost and Frankenstein appeals to that faction.
Enter Tom’s dad, Wilson. Wilson created the third major literary work in the Villa’s history: the Tommy Taylor mysteries. As the issue kicks off, Tom has walked back in through the threshold of his childhood home, so he can find out what his dad was up to. And, in turn, if we’re already connecting up the stories written by visitors to the Villa, then clearly we are meant to see Wilson as having followed in the footsteps of Milton and Shelley before him.
But who represents Lucifer and the Monster in this situation? Tom, the real child, or Tommy the fictional character? Milton’s Lucifer falls because of his creator, and lives as a recluse in ugly sin. Shelley’s Monster kills his creator, but then throws himself on the pyre. As readers, we’re left to wonder if Tom/Tommy is meant to push this further. The endings of Paradise Lost and then Frankenstein end poorly for the rebelling creation, so how does Tom improve on the stories which came before him?
Perhaps there’s a clue lying in the other half of the issue, which features a writers retreat for horror novelists. One truth they discuss is how “The monster isn’t born evil” in Frankenstein. Instead, it “becomes evil because of its father’s neglect”. That catches Tom’s attention, sure enough, and I’m sure Lucifer would also have something to say about that. Is rebellion itself an “evil” act, or is there value in questioning the existing hierarchy? Shelley’s father, William Gibson, was himself an anarchist who would have likely championed the challenging of authority as a valuable act. Frankenstein’s Monster is defined as an evil creature by Frankenstein himself,, but all the Monster itself wishes for is some understanding. The seminar attendees in this issue of Unwritten seem to be ascribing their own beliefs to a work which stands for itself, and doesn’t need deconstruction.
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The end of the issue brings the Pullman into proceedings, who promptly kills one of the horror writers and seems set to spend the next issue murdering off all the others – presumably ironically, making sure each death mirrors the style of horror they each believe is best. Although they are basically here just so they can be killed off, their inclusion in the issue is useful to the overall world of The Unwritten, because they act as a stark reminder for the readers. Stories like Paradise Lost, Frankenstein, or Tommy Taylor are important and have powers which reflect endlessly through society. Lizzie notes that the walls of the house are still ringing with the power of the stories which were told there. But the authors, ignored by Lizzie and Tom as unimportant, are simply echoes of that power, and are dismissed by both our protagonists and the issue as a whole.
Similarly, Tom Taylor’s personal story certainly doesn’t seem to be very important to his father, as we see a flashback where dad yells at a young Tom for interrupting a phonecall. Wilson is busy arguing with some shadowy forces about mysterious things, and Tom steps in to ask for a bit of attention. Wilson sends him to his room by saying “Didn’t I tell you to go to your room?” to his son, despite having never said anything of the sort. “Yes dad,” replies Tom, once again belittled by a fiction. We don’t have all the pieces quite yet, but apparently Tommy Taylor is a crucial part of some unseen war that Wilson is trying to fight. Tom Taylor, though? To his father, he’s just an irritation who won’t learn to play trumpet quickly enough.
But Tom is smart in his own right, and when he sees through a bit of his father’s literary sleight of hand he finds a safe hidden behind a painting in the Villa. It leads him on in his journey, and perhaps shows that his cynical approach and uncanny ability to see straight through literary tropes may be exactly what he needs if he’s going to ever track down his errant father. When that happens, will it be a meeting of God and Lucifer; Frankenstein and his Monster; or something else entirely?
Obviously both the cover of the issue and the first two pages are direct riffs off Frankenstein itself, with cover artist Yuko Shimizu clearly showing how Tom and the Monster share a similar creation myth.
I won’t compare each of the horror writers with someone they could be inspired by: there are a lot of options for each! But there are some allusions to be drawn here. Simon Grove is the aforementioned H.P. Lovecraft enthusiast, for one. One of the defining parts of Lovecraft’s belief system was that humanity was ultimately meaningless in the greater cosmic scale of things: the Earth could be completely destroyed and the vast majority of the universe would never even notice.
Stanley Jardine references James Bond when introducing himself, emphasising how he doesn’t take much seriously. Bond’s existence over the years echoes that of mainstream horror, to some extent: hyper-serious to begin with, it became more and more self-referential until it hit a point where it had to be repeatedly reset lest the franchise fall apart within itself.
Case in point: torture porn is associated with a somewhat recent group of filmmakers who decided that what the genre needed was an emphasis on gore, misery, and unfairness. Eli Roth is probably the best known filmmaker in that regard, who made a few films which hold cult appeal: you either admire his cruelty and reverence for discomforting the audience through onscreen violence… or you think he’s a hack who hides behind the same.
William Godwin – Shelley’s father – is brought up in the issue. Perhaps one of the first “anarchists”, as he was considered at the time, he was highly critical of Government and power in organisations – libertarians love him nowadays, according to my far-too-basic google search into his legacy.
Kundalini energy is a Hindu concept, a form of divine feminine energy. I don’t believe it was meant to be used as a reason for two white Americans to try and blag a threesome.
The portrait covering Wilson Taylor’s safe is “Michael Binding Satan”, by William Blake. It depicts the angel Michael and Lucifer in battle, but also supposedly represents the endless battle between good and evil; two opposing but equal forces. As Tom notes, it’s additionally an on-the-nose way to say “hey folks, there’s something super-secret hidden behind this painting”.
The Unwritten #3
Story by Mike Carey and Peter Gross,
Colourists: Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee
Letterer: Todd Klein
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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