Michael In Hell
YS Gazelle Books
Trade paper, $16.00
Review by Nickolas Cook
An author has to be either pretty sure of himself to provide the caveat “Warning: This novel will cause sleep loss” on the back cover of his work. Latham does so, but it may have been a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, some reviewers would even go so far as to call it bombast and nothing more. But I can see how Latham might have thought this only fair warning to those who might read his novel, Michael In Hell, because there is much to leave the reader sleepless. However, it becomes very apparent to me when the first of several murders takes place that the author and I have very different definitions of what constitutes making such a caveat necessary when it comes to over the top violence for literature’s sake. Michael In Hell, while most certainly an emotive and well written character study/social sci-fi piece of dark literature, does not dig deep enough into the actual clinical detail of a man who kills child molesters and serial killers as an act of retribution in an morally nihilistic world.
Tucker, the anti-hero murderer, is a man without the ability to find peace or love because of the demons that drive him. He becomes the mouthpiece for the entire bleak society around him, a sort of silent arm of God in a world that cannot make justice for lost innocence.
But there are a couple of points about the narrative that caused me pause during my read. The first and foremost, and the most easily forgotten, is the fact that Latham chose to set the novel in the year 2005. Now this book was first copy righted in 2000, and was again released by YS Gazelle Books in 2007. So why wouldn’t the author take the time to update this ‘future’ setting? Luckily, and strangely, it has no bearing on the story, so as I said, can be easily forgotten as the book unfolds.
And it does unfold.
With Michael In Hell, Latham isn’t simply trying to titillate the Saw and Hostel Beavis and Butthead sub-core audience that seems to have sprung up in the last ten years or so with body count mentality. He is telling a story, using the violence as a springboard. His backroom murders become mini-Shakespearean dramas, acts for two people set against a tableau of heavily influenced by classical literature and blood and death. These bloody events are only fractals of a larger benighted jewel as Latham explores the darker side of a culture given over to its excesses: Prisons run by governments and television stations; combatants sent to death for the pleasure of the orgiastic group that bets on how far the head will rolls; street violence that traps and disables the common man’s ability to find peace.
Latham’s greatest fear is the fear of a nihilistic society run by avaricious, ethically bereft fear mongers. And that is the true seed of this tale, his terror of what could be. What’s more amazing is that Latham, who originally wrote the first version of this story for Isaac Asimov back in 1973, actually foresaw some of the most reprehensible government coordinated actions of the last ten years in his novel, years before they occurred.
Michael In Hell is worth reading. It is well written; it is more than the sum of its parts; and most importantly, it does what good literature should do: It warns the reader about the dangers of a society that no longer values life.
Come to think of it, Latham might have known exactly what he was doing when he placed his warning on the book’s cover.