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In the Flesh by Clive Barker (Poseidon: $12.95; 195 pp.)

June 14, 1987|Laurence Coven | Coven is the author of the murder mystery role-playing game "Where There's a Will, There's a Murder" (Jamie Swise Games). and

The four tales of horror in Clive Barker's "In the Flesh" are not made for fireside reading. These are disturbing tales that emerge from a profound sense of despair and desolation.

Barker is a young English author, and "In the Flesh" is the fifth of a six-volume English collection, the "Books of Blood" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Indeed, blood oozes, splatters, drips and gushes from these stories in great abundance. In the title story, Barker describes the result of a fight between two prisoners. "The man had been ripped open, his eyes put out, his genitals torn off. Nayler, the only possible antagonist, had contrived to open up his own belly."

The story concerns Cleve, a veteran prisoner who must look after his new cell mate, a frail, young, reclusive lad named Billy Tait, who would otherwise become "easy meat." Billy, however, has intentionally gotten himself imprisoned in order to find his grandfather, Henry Tait, who was hanged 50 years ago for butchering nearly his entire family, and then was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on the prison grounds. Billy confides to Cleve that he must somehow reach his grandfather with whom he claims to share some terrible power.

In searching for the location of the grave, Cleve questions an old prisoner known as The Bishop. His response demonstrates Barker's ability to chill with a clammy hand as well as shock with a bloody one.

"The Bishop raised a cautionary forefinger. . . . 'You see, the land this prison is built upon has special properties. Bodies buried here don't rot the way they do elsewhere . . . whenever they've had to exhume a body from the plot, it's always been found in almost perfect condition.' "

The story's denouement comes only after an incredible series of twistings and turnings, none of which enables Cleve or Billy to escape a dreadful and inevitable fate.

In "The Forbidden," a powerfully crafted tale, an academician must confront the repugnant reality of life in a tenement slum. While doing research for her thesis on the social patterns of graffiti, Helen encounters, in an abandoned flat, a portrait of a vast, nightmarish head painted around a door that serves as its mouth. Next to it is written the unlikely phrase "Sweets to the sweet."

Fascinated by her discovery, Helen interviews residents of the slum and is regaled with hideous tales of death and butchery: a retarded boy found sliced to ribbons in a public toilet, an old man murdered, his eyes put out by a hook-handed maniac. Are these stories true or merely fables spread by those who can afford little else to entertain themselves?

Helen's academic colleagues, all of whom Barker somewhat superficially portrays as vacuous twits, scoff at the stories. Helen, however, persists in her investigation, finally encountering the living image of the painting, a wrenching horror known as the Candyman. ". . . The contents of his torso had rotted away, and the hollow was now occupied by a nest of bees. They swarmed in the vault of his chest, and encrusted in a seething mass the remnants of flesh that hung there."

The Candyman is a personification of the most terrifying urban myths and legends, yet a legend that can never be totally disbelieved, for just when it seems to be expunged from human memory, that is the moment when it will somehow claw its way back into actual existence, dead, but yet "immortal in gossip and graffiti."

Barker's stories are mostly successful and never predictable. At his best, he attacks our senses and our psyche, seeking not so much to tingle our spine as to snap it altogether.

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