Released in 1986, I didn’t get a chance to read In the Flesh until much later, as I was deep in university work struggling to keep my GPA at a respectable number. Let’s just say I had to learn how to study if I was going to survive college. Summer of 1988 gave me a break in my studies and allowed me to catch up with a lot of reading. The US version of the book features the story ‘In the Flesh’ first in the volume (it’s last in the UK edition), and for some odd reason, I never got around to reading ‘Babel’s Children’ the first time. That was a pleasant treat for this read, as that story is one of Barker’s best, especially considering it is more of a horror by implication instead of a straightforward horror story.
‘In the Flesh’ is Barker doing what he does best; desperate people mired in their obsessions and fantasies. It’s also an excellent example of Weird Crime as it deals with criminals and their natural habitat for education, the modern prison system. The story also has a ‘Tales from the Crypt’ vibe to it, albeit one with more raw emotion and better developed characters. Cleve has a new bunkmate, a young man named Billy who is somewhat quiet and reserved. It seems this particular prison holds a lot of interest for Billy, as it’s part of his personal history. Years before, his grandfather Tait was an inmate, sentenced there for murder. Tait was a sorcerer of sorts, and Billy committed a crime just to gain entrance to this prison. Billy believes Tait is summoning him to the prison from beyond. As Billy feverishly works to be reunited with his grandfather, Cleve begins to suffer from terrible nightmares. He knows Billy is the cause of these dreams yet can do nothing to stop him. Cleve discovers that the place he visits in his dream is purgatory … personal for each traveler, a recreation of where the dwellers committed their sins. This is where Billy believes he can contact his grandfather, where he longs to spend his time to locate him and, as crazy as it sounds, bring him back.
Then Billy disappears from the cell. Nowhere to be found. After questioning Cleve, himself baffled by the chain of events, the guards dig up the grave where Tait was buried, discovering Billy’s body inside the coffin with Tait’s corpse. Cleve eventually is released but brings with him a strange power to see inside the mind of killers, to hear their thoughts. Unable to cope with the madness, he falls on hard times, turns to drugs and a life of crime again, killing a man in cold blood and is eventually cornered and killed by the police. Now he’s trapped in his own personal purgatory, finding that those there can come back to the real world, that there is a way to return.
This novelette features the full range of Barker’s abilities, and definitely allows him to show off his powers with a full setting, both surreal and corporeal. Shades of The Damnation Game flow through-out the story, though I’m unsure if one story inspired the other, especially since the novel is more of a Faustian tale, though the inner workings of the prison system are on display in both stories. This is Barker at his best, a powerful story you won’t soon forget.
Filmed as Candyman, ‘The Forbidden’ is often neglected over the film, and that’s a damn shame, because it is a fine story, lush in detail and characterization, at times superior to the excellent film adaptation. The story remains the same, Helen is doing her thesis on graffiti and stumbles upon a strange urban legend in her own backyard. In the story, her relationship with Trevor is much deeper, and more strained, which helps to ground Helen and make her more relatable for the reader. Barker spends a lot time diving into the study of graffiti as a means to examine urban society, and the story is better for it. He never comes off as preachy or pretentious, allowing Helen’s conversations with the tenants of Spector Street, and the details of her explorations of the delipidated buildings, build the tension as she gains all the lurid details about a series of murders that have all occurred in and around the apartments. Barker’s mastery of setting gives us a vibrant picture of the drawings on the walls, all from Helen’s personal viewpoint. She begins to lose her objectivity to the subject, drawn in to the seductive power of urban legend. Barker lets the legend build through her character, until, at last, Helen faces the Candyman. Sweets to the sweet indeed.
All of the stories in this collection deal with the ‘flesh’ to some degree. We find the flesh can be reborn through death, shredded to a pulp with a hook to live on in legend, even mass controlled through seemingly random decisions. With ‘The Madonna’, Barker perhaps gives us the most daring temptation of the flesh … transformation. A shady real estate deal for some abandoned swimming pools has Jerry Coloqhoun eager to make the sale. His client, Ezra Garvey, is probably not the most legitimate of players, but Jerry’s contacts assure him that however Garvey gets his money is of no real concern as long as the deal is struck. The Road Swimming Pools is a maze of small pools in need of repair, but that’s not what makes Garvey interested. During his initial walk through the dirty, dusty hallways and empty pools, Garvey believes he caught a glimpse of a young girl. A naked young girl, not much older than a teenager. This fleeting glimpse festers in his mind, forcing him to take a drastic step and break into the project. Garvey breaks into the baths with one of his associates, and goes through the mazes alone, in search of the girl. Barker handles the icky pederast expertly, casting him in a dark light, never letting him receive anything positive in his endeavor. Indeed, he does find the girl, but she is not as he imagined. The girls, as there are several, actually have something in mind for Garvey, something quite horrific. They use Garvey like a play toy, and something breaks inside him that is irreparable. Prideful in his ability to take control of nearly every situation of his life, facing death threats and tough guys, Garvey is rendered to a paranoid feverish pulp, acutely aware he has been shaken to the core by a group of naked girls. Barker ramps up the imagery here to a fever pitch, allowing your imagination to fill in the gaps. Set free from his ordeal with only a few scant memories, Garvey is convinced Coloqhoun has something to do with the whole mess, maybe even some kind of set up to take him down. Believing Coloqhoun is working with his enemies, of which there are legion, Garvey goes after Coloqhoun.
Back at the pools, Garvey’s men rough up a stunned and confused Coloqhoun, who is completely at odds with the ‘names’ Garvey insists he cough up. Somehow, Jerry survives, and makes it to the large pool in the center of the building, where Garvey was so violently violated and humiliated. Here Jerry Coloqhoun encounters the Madonna, The Virgin Mother. Formed of a shape he can’t wrap his mind around, he senses the vast creature before him is female. He watches the Madonna give birth, a strange child, “something between a squid and a shorn lamb”. The young nymph at Jerry’s side begins to nurse the newborn. Here the narrative flows as Jerry’s surreal experience, beautifully rendered by Barker’s prose, sets the stage for the beginning of a transformation. After all but one of the nymphs leave, Jerry makes love to the remaining young girl. He leaves the pools just as Garvey is becoming painfully aware that his time with the Madonna did not leave him unchanged. Garvey’s flesh is rebelling against him, turning him into the one thing he knows he cannot ever control. He cuts at his flesh, desperate to hold on to his fleeting manhood, now just a dream. Coloqhoun undergoes a similar change, transforming from man to woman overnight. He is the only one who accepts the change. He goes back to the pools only to find them empty, no evidence of the nymphs or the Madonna. Barker disgusts and disturbs us so easily with this story, yet there’s heart here, and beauty in the grotesque.
‘Babel’s Children’ is the one story in this collect that I had never read. What a treat too, as it deals with a wild-as-hell subject matter that’s more speculative and horror by implication. Vanessa, eager for adventure in whatever comes her way, spies a man being chased by nuns with guns through the dunes on a Greek island. Intrigued, she goes on foot through the desert, finally coming to a cluster of buildings around a tower, all enclosed by a high wall. Finding the entrance open and unguarded, she sneaks inside the compound only to discover the armed nuns are men, and that there’s a strange statue of the Virgin Mary that watches her every move.
Eventually cornered and captured, Vanessa is searched and held against her will, obviously treading where the embassy has no full jurisdiction. Assured she will be released as soon as everything gets sorted out, the events that unfold take on somewhat of a Kafkaesque quality, bordering on madness and the absurd. She’s held in a cell, her movements monitored under gun point, barely allowed to mingle with the other inhabitants. Of course, this just doesn’t work for Vanessa, who soon begins to plan her escape. While in her cell, one of the inhabitants talks to her through the opening of the door. She learns that there are several people there being held against their will. Her need to escape is paramount. She is allowed into the garden area, where she finds some of the men there playing strange games, but she is unable to actually see what they are doing, she can only hear them talking. The men are racing frogs, which she finds quite strange and fascinating. Her visitor, Professor Harvey Gomm, tells Vanessa a way they can escape with her help. Gomm tells her that the men there are all part of a group that has orchestrated every major event in history through the last couple of decades to keep the population of the world from self-destructing. By regulating little wars here and there, they sought to control the world’s fate territorially. These thirteen men were controlling the fate of the world, all that power in their hands alone. Convinced Gomm is mad, Vanessa tries to escape without the others, desperate to get away from what she believes is a lunatic asylum. Caught again, she is assured Gomm is quite mad. Still needing to escape, she overpowers a guard and orders him to take her to Gomm. The group escape, but not without problems. They run the car over the cliff and Vanessa wakes up to find herself again at the compound. But now, the gig is up, her captors tell her the truth, that the madness she sensed was only the beginning. With all but one of the oracles dead from the crash, she must now determine the fate of the world, all decided by chance with frog races. Barker expertly takes an extremely ridiculous idea and brings it to life with vibrant characters and a lush setting. The pacing here is breathless, with a mind-blowing result that you won’t soon forget.
Tattered Tomes will be taking a break for the next several months, though will return with rereads of Cabal and the rest of the stories that make up Books of Blood, Volume 6, as well as Barker’s The Damnation Game. As much as I feel rereading books that made an impact on me is valuable, there are tons of books I would like to read for the first time and will be spending more time with those through 2019. In the meantime, remember that those old tattered tomes in the bookstore need love too, and good homes for those willing to love them.
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