Michael's Reviews > In the Flesh

In the Flesh by Clive Barker
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Nov 03, 2013

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bookshelves: horror
Read in April, 2009

Certainly the least of the Books of Blood, the stories in In The Flesh seem underdeveloped, the characters just flat images to impose the reader's fears upon, serving their purpose and living or dying in the story, but never ever walking off the page. Barker is, without doubt, one of the most skilled horror writers of the late 20th century, but unfortunately here his work never spills into the memorable, literary terrain that Stephen King, at only his absolute best, can venture into. Not that these stories aren't entertaining, they are eminently so. His prose is stripped and fast-paced and, at times, smart. But he's also a tight ass, holding back so much that his free flowing horrors are less than maximized.

In the title story, Barker's bare bones, punchy prose is perfect for a prison tale, a meditation on guilt and murder and the ghosts of our pasts, and with most of Barker's other pieces, the main characters, here Cleve Smith, is a bit of a blank stand-in for the reader, morally lazy and ambiguous and resistant to fear, but finally succumbing. There's a real lack of development with Billy and his grandfather, but there's where the story could have excelled, becoming rich and memorably because of the intricate history that comes alive in the few weeks of the action of the story, but Barker summarizes Billy's past so much to make it weak and unbelievable.
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In "The Forbidden" the awesome 80s urban decay of the "Candyman" movie is there, but far less menacing in this UK setting than in Chicago, the Cabrini Green of the film. The real beauty of the film, the history of the Candyman, does not exist in the story, where he's much more of a generic bogeyman. However, unlike the film this story is a great critique of the skeptical and haughty university culture. Personally, I'd like the sweaty horrifying history of the Candyman to be fleshed out here, but it seems like the film just treats its subject more deeply.

In "The Madonna" the Pools are an excellent setting, an abandoned culture of communal bathing, that is dripping and moldy and terrifying, and that must be demolished to make way for some commercial newness, much like the mill setting in King's "Night Shift". A very anti-feminine tale, where the pitiful male characters are doomed to mutate into - God forbid - females, which is all, not surprisingly, from a male-centric perspective, where manhood is a privilege above all else. Furthermore, Barker doesn't handle male-female relationships well in this story. Carole is thin and cold and there's nothing real between them, despite a seeming tempestuousness.

"Babel's Children" the least successful of his stories in this collection, because he does not stay grounded in reality (sure every other story is crazy and fantastic, but they're still all grounded in some everyday reality) is a horror of responsibility, like Bradbury's "The Scythe" in that the scary thing is that so many lives might hang on such random, meaningless acts, the horror of purposelessness. Again, his characters are just blanks to paint our fears upon, which sets him in my opinion, far far behind Stephen King, whose characters breathe and live.

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Jean Simon I have two huge qualms with your review. For one, your sweeping generalizations about gay men are insulting, especially to Clive Barker.. "which is all, not surprisingly from a gay perspective, where manhood is a privilege above all else". Where did you get that dribble from? Thats crude and untrue at its best, the psychology of every gay person is different, as it is with everyone. Then you claim that "Barker doesn't know much about male-female relationships. Carole is thin and cold and there's nothing real between them, despite a seeming tempestuousness". If you had actually read the story you'd know that their relationship had been falling apart from some time. They were nearing its end, and what was left was bitter and rather loveless. You should read some of his stories that contain romance between a man and woman, as there are many.. which is just such a shocker I know since gay men cant possibly know what relationships are like! I'd also like to throw in that these are short stories. At times I wished for more development but Im not sure that he ever meant for there be more. Its ridiculous to assume that you are going to get an in depth perspective of the characters in a horror/fantasy short story. Its not fair to judge it soley based on that.


Michael Having written this review more than four years ago, I had to look back at it before responding here. The "sweeping generalizations" you mention were made about a single story in the collection. I don't remember the story very well four years on, but from my brief comments, it seems I felt it had an anti-female sentiment. Sorry if my comments in a review of a single story insulted you. I did not mean to imply that gay men can't write strong stories or novels or plays about relationships between men and women. I meant only that Barker did not in this instance. Excuse me if in my hasty writing that wasn't made clear. I'll fix that right now.

As for your comment that I shouldn't expect much from "a horror/fantasy short story" I guess from my prior reading of Barker I expected more from him. I don't think genre should hold back good writers.


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