GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ, who has a poet's blood in a fiction writer's heart, transformed his youthful realism into the restless primeval fantasy of his masterpiece, One Hundred Year's of Solitude, a book so rich in imaginings that its translation into English has left it undiminished. That realism, as yet unleavened by fantastic event and dream-like imagery, is present in this earlier novel of a South American town disrupted by the appearence of mysterious posters. First published in Spanish in 1962, In Evil Hour exposes the secrets and violent longings beneath the rainy tranquility of that town -- not the famous Macondo, but the unnamed jungel setting of the novella and many of the stories in No One Writes to the Colonel.

During the rains of one October, a jaguar hunter, seeing on his door a poster accusing his wife of infidelity with a clarinet player, rides to the musician's house and murders him with a shotgun. This murder is the first act of a panic that, as the posters proliferate, infects the town. Pasted at night to the doors of citizen's houses, the anonymous posters repeat the rumors -- of a fortune thievishly made, a secret amour, a child's questionable paternity -- that oil the conversation of any town. Print legitimizes even a scurrilous charge; that is why libel laws distinguish between spoken calumny, which is non-libelous, and that which is published. A person who lives above gossip can be stung by the same words on paper.

The lampoons are a social menace even more than a personal one. Still suffering from the memory of a bloody political upheaval, the town is threatened not directly by what the posters say but indirectly by the fear and anger they release. Being accused in public of moral defect is a prospect sufficiently terrifying to many townspeople that it incites general unrest. The town's already rickety moral authority is signified by three characters: Father Angel, who wishes to ignore the posters and attend to the mice infesting his church; Judge Arcadio, more readily found in whorehouses than in the courthouse; and the mayor, a lieutenant responsible for the brutal political suppression, who uses the calamity of a flood and the fears the posters excite for personal gain.

These characters provide the novel its index of spiritual decay. By a web of furtive hypocrisies the town has endured social rstraint. The people thwart the priest's proscription of films by sneaking in the theater's back door. The jaguar hunter mitigates his crime by bribing the mayor. The public acquiescence to sham is paralleled by a story;

"An old traveling salesman recounted that until the turn of the century there had been a collection of masks hanging in the (hotel's) dining room at the disposal of customers, and that the masked guests took care of their needs in the courtyard in full view of everyone."

In dread of finding a poster on her door, the widow of the town's richest man decides to sell her estate and move. Other families leave town. Finally, to frustrate the nocturnal posterer, the mayor declares a curfew. A young man handing out clandestine literature is jailed, and later beaten and murdered by the police. Despite general disbelief, the mayor announces that the prisoner has escaped. The posters stop, but political terror and murder return with new rage.

Even in his early work, Garcia Marquez's allegiance is less to facts than to their psychological or mythic core. It seems to me that the town may be taken as a metaphor for the psyche, repressing unpleasant memories to keep them from becoming concious, i.e., public. The more severe the repression, the more violent and more manifest the neurosis it awakens. In this case, there is no effective purging, and the neurosis grows worse. The young man whose death completes the tragedy of the posters is a scapegoat, a ritual figure necessary for the cathartic discharge of the town's evil. The ritual drama is misused and misunderstood, however.The innocent boy is inappropriately chosen; the denial of his death incites further killing and reincarnates the lifeless political opposition.

In Evil Hour, ably translated by Gregory Rabassa, displays Garcia Marquez's incipient control of a broad range of characters and a complex narrative, in which one man's suspicion of his child's paternity, for example, causes a concatenating series of accommodations by his wife, mother-in-law, the priest and the mayor. By diverting a reader's attention from the posters to their effect -- indeed, by not caring and not revealing who the posterer might be -- the novelist elevates little more than a mystery story to a rich, complicated tour of moral confusion.

Standing above their muddled lives, Garcia Marquez refuses to judge his characters. He provides even an opportunistic tycoon and the ruthless mayor with a humor and knowledge of life that do not permit casual rejection of them. Like many novelists of felicitous invention, he churns out tangential characters and incidents -- detours that seem checked off against an imaginary list. But who for the false sake of economy would wish to discard, for instance, the telegrapher who spends his spare time transmitting poems to a lady telegrapher in another town? He has never met her, but says he would "recognize her in any part of the world by the little jumps she always puts on the R."

Garcia Marquez preoccupation with the texture of humanity and with individual guilt manifested socially, so evident in this biting novel, needed only the ingredient of the fabulous, a sense of dream hardened into life, to blossom into the luxuriant and majestic fiction of One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Autumn of the Patriarch.