Things We Lost in the Fire, the first collection of stories by Argentine writer and journalist Mariana Enriquez to appear in English, in 2017, was steeped in brutality, fear and a profound sense of evil. “A shadow hangs over Argentina and its literature,” her talented translator, Megan McDowell, explained in her endnote. “The country is haunted by the spectre of recent dictatorships, and the memory of violence there is still raw.”
This context is again important when reading the 12 stories in Enriquez’s spine-tingling but stunning new collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. Just as in the previous book, the connection between the violence in these pages and that in the country’s past is, by and large, ingeniously oblique. Enriquez does, however, drop breadcrumbs here and there. There’s the admission, for example, that the parents of one of the girls in “Back When We Talked to the Dead” — a story in which five teenagers unwittingly unleash something terrifying from a Ouija board — were “disappeared . . . taken away”, something the girl’s friends had long suspected, but only now have confirmed.
Although Enriquez writes about a world that’s haunted by the horrors of the past — both the all-too-real incidents of history and the more nebulous menace associated with superstition and folklore — these tales aren’t traditional ghost stories. But she is interested in the way past darkness contaminates the present, like the bits of “decomposing flesh” that stick to the narrator’s hands when she tries to strangle the gruesome figure of a reanimated corpse in “Angelita Unearthed”. This “angel-baby” — as she’s always been referred to in this family’s own private mythology (she’s the narrator’s grandmother’s little sister, who tragically died in infancy) — could not be more at odds with her moniker.
Children are often objects of horror in Enriquez’s work. It’s a theme, along with the return of the repressed, that runs through the collection; the two combine superbly in what is the strongest story here, the creepy “Kids Who Come Back”. A Buenos Aires city employee, whose job it is to “maintain and update the archive of lost and disappeared children”, a register that’s depressingly lengthy, is first amazed and then increasingly appalled as hordes of missing children start reappearing in parks and public spaces across the city. Regardless of how long they’ve been gone, none seem to have aged — but, while they might look the same, soon parents start recoiling from the uncanny cuckoos they’ve welcomed into their homes.
Like the Spanish writer Andrés Barba — whose recent novel, A Luminous Republic, features a band of feral kids who terrorise an otherwise sleepy subtropical town — Enriquez pushes into territory that makes most of us uncomfortable, reimagining supposedly innocent infants as a pack of malignant predators.
Importantly, Buenos Aires itself — which is where the majority of these stories are set — is also central to the collection. But Enriquez does more than simply highlight the darker sides of urban life, though gangs of child prostitutes, crime and poverty are commonplace. Her portrait of the city is one in which its sprawling, teeming streets are a halfway house between the living and the dead, and the metropolis itself hums with a malevolent sentience. As one character suggests, its mentally disturbed citizens are best understood as “incarnations of the city’s madness”.
“The Cart” — in which a cursed neighbourhood falls into ruin, its residents plagued by tragedy — could be read as a twisted pandemic parable, so rife is the fear of contagion, though from what, exactly, no one is quite sure. Enriquez also dabbles in body horror with great success, from “Meat”, a tale of teenage cannibalism, to “Where Are You, Dear Heart?”, the grim story of a woman with a heartbeat fetish.
Well worth any upset they cause, these glittering, gothic stories are a force to be reckoned with, and Enriquez’s talent and fearlessness is something to behold.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell, Granta, RRP£12.99, 277 pages
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