Review: The Dangers Of Smoking In Bed by Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell)

In these 12 stories, set mostly in and around Buenos Aires, there is plenty of occult horror. Zombie babies, vengeful spirits, witches and wells, cannibals and curses: these are a lot of fun, although they rarely provoked more than a quiver on my skin (unlike the recent Australian collection Permafrost, which gave me at least a couple of chills). But there are other, less fantastical sources of horror that preyed much more relentlessly on my mind. In the collection’s final story, Back When We Talked To The Dead, it is the disappearance of thousands of Argentinians during the military juntas. In Kids Who Come Back, the collection’s longest piece, it is an epidemic of disappearing children. The story, narrated by Mechi who works in a government missing person’s archive, begins strongly, angrily:

There were many Jessicas, because most of the missing kids were teenage girls. They took off with an older guy, or got scared by a pregnancy. They fled from a drunken father, from a stepfather who raped them in the early morning, from a brother who masturbated onto their backs at night.

But this anger is dissipated by a vaguer menace when the kids start returning en masse, striking a more wistful note than its forceful beginning would suggest.

Perhaps more dangerous are the stories that play with the horror of desire, and particularly the desire of women and girls, so often treated as a monstrous, and something to be controlled. A pop superstar is stalked beyond death by two teenage fanatics in Meat; a teenage girl gets her delicious revenge on an older woman because she is more attractive to the man she desires in Our Lady Of The Quarry. Then there are other horrors of womanhood that patriarchy finds perhaps harder to speak of. The Dangers Of Smoking In Bed addresses the horror of the spinster, the woman that society doesn’t know what to do with. Stories like The Lookout and Where Are You, Dear Heart? consider the devastating consequences of sexual assault. These are sad, beautiful, aching stories.

Patriarchy is one target that Enriquez seems to be trying to scare the pants off; another is the well-off, apolitical classes, “those middle-class families” who are “incapable of comprehending any interruption to their comfortable lives”. One of the most effective is The Cart, in which a curse descends on a comfortable neighbourhood. It begins when a homeless person – not “their” familiar, unthreatening homeless person, a foreigner – leaves a cart with a foul stench on the corner. Slowly, inevitably things go to shit. I was reminded of Mark O’Connell’s investigation of the apocalypse, who wondered if “my fear of the collapse of civilisation was really a fear of having to live, or having to die, like those unseen and mostly unconsidered people who sustained what we thought of as civilisation”. This a really confident collection with a predator’s sense of what makes people uncomfortable.

Gay rating: 2/5 for minor queer characters.

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