Witchcraft, Hysterical Teenagers, and Heart Fetishists
Mariana Enriquez's "The Dangers of Smoking in Bed" features sociopolitical horror stories set in modern-day Argentina
In The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez lures us on road trips with a zombie baby, and a group of catty teenager girls to quarry, and into neighborhoods besieged (by a curse) in Buenos Aires and (by a stink) in Barcelona, and to a sleepover on Buenos Aires’s outskirts, or the first-person plural narrator describes it, “East Bumfuck” (incredible rendering from Spanish by the collection’s translator, Megan McDowell).
The short story collection, Enriquez’s second in English after the 2017 English debut of The Things We Lost in the Fire, features witchcraft, hysterical teenagers, and heart fetishists. Enriquez carves the horrors—madness, cannibalism, and cruelty—and then twists them at full tilt, racing us to endings that terrified even on a second read. In particular, “Our Lady of the Quarry,” spirals hellward when a teenage girl’s rabid envy of an older woman and younger boyfriend, whose attention the girl and her friends covet, hits a delirious point of no return. The collection’s final story, another teen girl group saga, is even more disquieting. In “Back When We Talked to the Dead,” the state-led terrors of Argentina in the 1970s and its disappeared people are dealt with through a Ouija Board seance.
I spoke to Mariana Enriquez—who lives in Buenos Aires where she is the director of literature for Argentina’s Fondo Nacional de las Artes—about her grandmother’s stories, Instagram witches, the country’s very real and horrific past, and passing the blame for collective responsibility.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: Your collection is terrifying! What’s the earliest scary story you remember hearing as a child? I read that your grandmother was an influence for your stories. Did you make up your own stories and if so, what was your first (or an early) horror story?
Mariana Enriquez: I didn’t really make up my own scary stories, or they weren’t good enough to scare. I was a pretty good liar as a child, as most writers are I think. My first horror story came from my grandmother, as you mention. I added things to it: she told me that, when she was a little, her baby sister died and was buried in the backyard. The girl, dead and in her grave, cried at night when it rained. Well, that was scary for me but the whole story—that to my knowledge it’s true, except maybe the crying–happened in Corrientes, a state in the north of Argentina, where she grew up. She didn’t specify this, so I thought she mentioned our backyard. Subsequently, I was quite scared of hearing the dead baby crying every rainy night. My grandmother was terrified of storms. The first story in this collection is based on this—I ended up thinking about family secrets and the fate of lost bones and bodies, and of course, it’s a ghost story with a very “palpable” ghost, but the origin was this tale of the baby sister of my grandma.
JRR: In “Angelita Unearthed” and “The Well,” you have families where the women believe in what the occult but the men don’t. For the father in “Angelita Unearthed,” the grandmother “could talk some nonsense.” Similarly, in “The Well,” Josefina’s dad is furious at the grandmother “for filling up her head with those superstitions.”
Would you talk about this gender divide in belief, which seems to be quite common in many cultures?
ME: Yes, of course. But only this kind of belief I would say. A certain superstitious belief in the supernatural, not the occult. The occult has been a territory of men, from mysticism to more organized systems, indeed the famous occultists, except maybe for Madame Blavatsky, are men: Aleister Crowley, Allan Kárdec, Éliphas Levy. The occult has been much more open to women and minorities than other belief systems, but still dominated by men, especially before the late 19th century. And of course priests of almost any religion are men in the high ranks. So I won’t say at all men are less inclined to the occult or the magical thinking or religious thinking, cause it’s just not true. But there’s a certain specific belief that is less hierarchic, popular, secret, transmitted from generation to generation that yes, it’s more the terrain of women. The “healer” in “The Well” is an example, here these women are called “vencedoras”; or women like my grandmother, who grew up knowing recipes made of plants and stuff to make you feel better and were devoted of certain pagan saints or believed in forest beings. These more earthy beliefs fall in the gender divide, but not the belief in the occult. It’s just one belief it’s more respected than the other. The father in “Angelita Unearthed” could very well be a minister, someone who in the end also believes in the supernatural, and still he would have contempt for the grandmother’s beliefs.
JRR: What do you think about the popularity of occult/witchcraft/tarot/divination with social media, for example the “influencer witches” of Instagram, in recent years? It’s quite fashionable and accepted in the way I would imagine your character The Woman in “The Well” would not have been treated (i.e. probably is publicly shunned as evil).
ME: I don’t pay much attention to them, to be honest with you. I know they exist and I guess in a way, as many are women, it has to do with the current situation of how, for example, Tarot or astrology are claimed by feminists (or some of them anyway, or in any case, they are censored). But I don’t think it’s the case with The Woman in “The Well.” She comes from a very different tradition that still exists and there’s nothing remotely fashionable about it. It’s not only a different generation but a different social status: a woman like the one in “The Well,” now or then when the story is supposed to happen (the ‘90s) is a poor woman from the country that would not have a clue about social media. It’s also a South American woman, which changes the game completely here: she didn’t learn about this from books, but from her mother and she would not talk about what she does, because she believes in the power of secrets.
JRR: I was so taken by this line in “The Cart”: “We were scared, but fear doesn’t look the same as desperation.” Would you discuss this line? The family are privileged even in the chaos that has descended upon their neighborhood since the homeless man cursed it.
ME: Well they were spared, that was what happened. The mother and the children didn’t curse or insult the man, so the curse doesn’t fall upon them, or at least not that hard. It’s a pretty moral story really, more than I would think! But I’ve seen a lot of very racist and bad treatment of the poor in lower-middle-class neighborhoods to the poorer (let’s say people from the slums), and really there’s not much difference between the two, just the fear of falling deeper into poverty, that really can make you a monster. So it’s a bit of a curse story that spares the one family that had some class consciousness and decency.
JRR: The ending that shocked me the most was in “Our Lady of the Quarry.” The jealousy the girls have towards Silvia is intense. Natalia does the worst but the “we” are complicit in what happens in the end. What was the inspiration for this story?
ME: Reality. My own teenage friends. The quarry is real, what Natalia does with her menstrual blood is something a friend of mine did and the utter jealousy of other girls was something that was rampant when I was a teen. I like to think I wasn’t like that, but I don’t know, maybe I am trying to think I was better. Teenage girls can be awful as we know.
JRR: You take the horror trope of the Ouija Board to the next level in “Back When We Talked to the Dead,” where the teenage girls are trying to contact the dead, disappeared people from Argentina’s Dirty War, including the parents of one of the girls. In the end, it is Pinocchia (her name!), the one girl who didn’t have anyone disappear, is most affected, and it seems “disappears” in a way herself. It seems that the message the reader is supposed to channel is that even the ones who were not directly affected by the terror of this period, were affected. I wonder if you agree with this reading of the story? Also would you talk about the fact that the other girls refuse to take responsibility for what happens and believe the result was because Pinocchia bothered the spirits? Like it was almost her fault?
ME: First, and not to correct you, but I don’t use “Dirty War” and most people don’t here, we use dictatorship. The term “war” implies there were two sides and really it was state terrorism. Yes, there were organized militias that had to be stopped but that had to be done legally in whatever legal terms—taken to court, jail, whatever—but to make bodies disappear is a whole different game.
Also, Pinocchia was how we called a friend those days because she was quite thick in school matters. Argentines can be brutal with the naming, mostly people take it with humor and it’s not offensive (depends obviously; she wasn’t). Yes, the story is about how a dictatorship is a trauma and a scar for everybody that lived through a period like this; even if you weren’t directly affected as, let’s say, your mother was taken, you lived in a society where this was happening and to grow up in this is traumatizing for everybody in different ways. Also the blaming of Pinocchia… I always thought about it in a very human way, it’s difficult to take responsibility and we always end up blaming someone else, especially the most vulnerable or the more daring, for our collective mistakes.
JRR: The “we” point of view in this last story, as in “Our Lady of the Quarry,” chilled me. It made me think of the Chilean writer Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders, which is about how young people come to terms with the brutalities and memories of the Pinochet era. Have you read much about the ‘70s and ‘80s in other countries in Latin America and considered it with your own experience of this period?
ME: I feel many writers my age are writing about those periods (that are roughly the 70s, except in Chile where it was much longer, and the effects it had on our minds and bodies, and on our parents and the way they raised us. And of course, the institutions. I love Nona’s work and the literature about the dictatorship in Chile is the one I feel closer to. Even when they are not “direct” about it, and even when the experiences in my country and Chile are quite different. There’s a huge literature in Argentina written by sons of the disappeared and the range is wild: you have poetry, humor, autofiction, diaries, very grotesque fiction, you name it. It’s intense and it opened a door for everybody of the younger generations to talk and write about those years and its consequences from our perspective.
JRR: For readers unfamiliar with the contemporary literary scene in Argentina, which emerging writers should we be looking out for (either in translation and in Spanish)?
ME: Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Agustina Bazterrica, Ariana Harwicz are the translated ones that come at the top of my head. Roque Larraquy is pretty wild, too. I wish too that they would translate Camila Sosa Villada and Leo Oyola or Luciano Lamberti soon.