Book Review

By Adam Norris

The dangers of smoking in bed
Mariana Enriquez

Step right up! It’s Buenos Aires, and we have all the Halloween fare you’ll ever need. Body horror? You bet. Blasphemy? Hell yes. Slums and curses and fetishes and fear? Meat and madness? Witches? Yes, yes and yes – I mean, just look at that cover. Forget your green-skinned, wart-nosed crone; that there is the true face of a witch.

Stephen King once wrote that, “Reading a good long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair… A short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.”

And as anyone who has more than a summer romance under their belt will tell you, the quality of a kiss varies greatly from lips to lips. The bulk of story collections that pass by my desk are uneven efforts, where one good story rewards you with several others that just unspool into… Meh. ‘The Dangers of Smoking in Bed’ isn’t quite the exception to the rule, but it is that rare gem where the majority of tales sink their teeth in to the bone and refuse to let you be. They are sudden unsettlments, like a brick thrown through your window on Christmas morning.

While each of these dozen stories are unconnected, they share a certain enduring horror in their resolution, in that there is no resolution; good and evil neither triumph or face defeat, the supernatural is never really explained. There is a disquieting sense of reality to these horrors, regardless if they are entirely otherworldly (like ‘Rambla Trieste’, in which the city is suffocated by the ghosts of murdered children) or based in more achievable nightmares (like the celebrity cannibalism of ‘Meat’). Each story is more an observation than an explanation, as though Enriquez is a tour guide for one of the outer suburbs of Hell, pointing out interesting features along the way. Two in particular (“Kids Who Come Back” and “Our Lady of the Quarry”) still haunt me, just as the echo of Argentina’s dark history haunt the periphery of each page.

And if horror ain’t usually your kind of ride, you can take solace in the fact that ‘The Dangers…’ also made it to the 2021 International Booker Prize shortlist, a major achievement. So go on – find yourself a candlelit room, and when you turn the last page blow out the flame and wait, senses shivering, for the trespass of a stranger’s lips.