The Dangers of Smoking in Bed

Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is her second short story collection to appear in English, though its original publication predates that of Things We Lost in the Fire, which was also translated by Megan McDowell. It contains twelve stories, all of which eventually find themselves in the territory of horror, except the title story which, at six pages, perhaps simply doesn’t have the time to get there. It’s a genre for which Enriquez shows great skill as well as appetite, but as the certain destination of story after story, its unexpectedness becomes increasingly expected in this anthology format.

The first story, ‘Angelita Unearthed’, begins when the narrator discovers bones in her backyard. Chicken bones, her father tells, her, but her grandmother has a different story, of a baby who had died a few months after birth, and whose bones had been brought with the family when they moved so she can rest in peace. Ten years later, the baby appears in the narrator’s apartment:

“The angel baby doesn’t look like a ghost. She doesn’t float and she isn’t pale and she doesn’t wear a white dress. She’s half rotted away and she doesn’t talk.”

This is typical of Enriquez’s horror – it’s a physical horror, one you can reach out and touch – as the narrator discovers when here first instinct is to strangle the baby:

“I didn’t even make her cough; I just got some bits of decomposing flesh stuck to my gloved fingers and her trachea was left in full view.”

The physicality of Enriquez’s approach to horror runs through the volume; where characters develop obsessions they are often physical obsessions. In ‘Where Are You, Dear Heart?’ the narrator displays an erotic attitude to illness, originating in her adolescent reading of Jane Eyre and, in particular, the scene where Jane climbs into the bed of the dying Helen. Soon she is reading medical books instead:

“Nothing brought me as much happiness as those books. All those euphemisms for death. All those beautiful medical terms that didn’t mean anything, all that hard jargon – that was pornography.”

Her obsession, of course, develops a physical expression, a web-site “where other heart fetishists shared their hearts.” In ‘Meat’, too, obsession is key, the perhaps more natural obsession of teenage girls for a pop star. His suicide does not lead to copycat behaviour among his fans; instead they want to own him physically, and begin by digging up his corpse. A sense of physical intimacy with Enriquez’s characters occurs even when it is not intended to cause terror. Defecation (in both cases in the street) and masturbation are described in more than one story. Evil itself is perceived through the senses, for example in ‘Rambla Triste’:

“She’d just decided to keep quiet when the smell inundated her nose like a hot pepper, like a strong mint, making her eyes water; a smell that was almost palpable, black from the crypt.”

Evil does not feel abstract in these stories, as evidenced by the curses which feature in, for example, ‘The Cart’ where a vagrant is harassed in a residential street about defecting on the pavement. Soon after the families living there begin to have increasingly bad luck – apart from the only one who defended him, who have to hide this fact so as not to anger their neighbours (for example, going to work across the rooftops to disguise the fact that they alone remain employed). By the story’s end, J G Ballard levels of horror have been unleashed. A curse, of a kind, also features in ‘The Well’, where Josefina has become so anxious she can hardly leave her home:

“Josefina felt faint when she reached the front door…”

In contrast, her mother and sister, Mariela, no longer feel the anxiety that once affected them. Only when Mariela takes her to the woman who cured them does she discover the truth.

However, despite the strong fantasy element in the stories, many of them originate in real life horror. ‘The Cart’, for example, begins with homelessness; ‘Rambla Triste’ is about how we treat children. In ‘Kids Who Come Back’ we see the missing return, sometimes years later, just as they were when they vanished (there is an echo of Andres Barba’s A Luminous Republic here). This is horror with a social conscience.

In fact, at times one wonders whether Enriquez needs, on every occasion, to resort to the supernatural. One of the best stories, ‘Our Lady of The Quarry’, exquisitely captures the teenage jealousy of a group of girls when their slightly older friend gets the guy:

“All speculation was brought to an abrupt halt – as if a cold knife had sliced through our spines – when we found out that Silvia and Diego were dating.”

The setting – the Virgin’s Pool in an isolated quarry – enhances the rising tension. Enriquez leaves enough ambiguity in the ending to allow for a realistic interpretation for once, and the story does not suffer for it. It is not that there is no place in literature for horror tropes, but repetitively their effectiveness diminishes. For this reason, I doubt I would have placed The Dangers of Smoking in Bed on my personal International Booker shortlist, despite the pleasant thrill many of the stories provide.

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7 Responses to “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed”

  1. Tony Says:

    Yes, this isn’t really a shortlister (another case of ‘right author, wrong book’…).

    • 1streading Says:

      I haven’t read her other collection but my impression from reviews is that it was better. I enjoyed reading the stories but I wasn’t blown away by them.

      • Tony Says:

        I can’t remember one person who’s read both that said they liked this one better, which is surprising in the irritable world of book opinions 😉

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s interesting how you feel the repetitive nature of the narrative arcs diminishes the impact of the collection as a whole. I can understand that, even though each individual story might seem very powerful when viewed in isolation…

    • 1streading Says:

      I think it’s partly the nature of horror writing where the surprise can be important. If you know every story is going to be a horror story you are just waiting in for it to happen. (Though I don’t read a lot of horror so this may just be me).

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Ineresting Grant – a case of a bit too much similarity by the sounds of it. Personally I think collections of short works tend to succeed more when there’s plenty of variety…

    • 1streading Says:

      I would agree – it’s like an album (remember those!) – it doesn’t work if all the tracks sound the same no matter how good that sound is.

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