The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez

The cover should have tipped me off. A woman with three eye sockets, only one of which contains an eye. A thumb has already gouged out one eye and a tongue sticks out of the other socket while holding a smoking cigarette. Horror is how one of my students described Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. I am not a fan of horror and yet I did not heed the warnings.

Across the span of a dozen stories, Enriquez delivers dead babies, runaway girls, and ghosts who haunt picturesque seaside towers. These ghouls appear as if there is no afterlife, only a never-ending series of really bad days.

In the title story, the narrator inadvertently digs up the bones of Angelita, a baby who died decades ago after only a few months of life. In life, Angelita never learned to crawl but, in death, she has no problem in hunting the narrator down.

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. […] I asked her what she wanted, but all she did was keep on pointing, like we were in a horror movie.

Mariana Enriquez, “Angelique Unearthed” in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Granta 2021)

Welcome to Buenos Aires

This is the cheery text you’ll find on the back cover of The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. The warm welcome is tempered by this description: “a place of nightmares and twisted imaginings.”

As a working journalist in Buenos Aires, Enriquez must encounter more than her fair share of sensational crime. At age 49, Enriquez belongs to the generation of children born to men and women “disappeared” during the late 1970s by the Argentine government. “Back When We Talked to the Dead” features teenage girls who try to speak to the disappeared with the help of an overly active Ouija board. As Enriquez says, “It’s very difficult to write about Argentina using only realism.”

For me, the most frightening stories in Enriquez’s collection are not the ones involving the undead. There is nothing so scary as a feral teenage girl, unless it’s a whole group of them out to get you. I can remember reading “Our Lady of the Quarry” in The New Yorker and shivering with recognition of my own ravenous teenage years.

Girls can be like bees or like locusts: there’s something toxic and delicious and exotic about them together—they can convey a certain power. They are a coven, and they are vulnerable, and this mix intrigues me. […] You’re a beauty and you’re a monster and you can be damaged and you can hurt.

David S. Wallace, “Mariana Enriquez on teenage desire” in The New Yorker (14 Dec 2020)

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021.

Anchor Story

Last week, I learned the term “anchor story” at a panel on the linked short story collection. The anchor might appear at the start, middle or end of a collection. It’s supposed to hold the collection together, whether thematically or through character arc or some other device. As Carmen Maria Machado said, it’s like those big department stores you find in North American malls. Come inside, they say.

So now that I know the term, I want to apply it to The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. First of all, is it a linked collection? Most of the stories are based in Buenos Aires but not all. “Rambla Triste” is set in Barcelona, where ghost children are driving the locals away.

“Where Are You, Dear Heart?” could take place anywhere but let’s say it’s Buenos Aires. A woman develops a sexual interest in men suffering from heart disease.

I have three memories of him, but one of them could be false. The order is arbitrary. In the first he is sitting on a sofa, completely naked, on a towel, watching TV. He doesn’t pay any attention to me: I think I’m spying on him. His penis rests in a tangle of black hair, and the scar that cuts through his chest hair is dark pink. […] Sometime after his death, I started using my nails to mark my chest right in the center, imitating his scar.

The stories in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed are linked by place and by genre and by their propensity to place women and girls in grave danger. But you don’t need to read them all to understand an individual story.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed

If the title story is the anchor to Enriquez’s collection, it doesn’t follow the rules I’ve just learned. “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed” is the penultimate story, a mere three pages long, hardly substantial enough to weigh the collection down.

And yet it does in its depiction of everyday horror, the kind any of us might experience if our luck should turn some day. Paula is poor. She lives alone in a filthy apartment though the building does have a doorman. He is the one who tells Paula of a woman down the road who died because she was smoking in bed. It doesn’t sound like a bad way to go, given Paula’s alternatives.

she was hungry again and the apartment stank and the smell wouldn’t let her sleep and she hated it, so much that she had to cry, and she cried because of the smell, because the incense she lit to get rid of it reeked even worse, because she never remembered to buy air freshener—which also smelled terrible—and because the cigarettes must have also make everything stink but she couldn’t stop because she smoked so much, and because she had never been able to have one of those clean and luminous homes that smelled of sunlight, lemons, and wood.

“The Dangers of Smoking in Bed”

This is the best kind of horror: palpable, believable, and oh so close to home. I can’t wait to pick up Enriquez’s earlier collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, to scare myself witless once more.

27 Mar 2023 | Karen Kao