Reveling in the Eerie and the Spooky, but Finding ‘True Horror’ in Real Life
Mariana Enriquez’s childhood was marked by the dark absurdity of authoritarianism. Under the military dictatorship that ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983, a latent fear permeated even the most mundane aspects of life.
Hosting a birthday party required permission from local authorities. Conversations were potentially dangerous: As a child, she knew that certain things that could be discussed at home were off limits in mixed company, but she didn’t fully understand why. The fear of letting the wrong thought slip out made her somber, she said, and pushed her toward “books and very solitary things.”
When the dictatorship fell in 1983, and its leaders were put on trial two years later, testimony from its victims became inescapable in Argentine society, Enriquez said. Surrounded by it, she had no choice but to close the gaps in her understanding. The reports of arrest, torture, disappearance and murder represented her first exposure to “true horror,” she said, and would later become a thread of her work, which is filled with ghosts, demons and tales of the occult.
“Instead of sending me to bed, my father would say ‘See how bad they were?’” Enriquez said, describing testimony from the trials that she heard on the radio alongside her father. In one instance, she said, a woman described being tortured with electric shocks while pregnant.
“He never thought it could disturb me, or worse, he thought it was something I needed to know.”
The terrors that engulfed Argentina in the 1970s and ’80s — the ones that had so unsettled Enriquez as a child — play heavily in the background of her latest novel, “Our Share of Night.” Out in the United States on Tuesday from Hogarth, it centers on a medium, Juan, and his son, Gaspar, as they try to outmaneuver an evil secret society bent on eternal life. Jump scares abound. But while Enriquez revels in horror conventions, her writing also urges readers to remember that it’s the real-life monstrosities that should truly frighten.
Violence in Latin America has been normalized to the point that people’s reaction to it has become subdued, she said. “Putting in the horror, including the jump scares, including the gore, including the parts that have to do with thoughts about evil, it’s like returning those things to the realm of the horrible, rather than the quotidian to which we grow accustomed,” Enriquez said.
The author of four novels, two short story collections. and a host of stories, biographies and journalism besides, Enriquez, 49, has cemented her standing as a leading figure of contemporary gothic fiction. The English translation of her collection “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed” was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021, and the Spanish version of “Our Share of Night” won Anagrama’s Herralde Prize for best book of the year in 2019.
Enriquez is a fan of things that go bump in the night, of scary movies and eerie tales in the tradition of fellow Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Silvina Ocampo, who was the subject of her nonfiction book “La Hermana Menor,” or “The Younger Sister.” But the roots of her awareness and fascination with life’s darker shades also reach back to that terrible Argentina of her youth.
“There’s a kind of hopelessness in childhood in post-dictatorships or in moments of institutional violence or after institutional violence,” Enriquez said. “It has something to do with — if you think of it as a metaphor — the lack of a future. So the child isn’t taken care of much in those circumstances. You’re obliged in a way to have your childhood mixed with all of that violence.”
Enriquez wrote her first novel, “Bajar Es Lo Peor,” or “Coming Down Is the Worst,” when she was still a teenager coming to terms with that reality. Recently rereleased in Spanish by Anagrama, it’s a tale of drugs, sex and misspent or mistreated youth, themes she has now returned to with an adult gaze.
Told from multiple perspectives and spanning time and place, from the occult-obsessed London of the 1960s and ’70s to the 1990s aftermath of Argentina’s “dirty war,” “Our Share of Night” renders scenes of cinematic horror as ably as it does depictions of psychological pain. Juan’s love for his son is tainted by a deep jealousy of the kind the writer bell hooks explores in “The Will to Change,” only here it is taken to macabre extremes.
With his health giving out, Juan faces the temptation of literally inhabiting his son’s younger, healthier body. Enriquez uses their relationship to explore parenthood, which she said is often portrayed in a rosy or simplistic light.
“When you’re watching a child grow while your life is ending, there is something more complex than what you typically hear in the discussion about childhood, about only the good, only the beautiful,” Enriquez said.
However ambivalent, Juan endeavors to protect his son from the Order, a secret society of wealthy families who threaten to use Gaspar as their next medium. The echoes of the worst realities of Argentina’s dictatorship are clear. One of the regime’s most morally destitute practices involved stealing the children of dissidents and giving them to families with ties to the dictatorship. Many of those dissidents were among the thousands of Argentines who didn’t just disappear but were disappeared — taken by security officers and never seen by their families again.
In Argentine Spanish, Enriquez notes, a common word for ghost is “aparecido,” the antithesis of these “desaparecidos,” or disappeared, that still haunt the country’s memory. “Even the language itself leads to the phantasmagorical of it all,” she said.
When writing about the weird or horrific, Enriquez tends to restrict herself to what she calls the “mare magnum” of violence in Latin America — the patterns and prevalence of almost theatrical killing that weigh so heavily on the region. When a mass grave from the time of the dictatorship is uncovered, the collection of bones represents a more immediate reality than the skeletons piled high in European crypts, she said. Human rights organizations say more than 30,000 Argentines disappeared or were killed during military rule.
But whatever particular resonance her work has in the region, “Our Share of Night” is also very much a global novel, said Alejandra Laera, a cultural critic and professor of Argentine literature at the University of Buenos Aires.
“The grace of the novel lies in the way it creates a world,” Laera said. “It’s the kind of work I would call a long breath. It’s like several novels in one.”
Enriquez’s writing is “an exploration and expiation of trauma of all kinds,” said Megan McDowell, who translated “Our Share of Night” into English.
“While your typical Borges story will take place in a separate, invented, mythological world, Mariana is very concerned with place, as well as social issues,” McDowell wrote in an email. “Poverty, state violence, and sexism haunt her stories as much as any ghost or supernatural being.”
Indeed, in “Our Share of Night” Enriquez is working as much in the tradition of Borges and Ocampo as she is in that of film directors like Steven Spielberg or Gaspar Noé, or channeling the haunting pain of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and the raw vision of violence, youth and neglect in François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.”
“She draws on so many varied traditions and makes them her own,” said McDowell. “She spins her obsessions into narratives that are engaging and thoughtful and scary and surprising, and ultimately impossible to forget.”
As with much of her work, musical influences, too, are at play. It was Enriquez’s love of rock’n’roll that, in a sense, opened her to literature in the first place. Listening to Southern Gothic strains in music by artists like Nick Cave, Enriquez said, she sought out William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Hearing Patti Smith refer on the album “Horses” to Arthur Rimbaud, she found and became enraptured by the French poet’s work — and the lore surrounding his life.
“With the poètes maudits I saw a strong relationship between rock and literature in a way that I don’t think is as obvious now, but was for me at the time,” Enriquez said.
As a teenager Enriquez dreamed — fantasized, she says — about becoming a music reporter and interviewing her idols. She studied journalism, and soon started writing for the Argentine newspaper Página 12, where she still writes and edits the cultural supplement, Radar. The current issue features a story about Cave’s recent Australian tour, written by Enriquez.
As it turns out, then, that dream came true. Perhaps more surprising is the way the author, too, has become a kind of literary rock star. Enriquez, who considers herself a “nerd,” would surely deny the charge. But the fandom her work inspires suggests otherwise. From sketches and tattoos to oil paintings and sculptures, Enriquez is awash in fan art, including portraits of Juan and Gaspar, of characters from her short stories, and even of herself. Perhaps that is the lighter side of Enriquez’s dark obsessions.
“They’re fascinated with the characters,” she said of fans. “And I’m that way too, sometimes. It’s a very particular kind of wordless understanding.”