Although they’re set in contemporary Argentina, many of the short stories in Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire have an almost primal feel. A current of macabre superstition and urban legend threads the collection together, and nearly every story has some kind of undefinable darkness looming over its protagonists. The terror that transpired during Argentina’s relatively recent dictatorship — thousands were murdered in the 1970s and early 1980s — also haunts the pages. These are horror stories feel like they could be real.
Enríquez is very talented when it comes to creating atmospheric tension. Most of the stories take a surreal turn, but they all start out with recognizable contemporary scenarios: poverty, drug abuse, social inequality, childhood curiosity, obnoxious boyfriends. It isn’t until the reader is drawn into the relatable, reality-based settings that weird things start happening.
For instance, in the opening story, “The Dirty Kid,” the narrator is trying to keep her grandparents’ former home in the family, so she moves in. The once-grand home now sits in a part of town known for its sex workers and drug addicts, and her family can’t understand why she’d move into such a dangerous area. The neighborhood is rocked by scandal when a child is found murdered in what appears to be a satanic ritual, and the narrator is convinced that the victim is a homeless child she’d recently helped.
In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a recently disgraced social worker now has a tense home life with her husband. He’s convinced that she’s mentally fragile and at risk for a nervous breakdown. One day she spots a child chained up in her neighbor’s courtyard, and she’s determined to do things right this time and save him. It’s a story that evokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” with a scary twist.
Other stories, such as “Adela’s House,” follow a slightly more straightforward ghost story trajectory. In this case, the narrator thinks back to an event in her childhood. She went with her brother and her friend to explore a haunted house, then watched as her friend disappeared through a door, never to be seen again.
As I said earlier, Enríquez does an excellent job of setting the scene and creating a creepy atmosphere (so much so that if you’re easily disturbed by violence and horror — people and animals get killed or mutilated in multiple stories — this book is probably not a good fit for you). With a lot of these stories, though, I felt like I wanted more. Enríquez is clearly a talented writer, but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get fully engaged with the collection. There are a few standouts — the ones I mentioned were among my favorites — but overall, the book feels unfinished.
Things We Lost in the Fire was published in February 2017 by Hogarth.