Sometimes I like short story collections less when I read them too quickly. Groff’s Florida, Ferris’s The Dinner Party, and even Dahl’s “best of” collection are first to mind. When stories are read back-to-back, common themes are soon spotted and ideas that would have been individually brilliant are made to feel repetitive or predictable. Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed does not fall into this trap. The horror in these twelve stories comes from different angles: supernatural sources, jealous people, physical ailments, and so on. They’re ordered such that each story pushes a new boundary and produces ratcheting tension. Several left me queasy or unable to sleep.
A few highlights:
In the opening story, the narrator is followed by the decaying ghost of her great aunt who died as an infant. In trying to determine what the ghost wants, she carries it around in a backpack and hides its face with a mask. There’s something weird—darkly funny?—about a masked ghost in a backpack, but the poor ghost is too pathetic to be funny and too sad to be scary.
This story follows Josefina, the fearless child of a fearful parent. After a visit with “The Woman,” Josefina’s stress and anxiety increase until she can no longer maintain relationships or leave the house. While the source of her anxiety is supernatural, its triggers are regular, real-world occurrences. It’s more affecting this way—it lends a bit of relatability since anyone who’s had an anxiety attack can extrapolate to imagine how she feels. When Josefina tries to get into a taxi:
Before she could put one foot on the sidewalk, her knees were trembling and she was already crying. It had been several days since she’d first noticed a stalling and even a reversal in the pills’ effect. She’d gone back to feeling it was impossible to fill up her lungs, or more like she paid obsessive attention to every inhalation, as if she had to oversee the entrance of air for the system to work, as if she were giving herself mouth-to-mouth resuscitation just to stay alive. (Loc 567)
“Kids Who Come Back”
Approaching novella-length, this is the longest story in the collection. Like others, it combines horror from multiple directions: the grim fate of missing and abused children; and the supernatural return of those children. There could have been more closure on the end of this story, but the overall effect of creeping unease and mounting tension is excellent. It gave me a slightly queasy feeling that I’ve only ever gotten from a Shirley Jackson story. As the kids return, there’s increased distrust and fear around the cause of their return:
Among the older kids, silence reigned. None of them said much, or seemed to want to talk about where they had been. Nor did they seem to recognize their families, though they left with the people who came to pick them up with a meekness that was somehow even more disturbing. (Loc 1730)
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is an excellent collection of short fiction. The premise of each story is inventive and unique. Generally, I’m wary of supernatural horror because the supernatural premise is often an excuse for strange things to happen with little explanation or emotional heft. I don’t think it’s hard to write scary things, but I do think it’s hard to write them with emotional resonance. As much as “The Well” frightened me, my heart broke for Josefina and the sad, infant ghost in “Angelita Unearthed.”
A few stories are so uncomfortable that I’m not entirely sure I enjoyed them, but I very much enjoyed that the ideas in this collection are carried through to their natural—er, unnatural?—ends. Each is explicit enough to be frightening, with enough left to the reader’s imagination to become more unsettling still.
Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0) Well done and unique, it’s a collection of horror stories that provokes genuine chills. And disgust. “Where Are You, Dear Heart?” is not for the squeamish—I admit to skimming a few paragraphs of this one.
NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Publishing Group (via NetGalley).
Image credit: Goodreads