Photo by Karina Vara.

Creating a New Tradition of Latin American Horror

Mariana Enriquez on the Dark Side of Writing as an Argentinian

By  Mariana Enriquez

I wrote my first novel when I was 17 and published it when I was 21. It took me eight years to publish another novel. Those first two books are very different from each other, but they have some things in common: you can say that both are realistic novels. More or less. And the narrators, in both cases, are male. Mind you, the first one is a gothic gay love story and the second one has a sociological angle and talks about the economic crisis through the eyes of a boy who has been sexually abused by his father. But they were realistic novels and I didn’t want to write realism. I wanted to write genre—fantasy and horror. Always wanted to.

But after two novels I still couldn’t find the voice to do it. I couldn’t really understand how I was supposed to write horror fiction in Spanish and even more specifically, in Argentinian, which is not the same thing. Not only because the language is different to the way they speak Spanish in any other Latin American country or in Spain (even our use of verbs is different) but what about our own fears, our own monsters, our own ghosts? People ask me why I like horror, why I like fantastic fiction. It’s one of those questions that I don’t think any writer can really answer. There are lots of technical aspects to writing, that’s why it can be taught, but the impulse of literature is fundamentally mysterious. Why write and not dance? I like music more than books. But I can’t express myself through music. I tried! I think the song is the perfect artistic form. And yet, I struggle with language.

Genre is also a language, a private language. It shows the way your mind reacts, the way you think in literature. I love all kinds of books: but there’s something about horror and fantastic or weird fiction that feels like home to me. Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem say in a great short story called “The Man on the Ceiling”: “I write dark fantasy because it helps me see how to live in a world with monsters.” I understand that answer, although it’s not entirely true to me. Anyway, I had two novels and yet I wasn’t doing two things I wanted to do: create female narrators and write horror fiction. So I decided to try both at once.

There are lots of technical aspects to writing, that’s why it can be taught, but the impulse of literature is fundamentally mysterious. Why write and not dance? I like music more than books.”

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Many people think that, for a woman writer, a female narrator is the most natural outcome. For me it was the opposite. I wasn’t and am not really interested in memoirs or autofiction, so for me fiction was always about characters who weren’t close to me as a narrator. And my first attempts of writing women were disastrous. They talked like me. They had my mannerisms. In those days I was also writing an opinion column in a magazine, it was first person and it contaminated everything. The narrator of the magazine pieces was of course also a character (I think the “me” is always a character anyway). But there was also something technical that just didn’t spark when I wrote of  She or a female I. I couldn’t find the world of these women. I didn’t know what to do with them. So I decided to put one in a horror story and that was also important. Not a novel: a short story. Horror tends to be more effective in a short story and a narrator who is difficult is maybe was easier to control in a short piece. It worked. That story was called “The Well,” it’s still not published in English and the plot doesn’t really matter, but it functioned as a story and through it I understood two things: the horror that I could talk about and who was my ideal female narrator.

My ideal female narrator tends to be not so much a protagonist as a witness. Slightly detached and somewhat deranged. And the horror, I found, was not that far from realism. To explain how this happened, allow me to say something about how I think tradition works. There is no tradition of horror or weird writing in Spanish. There is a bit in Argentinian literature because we had more diverse influences than Spanish literature. We also had a writer, Borges, who was completely in to English literature (and after him many that were into American literature). Still, that’s not a tradition. Consider this: when Borges wrote stories of the fantastic (never horror) he wrote tales like “The House of Asterion.” It was very helpful to me, that particular story, because it taught me that, as a writer, I could manipulate mythology. And that led me to understand that I could manipulate any text and recreate myths or any story really. That literature was open and was free. But notice something else that goes hand in hand with this freedom: that story of Borges’ has no local references. It happens in a labyrinth, in a myth, with the Minotaur. All Borges’ fantasy is like that. With very few exceptions, for the stories with Argentinian themes he chose realism; his genre work happened in some nowhere fictional land without history. I couldn’t write that type of fiction. But I understood the lesson of manipulation, of translation, with him.

There are many reasons, I think, why there is not a horror tradition in Spanish. A very common explanation stems from Catholicism and the way that religion destroyed local beliefs. There’s lots of horror themes in Catholicism, just look at the devil, the afterlife, a walking corpse who has come back to life. In Latin America, though, this lack of a horror tradition was a class issue too. In Europe, for example, local superstitions such as the vampire or the werewolf or the folklore of ghost stories and fairytales entered literature. This did not happen in Latin American literature. We have many local beliefs, local monsters, but you won’t find any of it in canonical literature. Why? They were considered superstitious belief of the illiterate. Probably this is true for any other society but that contempt didn’t even have the sparks of curiosity. I insist: it’s not that there isn’t any horror in our life in Argentina. But a tradition is something different. A tradition is a place to go to, to find other writers that share your history, your imagination, your language, and your little national traits. When you don’t have that tradition you are a little lost. You have to reinvent or, better yet, search for your own tradition with the guide of those very few pioneers or examples who went there before.

There is no tradition of horror or weird writing in Spanish. There is a bit in Argentinian literature because we had more diverse influences than Spanish literature. We also had a writer, Borges, who was completely in to English literature (and after him many that were into American literature). Still, that’s not a tradition.”

I knew I had to go find out what was my horror. Our horrors. I asked myself: what were the first written texts, the first horror texts that I had ever read? They were the testimonies of the dictatorship. Bodies disappeared. Common everyday houses which served as concentration camps in neighborhoods. The secrecy of it all, the negation of reality. Children in this time taken from their parents and given another name. It was phantasmagoric. I’m not saying that it was better or worse than something in the open. It was just different than the horror we associate with the genre. I was a child then, so it was imprinted on my imagination. I published my first book of horror and fantastic stories in 2009, “(Insert Title,”) and it had my first story where (Insert title) I used the disappeared in a genre fiction piece. I was worried as it was coming out. Genre is associated with entertainment and entertainment is associated with banality and I was scared to be accused of banalizing a serious subject. I don’t think entertainment in itself has any seed of banality, and I also believe that the prejudice against entertainment is born in the fact that it is popular and sometimes writers become elitists and we have a tendency to disapprove what people like. But fiction that also has entertained taught me more than structuralism.

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The story came out though and nothing happened, which taught me something else: people don’t really pay attention to literature and I wasn’t important.

There was a lot of freedom in this invisibility. I think a lot about being a woman. About desire. About our bodies. About the power and the discussions. When I was writing the stories of “Things We Lost in the Fire,” the international conversation about women was at its peak. Remember, in Argentina we don’t have legal abortion. So I decided to write about female desire and power and guilt. One story, for example, is about a woman in love with a skull, hence in love with death—it’s a story about anorexia. I decided that it was going to be a story with humor, or at least that was the voice that came to me to tell it. There’s something deeply boring and domesticated in the confinement of mental health issues to a medical discourse or a self-help issue or a memoir of recovery. The body has other languages, a kind of freedom, its own literatures.

Most of my women are young, teenagers sometimes. To be a teenager is to feel like a monster: insane, alone, toying with death, detested, foreign, lost. And to be a teenager in a country with an economic crisis is to feel that everything disappears. It’s very scary. You feel like no one pays attention to this effect on you. So in the title story of my book a radical group that burn themselves for empowerment, to respond to male violence and also to create a new beauty. The story is told from the POV of a woman who is ambivalent about this form of resistance. She helps and participates, but she doesn’t go all the way. She doesn’t burn herself. The story started with a real situation that has nothing and everything to do with these issues. I once saw a girl in the subway, burnt, defiant, a beggar. I don’t know what had happened to her. I decided to make her a survivor of violence. I make such a leap in other stories because one source of my horror—my idea of horror—is institutional violence and also violent crime, but in most cases it’s also related to inequality or some form of violence related to inequality.

I don’t think entertainment in itself has any seed of banality, and I also believe that the prejudice against entertainment is born in the fact that it is popular and sometimes writers become elitists and we have a tendency to disapprove what people like.”

Often the violence revolves around a symbol that actually exists. In “Under the Black Water,” that symbol takes the form of a river, an actual polluted river which in my country signifies negligence and everything we did wrong, a place of beauty which we ruined and where now people live, sick and feared, some Evil with capital E. In “The Dirty Kid” I used a real crime that happened in the North, of Ramoncito. I put the story in a neighborhood I know well and the narrator is a middle class woman who means well, but meaning well is never enough. Also in this story I tried to recover local superstitions: in this case those of Gauchito Gil and San La Muerte. San La Muerte is a saint of the North, resembles La Muerte mexicana but it’s different, the myth has its origins in the indigenous beliefs of the Guarani people, which has been semi-adopted by Christians as a nonofficial saints that mostly helps in love and in crime, if you have it under the skin it will save you from bullets. It’s big in prisons. I tried to regain popular religiosity and, when the saint or the being can be thought about this way, claim it to the pagan pantheon. I can of course write zombies and vampires; I also could twist a bit the demon thing, I grew up Catholic. But I’m more interested in these figures of popular belief because they resonate in a different way.

I live in Buenos Aires, a city that’s quite ambiguous about migration. We go happily to the Korean restaurant, but then we are scared they eat our cats. And with people that are more near us, from Paraguay, from Bolivia, people speak of the creepy beliefs they bring as if contaminating a city, our city, a city that believes itself to be the Paris of Latin America—and thankfully is not. Buenos Aires is a modern city with lots of contrasts. It’s not as mixed as other big cities, though. The fear of the other is very present. And this pagan saints represent, in a way, this fear of the other. These are some of the fears I found which I could claim in the way Borges claims the Minotaur: the political violence and its ghosts, women and the violence they survive and do not, and its history and ghosts, the Other mostly in the form of the different, the migrant. Our everyday violence.

I don’t mind if my stories are entertaining. I don’t think that glamorizes or banalizes anything. I think we have to learn how to think without a police person on our shoulders telling us what is good what is bad and what are the limits. To me fiction has no limits. And there’s nothing more serious than a ghost: somebody trapped in its trauma, personal or historical, repeating it forever, impossible to calm down, unable to break the cycle, desperate for a voice and for justice. It’s a massive metaphor. It shouldn’t be confined to the world of young adult writing or the world of literature for children. We can’t be robbed of imagination because, as Ursula K. Le Guin says in her NBA Award speech: my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming, times when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. In my stories, I prefer not to tie up an ending. I think most writers of short stories don’t do these anymore, but the phrase open ending bugs me. They don’t have open endings. They end there, where they end. It’s not that I’m lazy and I didn’t think of an ending. Life is mysterious, and so is literature. I believe there’s a fundamental mystery in things that simply cannot be explained and that one has to be acknowledged. It’s not the duty of a writer to provide comfort. I dare say that we don’t have a duty but if we have one it is to provide the discomfort of fiction. Also to provoke questions. So I point out mysteries but don’t feel the need to solve them. I like to dip my toes in the unexplainable. Most things are impossible to explain, anyway. So that’s why stories shouldn’t have a tied up ending anymore, unless well, they do have one. Yet somehow there will be always something mysterious. It makes me think of Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem, who says so much about why I write dark fiction. “It always makes me cranky to be asked what a story is ‘about’ or what characters ‘are,’ they once wrote. ‘If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have to write them. Often I write about people I don’t understand, ways of being in the world that baffle me. I want to know how people make sense of things, what they say to themselves, how they live. How they name themselves to themselves. Because life is hard. Even when it’s wonderful, even when it’s beautiful—which it is a lot of time—it’s hard. Sometimes I don’t know how any of us makes it through the day. Or the night.”

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Mariana Enriquez
Mariana Enriquez
Mariana Enriquez (Buenos Aires, 1973) has published three novels —Bajar es lo peor (1995), Cómo desaparecer completamente (2004) and Chicos que vuelven (2010)— and two collections of short stories, Los peligros de fumar en la cama (2009, 2017) and Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego (2016) which sold to 20 international publishers before it was even published in Spanish and won the Premio Ciutat de Barcelona (2017). Enriquez’s short stories have been published in The New Yorker, Granta, McSweeney’s, Eletric Literature and Asymptote. She has also published a collection of chronicles on her travels to certain cemeteries (Alguien camina sobre tu tumba) and a profile on Silvina Ocampo (La hermana menor).





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