Real Scary

Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell. New York: Hogarth. 587 pages. $29.
The cover of Our Share of Night

The Ishiguro blurb (“The most exciting discovery I’ve made in fiction for some time”) might be designed to entice skittish readers of literary fiction into committing to six hundred pages of horror. Who better than the SF-dabbling Nobel laureate to assure us that we can indulge our genre pleasures and remain serious people? Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night, her first novel to be translated into English, comes well weighted with prestige-ballast: the novel won the 2019 Herralde Prize awarded by the Spanish publishing house Anagrama, and her second story collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker. But Our Share of Night makes Ishiguro’s genre-gestures look hesitant and polite by comparison. Enriquez is unabashed about the camp-gothic trappings of her chosen genre, the kitschy nomenclature and the stomach-churning ceremonies and the bruised eroticism. You’ll get your meditation on Argentine history here, but you’ll also get the mysterious entity called the Darkness and the aristocratic Order that serves it—along with houses that eat little girls, sacred texts stored in a secret London library, mutilated infants held in underground dungeons, and an impossibly sexy “medium,” broken and dangerous as a young Brando. The novel’s most audacious gambit isn’t that it makes all this emotionally and intellectually powerful (it does), but that it never surrenders its trashy allure in doing so. 

Enriquez takes her time disclosing the extent of her world’s departures from our own. The novel opens on a road trip in January 1981 from Buenos Aires to the northeastern province of Misiones, wedged between Paraguay and Brazil. Juan Peterson is driving his ten-year-old son Gaspar to the country mansion of his obscenely wealthy in-laws, the Reyes Bradfords. Something is atmospherically off-kilter in these early pages, but there are plenty of real-world explanations: the summer humidity is stifling; the military dictatorship that has controlled the country since 1974 is keeping “a brutal watch over the highways”; most important is the absence from the car of Rosario, Juan’s wife and Gaspar’s mother, killed a few months prior in a bus accident in the capital. It’s only when Gaspar calmly indicates that he can see a strange woman in their hotel room that the supernatural intrudes. The apparition is a ghost—the novel’s fancy word for such beings is “discarnates”—and this is Juan’s first indication that his son has inherited his ability to perceive these restless wanderers. Argentina in the early 1980s, Enriquez makes clear, is crowded with such creatures, for those with the power to see them. 

Even after this violation of realism’s rules, I thought I knew where I was with Our Share of Night. The supernatural situation, it seemed clear, was a kind of allegory of Operation Condor, the Argentine military’s CIA-assisted program of control and “disappearances” whose ghastliness is fittingly reflected by the trope of spectral haunting. But while the political never really recedes from the novel, within a few pages it’s clear that Enriquez is after stranger fictional game. There’s too much in the novel that won’t fit, too much that veers away from the cognitive satisfactions of allegory’s one-to-one matching operation. The unsettling intimacy of parenting, most notably: when Juan teaches Gaspar how to banish the visions that pursue them, the lesson involves a physical maneuver that Enriquez renders with wonderful specificity. The father rests one hand “under his son’s sternum” and the other against the “vertebra behind the boy’s stomach,” and instructs him first to “think about what’s between my two hands” and then to “tell the lady to go away . . . You can say it in a quiet voice if you want, but tell her as if this part of you that’s between my hands could speak.” Like the adjustments of a yoga instructor, the gesture could verge on the erotic if not for the context that justifies it. 

The justification here is the pedagogy of ghost-busting, and Enriquez’s supernatural premise allows her to luxuriate in the easy closeness of the father-son bond. The casual bodily attentions of everyday parenting—gathering a child’s hair away from his face when a migraine makes him vomit at the side of the road, intuitively grabbing the extra napkins that a sloppy ice-cream eater will need on a hot day—are beautifully interspersed with forms of intimacy particular to this duo’s nightmarish situation. Juan spends hours holding Gaspar each morning as the child sobs for his mother; Gaspar unconsciously monitors Juan’s irregular pulse by thrusting a tiny hand under his father’s shirt as they sleep entwined. (Juan’s efforts as a medium, we learn, have ravaged his body, and his arrhythmia provides a jagged back-beat to large stretches of the novel.) We hardly notice as these paternal ministrations shade into violence—at first a slap of irritation or discipline, then a baffling series of attacks of escalating explicitness and gruesomeness. By the novel’s midpoint the child’s body is as marked and broken as his father’s. Most remarkable about all of this is that the tenderness never vanishes from their relation.  

Does it matter that these violations too are motivated by the supernatural plot? Juan, we slowly learn, is on a desperate mission to save his child from the evil plans of his deceased wife’s family. Rosario was “of blood,” a descendent of the aristocratic Reyes Bradfords who have been senior members of the Order since its eighteenth-century founding. The group worships the Darkness, an entity it can only force into material manifestation with the assistance of a medium—one of whom appears, vampire-slayer style, in every generation. Without exception the mediums have come from disempowered groups—a Scottish peasant during the Highland Clearances, a girl kidnapped from the British colony that would become Nigeria, a Spanish child who lost her family to Franco’s bombs—and without exception they die young, worn out by the tight schedule of Ceremonials the Order keeps them on. (At those rituals, several of them terrifyingly recounted in the novel, some Initiates are swallowed whole by the Darkness, some give up fingers or the odd limb, and others, the elect, are slashed and instantly healed by the gigantic golden claws the medium sprouts for the occasion.) Juan, purchased from impoverished Scandinavian immigrants by the Argentine branch of the Order, is the first medium who has been permitted to marry and reproduce. The group’s long-term goal is to achieve immortality, and they are plotting a trial run with Juan and Gaspar, forcing the dying father’s consciousness into the body of the boy. Juan’s mysterious attacks on his son, we come to understand, are all efforts to protect him with a magic seal; the abuse is not the opposite of tenderness but a contorted form of it. 

The occult details sound silly in a flat recounting. But they conjure emotional textures almost unimaginable in realist fiction. It’s one thing to talk abstractly about parental ambivalence, or about the bond an abused child forms with the caretaker who torments him—quite another to invent a metaphysical system that makes those realities come alive in the smallest details. Once we grasp the logic of the novel’s world, its ironies won’t stop churning: Juan’s torturers in the Order want him to live forever, and they want to kill his son to do so. The unthinkable wounding of that son is thus part of the father’s effort toward his own death, an attempt to evade the fantasy of immortality that—even outside of horror fiction—many people routinely invoke as one reason to have children in the first place. Gaspar hates his father’s brutality, naturally enough, but also senses the larger context of violence that this intimate cruelty replicates and wards off. “He was never afraid with his father,” the narrator comments during one of the duo’s particularly ghoulish nighttime expeditions together. “He could be afraid of him, but never with him.” 

Enriquez’s gift is to make us realize that this sentiment, derived though it is from her outlandish premise, is of course not uncommon in our world. You start to suspect that the unholy institution Enriquez is really seeking to illuminate is not the deathly Order but the garden-variety family, with its open secrets and intimate wounds and half-effective magic spells and unspoken fantasies of living through others. The situation is also an opaque reflection of the Argentine military’s notorious adoption program, in which the children of the disappeared were stolen and raised—often by regime-friendly families—in ignorance of their parents’ murders. The resonance hovers lightly around the edges of the fiction, reminding us that dictatorship too is a family affair. 


OUR SHARE OF NIGHT harbors a startling array of emotional atmospheres in its macabre frame. The novel’s five sections—the 1981 road trip to Misiones occupies the first one—take us back and forth in time as well as around Argentina and England. A long central section (titled “The Bad Thing About Empty Houses,” as if in homage to a forgotten B-movie) is set in Buenos Aires in 1985–86, and follows the teenage Gaspar and a band of friends as they navigate crushes, school projects, the dawning awareness of economic and political differences among their families, and the loosening of the national atmosphere in the wake of Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983. The dramas of this coming-of-age material coexist seamlessly with the gothic tones of Juan’s increasingly sinister behavior—not to mention the pull of an abandoned neighborhood house on the Calle Villareal that the adolescents discover is a portal to a Darkness-imbued zone called, with delicious deadpan, the Other Place. Enriquez writes of both the daylight world and this hellmouth with evenhanded precision; even when we encounter the disorienting dimensions of the cursed house (bigger inside than out) and take stock of its hideous contents (body parts arranged on shelving, like a museum in hell), the prose never gets overexcited, hardly ever veering into metaphoric fanfare. Enriquez’s restraint—nicely captured in Megan McDowell’s translation—is among her most chilling effects, testifying as it does to our will to domesticate even the most obscene departures from the reality we know. Nothing is scarier about these nightmare interludes than the characters’ ability to assimilate them: “Gaspar leaned his head against his father’s legs,” Enriquez writes, “and decided that the episode of the box of eyelids wasn’t important.”

Another section lets Enriquez stress-test the solidity of her world against her characters’ theorizations of it. “Chalk Circles” covers 1960–76 and is narrated by Rosario. Most of it takes place in London, where the Reyes Bradford heiress is pursuing an anthropology doctorate on the rituals of the Mbya-Guaraní people who work her family’s plantations. But these researches are interspersed with various off-the-books investigations: in the rambling Chelsea townhouse Rosario shares with Juan and their many friends and lovers, the beds are piled high with books and LPs and tarot decks. Here, as befits the air of academic study and drug-fueled talk, the Darkness and the Order are fully analyzed. One friend who is also a child of Initiates considers the parallels between the ethos of the 60s and the myths of the Order: “Radical political positions, hedonism, sexual promiscuity, weird clothes, kids with too much money; that stuff was similar to the Order. But the spirit of the age, the hippie canon, now that was identical.” Juan, meanwhile, reflects on some patterns the reader will already have noticed, observing that the Darkness likes to select its mediums from world-historical crimes scenes. And Rosario, upon discovering a Chelsea portal to the Other Place, thinks immediately of anthropologist Victor Turner’s writings on liminal spaces in tribal ritual. Such auto-theorization is widely held to undermine the reader’s sense of the narrated world’s reliability. But in Enriquez’s handling the effect is somehow just the opposite: the ideas are smart and vividly expressed—and if you found yourself in Enriquez’s world you would, after all, use all the tools at your disposal to understand it. Her characters’ excavations of their situation unexpectedly redouble its air of reality. 

Enriquez manages a related, equally improbable, effect with the sexual magnetism of her central character. Blonde, towering, and deathly ill, Juan’s appeal is remarked by everyone he meets. “At fifteen,” Rosario remembers, “Juan didn’t look like a teenager, and though he was delicate and pale, he had all the look of a man, with his broad back, prominent veins in his arms, that sad and arrogant look in his eyes.” As an adult, she elaborates, he is “elegant and slow, regal, as the British would say, and he had the air of a giant cat . . . all aggressive cheekbones, a chin so cleft it looked wounded, darkened eyes.” The feline enchantment works for men and women—Gaspar’s school chum Pablo gets an erection when he sees a photo of Juan many years after his death, reflecting that even from beyond the grave the “demonic allure” of his friend’s dad is intact—and the novel gives rapt attention to Juan’s gay dalliances. He transfixes the narrative eye: his massive hands come into our vision in what feels like an eternal close-up, with the fetishistic isolation of pornography or a Rodin sculpture. Readers’ tolerance for this aspect of the novel may depend on their interest in tableaux of austere and damaged male beauty. (I did fine with it.) But even for those with other tastes, Enriquez’s nervy technique results in a counterintuitive but undeniable realism. Improbably attractive people seem comically unreal in novels only when the fictive population fails to remark the departure from the norm. But extreme, disconcerting beauty is a feature of the everyday, perhaps our most mundane experience of the supernatural. Here too, Enriquez’s generic loyalties—we recognize this character from Dracula and Twilight and anime, but have rarely seen his social effect so fully rendered—land her in a place of deeper verisimilitude.


ENRIQUEZ HAS RECENTLY addressed her aesthetic preoccupations in the preface to a reissue of her first book, a druggy, doom-laden novel from 1995 called Bajar es lo peor (“Coming Down is the Worst”) that also features an often-gay and improbably beautiful protagonist (unlike the Viking-esque Juan, however, Facundo is dark and slight). That early novel, Enriquez tells us, emerged from “my adolescent obsessions: vampirism, sex between men, murky Baudelairean beauty, wounded Rimbaudian beaty, those who dwell underground, demons, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, Lestat and Louis.” This is not, she makes clear, an adolescent sensibility the mature artist has left behind. As Enriquez disarmingly specifies, these are “very similar to my current obsessions.” The deep truth about aesthetic production to which Enriquez gestures here—that it is often the result of durable, embarrassing fixations—is hardly ever owned this frontally. Our Share of Night honors that loyalty to primal fantasy with its indulgence in the generic tropes of horror. But if the novel speaks to readers with no real affinity with that genre, it’s because its most outlandish effects are ultimately brought back to an encounter with the real. 

The novel nods to the complexity of its generic coding in a weird moment in Rosario’s section. The discovery of a gateway to the Other Place in their Chelsea home makes the young couple speculate that there may be a “Place of Power” nearby, a zone from which Juan can summon the Darkness. The Place indeed turns out to be just next door, and Enriquez specifies the address with unusual explicitness. Google informed me that 4 Cheyne Walk is George Eliot’s house, the one that has the blue plaque even though the novelist only spent the last month of her life there. Our Share of Night is studded with literary citation—masters of the Latin American fantastic like Borges and Bioy Casares are referenced, as is the poetry of the Byron and Keats, the Haitian anthropology of Zora Neale Hurston, and the narrative phantasmagorias of Amos Tutuola. But this reference to the greatest English realist is curiously occulted—hiding, like the Place of Power itself, in plain sight. The moment signals the existence of a secret passageway between Enriquez’s hellscapes and the solid worlds of Eliot’s novels, with their famous insistence on exploring probable consequences rather than alluring impossibilities. “How can we go on after this?”—the question Rosario remembers posing to her father after witnessing one of her first Ceremonials—is met with an answer that could come straight from Eliot. “The thing is, nothing happens after this, dear. The next day, we get hungry and we eat, we want to feel the sun and we go swimming, we have to shave, we need to meet with the accountants and visit the fields because we want to keep having money. What happens is real, but so is life.”

This is Enriquez’s credo, too, and the sequencing of Our Share of Night bears it out. After the Darkness devours a few digits, after the house on the Calle Villareal swallows up a grief-stricken child, after the death of the demon-father, the novel settles, in its long final section, into what feels like the abruptly normal world of the 1990s. The seal against the Order seems to be working. Gaspar moves in with Juan’s sweet older brother Luis, meets a girl, reconnects with his childhood friends. We know the demons will be back, but for now domestic and national history spiral on: Enriquez shows us street protests against the new government’s austerity programs, the ravages of AIDS on Gaspar and Pablo’s circle, the recurrent bad dreams that keep reminding the young friends of the recent past. As in the false ending of a slasher flick, the everyday appears here as a tentative construct, precious in its earthly ongoingness and even in its ordinary mortalities. Just as in the celluloid version, the Order of course roars back to furious life. But the effect is less of a jump scare than of well-nigh intolerable sorrow. Enriquez has so thoroughly scrambled our sense of what belongs where that the occult antics are suddenly hard to differentiate from the terrors of the secular world (and what was so “natural” anyway about the deaths meted out by Operation Condor, or by AIDS?). The novel’s grim, gorgeous final lines threaten to undo the very ontological distinction between horror-world and this-world on which the genre depends. Life is real, but so is what happens in books. With this one, Enriquez has added an indelible and terrifying corner to our reality. 

David Kurnick teaches English at Rutgers University, and is the author most recently of The Savage Detectives Reread (Columbia University Press, 2022).