Our Share of Night 
by Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell.
Granta, 725 pp., £18.99, October 2022, 978 1 78378 673 2
Show More
Show More

Two pulp genres​ overlap in the opening to Mariana Enríquez’s novel Our Share of Night. At first it seems like a noir, a political thriller involving law enforcement and menace and outlaw heroes. Everything is taut and fractious: ‘It was already late and he needed to go and that hot day was going to be just like the next: if it rained and he was hit with the river’s humidity and the stifling Buenos Aires heat, he would never be able to leave the city.’ The man is called Juan, and he’s about to wake up his young son, Gaspar, for a road trip that must be dangerous because Juan is thinking in terms of subterfuge: ‘His son had to ride in the back; Juan would have preferred to have the boy beside him, but it was illegal, and he couldn’t risk any problems with the police or the army, who kept a brutal watch over the highways.’ The opening is subtitled ‘January 1981’, somewhere towards the end of Argentina’s Dirty War, so it’s reasonable to assume that the dangers hinted at are crimes of dictatorship, the same crimes that have been censored out of the newspaper Juan picks up that morning in a breakfast diner: ‘There were no articles about clandestine detention centres or night-time clashes, no pieces on abductions or stolen children.’ But the terror that Enríquez works with depends precisely on her refusal of repression. In her fiction, blood isn’t spattered off screen. It’s splurged all over the picture. And so this novel has its other pulp mode: supernatural horror.

On the road, Juan starts thinking. ‘The night before, he’d tried to communicate, yet again, with Rosario. He couldn’t. She wasn’t anywhere, he couldn’t sense her; she was gone in a way that he found impossible to understand or accept.’ We come to realise that it isn’t political repression that has infiltrated this world so much as the silence of the occult. That night Juan and Gaspar stay in a cheap hotel, and the full strangeness of this novel becomes visible:

The hotel hallway was very dark and smelled of damp. The room they’d been given was right in the corner next to the stairs. Juan let Gaspar go out first, but instead of heading straight downstairs, the boy took off running down the hall. At first Juan thought he was making for the elevator. But then he realised Gaspar had sensed the same thing he had, though with one big difference: instead of avoiding it – Juan was so used to those presences that he ignored them – he was drawn to it and was going towards it. The thing that was hiding at the end of the hallway was very frightened and wasn’t dangerous, but it was old, and like all ancient things, it was voracious and wretched and covetous.

Juan is a medium. And in the Argentina of the 1970s and 1980s, with its thousands of desaparecidos, his gift for apprehending the spirit world is necessarily overworked: ‘There were a lot of echoes now. It was always like that in a massacre, the effect like screams in a cave.’

Two collections of Enríquez’s stories have already been translated into English: Things We Lost in the Fire (2017) and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (2021). In them, the tropes of horror and terror offer ways of thinking about mysteries that might resist ordinary thinking – suicide and eating disorders and desire, but also the political violence and repression of recent Argentinean history. In Our Share of Night, first published in Spanish in 2019, Enríquez tests at lavish length these earlier proposals about the way a corrupt political backdrop might intersect with a fictional world of horror.

The story involves a supernatural force called the Darkness, which may provide the secret of immortality if placated with enough blood. Its existence is known only to a group of ‘Initiates’ – the Order, whose members are overwhelmingly part of the ruling class. The Order needs mediums to access the Darkness, and it has found them across the world, ever since the beginning of the modern era in the 18th century. The first of these mediums was a peasant in Scotland, who was in touch with ‘a spirit that manifested as a black light, and that had capacities of prophecy and divination’. Each ‘medium corresponds to their time’, one character observes. ‘A peasant during the industrial revolution, a Black woman from the British colonies before decolonisation, a poor teenager in the war whose butchery went unnoticed amid the general butchery of the time. That’s what we are … and it’s possible that the Darkness feeds off that pain and exploitation.’

Juan is the latest medium, and perhaps the most gifted. He is used by the Order to communicate with the Darkness during trances or episodes in which he seems to journey to ‘the Other Place’, a landscape that somehow exists inside or on the reverse side of the ordinary world of Argentina, with its corrupt governments and junk foods and music crazes. The complication is that Juan has also become enmeshed with the Order. He is married to Rosario, a daughter of one of the Order’s most eminent families, and the mother of Gaspar. But rather than marking the intertwining of Order and medium, their relationship could bring the end of any collaboration. After all, Juan’s true lineage, Rosario observes, isn’t his family or the Order but ‘the line of mediums used against their will’. Juan wants to protect his son from being used by the Order too. He has heart problems and worries that, in the event of his death, the Initiates will adopt Gaspar as their new medium on the assumption that he has inherited his father’s powers.

What Juan needs to do is prevent Gaspar from displaying any occult abilities he may have. But soon the situation becomes more desperate, because the Order no longer needs Gaspar to possess special powers. They believe that they have discovered a method to transfer the soul of a medium into a new body. On Juan’s death, they intend to transport his soul into Gaspar’s body – preserving Juan but erasing Gaspar. Juan comes up with a plan to use his journeys to the Other Place to bring back knowledge of a magical seal that will mark Gaspar and prevent the Order from ever finding him, even when Juan is no longer around to protect him. ‘He kept drawing the phantom seal on Gaspar’s arm. The mark could only be made with violence: it would have to be a deep, painful, unforgettable wound.’

The novel is divided into six parts, with each assigned a specific dateline but appearing out of chronological order. It therefore functions like a jigsaw for the reader to assemble. The main part of the story takes place while Gaspar is growing up, a period which at times seems to be quietly aligned with the history of the dictatorship. He is born in 1975, a year after the Dirty War began. Juan dies in 1986 – the year of the Full Stop law, which ended any investigations into the junta’s crimes. The novel eventually finishes in 1997, when Gaspar is 22. But a section of the book also ventures back to 1960, when Rosario and Juan meet and begin to understand the true nature of the system in which they are caught up.

There’s an advantage to this fractured structure. The challenge of inventing a supernatural world is that it can feel weightless: it’s difficult to create a sense of malign agency in which a reader can truly believe when all the rules have been set by the author. But in the final part of the book, where Gaspar seems to be living an ordinary life in an ordinary city, with its sex scenes and cheap art shows and improvised music, every minuscule coincidence and repeated element from the novel’s previous parts seems to bear down on its characters. As small elements are revealed to be part of a pattern, with minor characters from earlier episodes reappearing to offer crucial clues and explanations, the effect isn’t of contrived fictional plotting but of supernatural malevolence, as a force seeks out a character who is trying to resist being found. (‘The traps find me,’ Juan says, prophetically, in an earlier section. )

Still, the horror the novel articulates is figured most intensely in its visuals and special effects. The surface suddenly erupts in moments of appalling physical mutilation. In a scene towards the end of the first section, Enríquez describes the Ceremonial, a ritual in which a medium acts as an opening between the ordinary world and the Darkness. It takes place ‘in the unbearable jungle heat’, with ‘Initiates who at times collapsed to the ground, crying, shaking’. The first physical disfiguration is Juan’s own transformation – a mutation which centres on his hands: ‘Bird claws, completely black, burned, but sticky-looking. His golden nails shone like knives in the candlelight.’ Then the Darkness opens itself, as if out of his body:

It was a panting sound … like dogs being choked by leashes, or when they are thirsty, hungry, a pack of hounds invading. The Darkness grew first around Juan as if it were steam coming off his body, and suddenly … it shot off in all directions and became enormous and liquid – or, rather, lustrous.

There is a terrible and irrefutable contrast between the Darkness and the softness of the bodies that find themselves in its proximity:

Next came two women, hand in hand. One young, the other old. Mother and daughter? The Darkness took the old woman’s head, and for a moment her decapitated body kept walking. The young woman didn’t even look at her, or if she did, she wasn’t shocked. She entered the Darkness resolutely and with a smile, dragging the headless body behind her, clutching its arm. They disappeared leaving only a trail of blood.

In his role as medium, Juan then ‘marks’ one of the Initiates with his claw:

The blood streamed down her bare legs, drew a dark belt around her: the Initiates watched open-mouthed. Later, they would say the wounds were so deep they could see her spine and ribs. The girl faltered but the medium steadied her, and with his other hand, which was gradually returning to normal – his nails were no longer yellow claws, now they were only deformed and black, rheumatic – he caressed her wounded back. And it stopped bleeding. And the wounds transformed into dark scars.

The novel is so drastic in its descriptions that it can tempt you into defensively abstract definitions: horror, I began to think, is a genre in which a form is found for a pressure that can’t be seen, or can’t be described. It’s therefore the genre in which the mechanics of power can perhaps be best and most graphically examined. In the descriptions of human violence and the aftermath of human violence, noir and horror overlap most intensely. The Order maintains underground prisons that are full of disappeared children kept in filthy cages. The theory is that the ‘caged ones, some of them, in the trance of their suffering, manage to make the god appear’. It’s as if the Order wishes, like every order of the powerful, to screen off violence from its beneficiaries. But the reader of this novel isn’t given any shield from brutality:

This first child was in a rusty, dirty pen that had possibly once held animals. His left leg was tied to his back in a position that would have required his hip to have been broken. Since he was very young (one year old? Hard to know under all the grime), the bone had surely broken easily. His neck was twisted as well because of the position of his foot. When Juan brought the flashlight closer to see him better, he reacted like an animal, his mouth open and growling; his tongue had been sliced in two, and was now forked.

What work​ does the fantastic do? In the introduction to his anthology of Fantastic Tales, published in the early 1980s, Italo Calvino proposed that the supernatural story emerged as a branch of 18th-century epistemology:

The problem of the reality of what we see – both extraordinary things, which may be just hallucinations projected by our minds, and ordinary things, which perhaps conceal beneath the most banal appearances a second nature that is more disturbing, mysterious, terrifying – is the essence of this literature of the fantastic, whose most powerful effects lie in this hovering between irreconcilable levels of reality.

But I wonder if this is too elegant, too sure of its own rationalist universe, too sure of where the ‘levels of reality’ lie. There’s also what H.P. Lovecraft wrote in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, first published in 1927:

The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.

This seems closer to Enríquez’s kind of writing, where all levels of reality have collapsed, and horror is given a material form.

Yet Calvino may be onto something in making the fantastic so centrally related to the visual. The visual is where horror writing often breaks down and loses its aura, becoming ghoulish and ectoplasmic. Enríquez’s horror, by contrast, is flatly neutral and precise:

The sternum was split, and not by a surgeon’s saw. The cuts, splintered and irregular, looked like they were from a giant pair of scissors. They could have been made with something similar. Hedge clippers, for example. And the bone was open, no one had made any attempt to close it: only the skin was sewn up. In the space between the bones of the split sternum, pressuring the lungs, there was an arm. A very small arm, not an adult’s. A child’s arm.

In the same way, the landscapes that the mediums encounter in the Other Place – this world that can be accessed through certain apparently random doors – are apparently natural ones of grass and trees and sky, warped by audio additions or lighting glitches. ‘It was very faint, at a low frequency, like when the stereo was left on and it vibrated almost imperceptibly.’ And then: ‘It was beautiful though muted, with no clear source of light. It ended in an open field, small and empty.’

Perhaps the most compelling effect of this novel is its disturbance of genre. Enríquez takes an entire Gothic tradition – of Shelley, Poe, Lovecraft, M.R. James, Ocampo, Borges – and flattens it. At one point, a character reads out a passage from Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, to which another character replies: ‘I’m telling you what’s happening to me and you come out with Borges and some bullshit of his.’ The novel’s deadpan malevolence is at once a development of the Gothic and its conversion into something new: the pulp leads to a knowledge that the Gothic in its previous incarnations never seemed to allow. At one point, Juan tries to describe what he sees in the Other Place: ‘It’s just fields of death and madness, there’s nothing, and I am the doorway to that nothing and I’m not going to be able to close it. There’s nothing to find, nothing to understand.’ Enríquez’s version of Gothic is radically, desperately denuded – with no halos of frisson or baroque levels of meaning. It finds a way to speak about unspeakable horror. Which is why, unlike most Gothic fictions, this book is truly frightening.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences