My rating: 4/5
Gothic fiction as a genre has, for a long time, been a place that I considered home. Though the genre probably reached its peak in the 20th century, I enjoyed the works as capsules of their time and explorations of the strange and unusual. There’s a certain esteem and respect one experiences while foraying through the classics. I took a deep dive into the world of the gothic in the aftermath of the pandemic; reading and rereading several novels and short stories. It was after my thirst for those was sated I found myself looking for something more. I decided to look for a more modern take on the genre. And that opened my eyes to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.
Set in Mexico in 1950, Mexican Gothic follows the story of the glamorous Noemí Taboada, an anthropology student and socialite. After receiving a strange and distressing letter from her older cousin Catalina, Noemí’s father appoints her to investigate Catalina’s husband who he suspects is after her money. The letter carries the rambling of a frightened Catalina who fears she has been poisoned. She tells of things that “whisper in the night”, “fleshless things”. Catalina is married into the Doyle family, English settlers, who live in an isolated, decaying Victorian mansion far away in the Mexican countryside, High Place.
Noemí is initially hopeful she can find some way to take sweet and gentle Catalina away from the Doyles, who are at best, suspected of not giving her proper care, and at worst, using her for her money, but the reality of the situation turns out to be far more complex and sinister.
Upon her arrival, Noemí is introduced to the family and met with thinly veiled hostility. High Place adheres to strict rules: smoking is strictly prohibited, meals are eaten in silence, and going into town is a rare occurrence. The dying mansion Noemí finds herself in has no electricity. Inhabitants wander about the dim and gloom with candlelight. Though the house initially appears superficially pretty, rot seeps through everywhere and appears in the corners of each room. Shadows dance ominously, ghastly wallpaper seems to change before your eyes, and mushrooms amidst the thick fog of the cemetery. Such is the way of High Place. More terrifying are its occupants. Patriarch Howard, on meeting Noemí, comments how much darker she is than Catalina, and regularly discusses eugenics. His niece Florence, the stern and strict mistress of the house, rules with an iron fist. Virgil, Catalina’s handsome but mysterious husband, provides more frustration and fewer answers to questions about her condition; and Francis, Florence's meek but kind and gentle son, emerges as Noemí's only ally. The Doyle’s arrived in Mexico years prior during the period of silver mining and economic prosperity. However, the silver is all gone and those days are long past. Now all that exists is decay.
Like many classic gothic novels, a young woman finds herself in a strange old house, but Mexican Gothic deviates from cliche. Noemí’s stubborn, assertive, and strong character shines throughout the novel. In the face of the pale and grey world of High Place, where all individuality and deviation from the cold Doyle's is stifled, Noemí rebels by wearing high heels, bright and colourful dresses, and lipstick; in a way, weaponizes her femininity. She insists on being taken into town, investigates the family’s history of violence, and develops a tentative friendship with the beaten-down Francis. Her Mexican identity alienates her from the Doyles but helps her when she arrives in town and meets her fellow locals. Her native Spanish and anthropology knowledge and understanding becomes an asset for her. Moreno-Garcia’s descriptions are captivating and manage to build suspense, as well as unsettle you, and I found myself rereading passages purely in awe of her mastery as a writer.
The novel spends the first portion introducing the reader to High Place, as Noemí explores and experiences it, then gradually building an atmosphere of dread. This feeling never quite goes away, leaving things fittingly ambiguous. Mexican Gothic manages to touch on issues of race, class, and gender in such a uniquely horrifying way. Part of the terror of the novel is invoked through raising questions about the nature of autonomy. The incredibly Anglo Doyle family taunt Noemí with memories of a greater time. Their gardens were built on soil brought from their ancestral home in England. They maintain a callous attitude towards Mexico, and this is exemplified by their treatment toward Noemí and their historic treatment of workers in their mines. The house and family are so deeply intertwined that Noemí finds the air oppressive. As the novel continues, like Noemí, we begin to question what is real and what is not.
Noemí begins to sleepwalk and have strange and invasive dreams. A woman shrouded in gold appears, cloaking her with fear and dread, as does Virgil, and the ghost of a young lady, who repeatedly tells Noemí to open her eyes. She feels she is being watched constantly, and is no longer allowed to leave the house. Silvia Moreno-Garcia exhibits a complete mastery in how she builds suspense. Dreams and reality seem to mingle and merge. Will Noemí be able to break out of the oppressive world of High Place?
Rich with references to classic gothic works (Catalina being fond of Wuthering Heights), Mexican Gothic emerged in a genre of its own: postcolonial gothic. As a fan of many gothic works, reading Mexican Gothic felt like I was in on an inside joke the whole time, with each reference to the wallpaper, strange fog, etc. There’s a certain charm that is to be afforded to the pure nostalgia and familiarity that can be taken from the novel. However, the story and its characters are unique and well updated for modern sensibilities.
Mexican Gothic is a novel that stays with you and will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout. You’ll fall in love with Noemí’s strength and vivacity, Francis’ quiet will, and look for the light. The novel goes deeper and explores the world and cycles of abuse, as well as eugenics, race, colourism, gender, class, and labour inequity.
If you’re a fan of Mexican Gothic and looking to explore Mexico through literature, you might want to check out some of these other works:
Caballero: A Historical Novel by Jovita Gonzales and Eve Raleigh
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
If you enjoyed reading Mexican Gothic and are looking for more unique gothic works, particularly those that follow main characters that differ from ones of the classic canon, you might like:
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
aarani is a twenty year old writer and poet from petaling jaya, malaysia. writing has been her passion for as long as she can remember and she someday hopes to go into journalism. she is an op-ed writer for love letters magazine.