Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Jul 10th, 2020, 3:42 pm
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TITLE: Mexican Gothic
AUTHOR: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
GENRE: Gothic Horror, Historical
PUBLISHED: June 30, 2020
RATING: ★★★★★

PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism

Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a horror novel binge, mostly because horror is quite comforting in these uncertain times of pandemics and (in my country anyway) virtual martial law. On the surface, it might seem unusual to find scary stuff comforting during a scary time, but a lot of articles written both recently and a few years ago explain why horror is comforting in horrific times. In so many words, it boils down to this: horror fiction, regardless of which format one chooses to engage with, is comforting because it offers a sense of control. COVID-19 and draconian laws are all largely beyond the control of ordinary citizens, but in a horror story, one can predict outcomes, and therefore brace oneself for them, instead of staring into a void of uncertainty.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic definitely fits the bill of the kind of reading my brain craves right now. It follows the socialite Noemí Taboada, sent by her father to the town of El Triunfo to check up on her cousin, Catalina, who recently married an Englishman named Virgil Doyle. When she arrives at the town, she is whisked away to the Doyle estate called High Place: an old, mouldering mansion inhabited not just by Virgil Doyle, but the rest of his strange, creepy family. The longer Noemí stays in the house to look after her cousin, it becomes clear that something is very, very wrong with the Doyle family, and with High Place – and Noemí will need to be very clever indeed, in order to survive.

I’ve always had a soft spot for gothic fiction and haunted house stories, especially when the protagonist is a woman. Mexican Gothic features all the things I would expect from a good gothic story: eerie house, creepy mystery at the heart of the house, and a woman who must confront all those things. The description of High Place is such that it wouldn’t look out of place on an English moor, wreathed in fog and menace:
… It was so odd! It looked absolutely Victorian in construction, with its broken shingles, elaborate ornamentation, and dirty bay windows. She’d never seen anything like it in real life; it was terribly different from her family’s modern house, the apartments of her friends, or the colonial houses with facades of red tezontle.

The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, evoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired, slats missing from a couple of shutters, the ebony porch groaning as they made their way up the steps to the door, which came complete with a silver knocker shaped like a fist dangling from a circle.

From the moment she arrives at High Place, Noemí steps into a gothic story that readers familiar with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights will easily recognise. Here is a young woman confronting a clearly dangerous situation, and a lot of very creepy things happen to her and around her before she is able to get away. But while there are plenty of familiar things about this novel, there are also a lot of other things that aren’t, and those are the elements that make it such an excellent read.

First, there is Noemí herself. Unlike some of the gasping waifs in certain examples of gothic fiction, she’s bright, defiant, and brave. She doesn’t let anything or anyone get to her, or manipulate her – or at least, she tries not to let anything or anyone get to her. She doesn’t always get her way, and she doesn’t always succeed – after all, those same positive qualities mentioned earlier get her into trouble about as often as they get her out of it – but she doesn’t merely sit back and take what’s thrown her way without challenging it, even a little bit. She is the kind of woman who aspires to be a famous anthropologist but is also fashion-conscious enough (and slightly impractical enough) to wear heels while taking a walk in an old cemetery. And why not? As far as Noemí is concerned, being fashionable while also being an anthropologist are not mutually separate things; she can be both, if she so pleases.

But in contrast to those very feminist, even twenty-first century, beliefs, Noemí still harbours insecurities:
… Noemí remembered what Virgil said about men doing as she wanted. It bothered her to be thought of poorly. She wanted to be liked. Perhaps this explained the parties, the crystalline laughter, the well-coiffed hair, the rehearsed smile. She thought that men such as her father could be stern and men could be cold like Virgil, but women needed to be liked or they’d be in trouble. A woman who is not liked is a bitch, and a bitch can hardly do anything: all avenues are closed to her.

This excerpt offers an interesting peek at the misogyny underlining the culture of 1950s Mexico – and which is still present in culture today, not just in Mexico but all over the world. This is another reason why Noemí is a relatable character: her concerns and her struggles are familiar to many readers. It might be hard to imagine oneself stuck in a haunted house, but it’s far less difficult to imagine being forced to act a certain way because of the “expectations” of others.

In stark contrast to Noemí’s light are the Doyles. Cold and isolated, the Doyles are, with the exception of Francis, easy to accept as the villains of the story from the moment they are introduced. This is especially true of Howard Doyle, whose villainous nature is revealed right from the moment he is introduced:
… “… Now tell me, Ms. Taboada, do you believe as Mr. Vasconselos does that it is the obligation, no, the destiny, of the people of Mexico to forge a new race that encompasses all races? A ‘cosmic’ race? A bronze race? This despite the research of Davenport and Steggerda?”

“You mean their work in Jamaica?”

“Splendid, Catalina was correct. You do have an interest in anthropology.”

“Yes,” she said. She did not wish to share more than that single word.

“What are your thoughts on the intermingling of superior and inferior types?” he asked, ignoring her discomfort.

Some quick research will show that the “Davenport and Steggerda” mentioned in the above are Charles Davenport and Morris Steggerda, with Davenport being the more notable of the two for being one of the leaders of the eugenics movement in the United States. Even without knowing that, the mention of “superior and inferior types” makes Howard’s eugenicist beliefs very clear to the reader. Other readers might also note that Howard shares his name with H.P. Lovecraft, whose own works contain eugenicist beliefs. Either way, it’s made very clear, very early on, that Howard is not a nice person.

On the other hand, his son Virgil isn’t quite so obvious in his wickedness – at least, not at first. There are moments when the reader might be inclined to feel sympathetic towards him, or even potentially agree with him outright. But it soon becomes clear that he is not very sympathetic at all:
He reminded her of a fellow she’d danced with at a party the previous summer. They had been having fun, briskly stepping to a danzón, and then came time for the ballads. During “Some Enchanted Evening” the man held her far too tightly and tried to kiss her. She turned her head, and when she looked at him again there was pure, dark mockery across his features.

Noemí stared back at Virgil, and he stared at her with that same sort of mockery: a bitter, ugly stare.

This is another thing plenty of readers, especially female readers, will recognise: the look of a man who didn’t get his way. It might not be as obviously terrible as Howard’s eugenicist beliefs, but in a way, Virgil is a far greater evil because he’s so familiar. Plenty of women have run into a Virgil in their lifetime, in plenty of different situations, and such men all get a “look” when they don’t get their way. It’s a red flag lots of women recognise and try to avoid, while also warning other women about it.

It’s these “familiar evils” that lie at the heart of Mexican Gothic. Ghosts and hallucinations are plenty scary, but lying underneath those elements are horrors that many people still confront today, such as racism, misogyny, and the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. None of this might be immediately obvious, since the plot is structured such that the reveal is done slowly. But readers who know what it’s like to be marginalised for reasons of class, race, gender, sexual preference, or all of the above, will know precisely what’s lurking underneath the floorboards of High Place, and behind the faces of the Doyles.

Overall, Mexican Gothic is an amazing read, hitting all the right notes for a reader looking for an excellent gothic or horror novel. But while Mexican Gothic is a fantastic example of its subgenre, it’s also much more than that. In his book Ghostland, Colin Dickey writes that ghost stories are a way of talking about truths that aren’t always talked about: “dark history” that, for various reasons, is elided from official accounts. Horror stories and gothic fiction also function the same way: they are a vehicle through which ugly truths can be discussed. Mexican Gothic is a perfect example of this: from the moment Noemí arrives at High Place all the way through to the hopeful, yet still uncertain, ending, it’s clear that the real horror is not the ghosts or the house, but the prejudices that created them in the first place.
Jul 10th, 2020, 3:42 pm
Jul 19th, 2020, 1:40 am
excellent review, thanks for your input
Jul 19th, 2020, 1:40 am