ADVANCED REVIEW: ‘Mexican Gothic’ is Atmospheric and Smart Horror

Reading Time: 6 minutes

mexican gothic, silvia moreno-garcia, del rey books, penguin random house

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is published by Del Rey, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group and it was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020. I am nothing but ecstatic to say that this novel delivered above and beyond my expectations. Mexican Gothic is a work of gothic horror detailing the excursion of socialite Noemí Taboada to the home of her newly-wed cousin.

The historical backdrop of this novel is 1950s Mexico and Moreno-Garcia pulls no stops and thrusts readers into a world rich with culture. She takes readers to the historically accurate El Triunfo, a former mining town, where the haunted house of High Place rests. From landmarks like Palacio de Hierro, an upscale retail store, to cultural and religious norms of the area, the novel explores and weaves it seamlessly. From the mention of China Poblana in the first chapter, the traditional style of dress expected of women in Mexico to the fact that Noemí went to a Catholic school where she learned English from nuns, and a man who is described as a young-looking Pedro Infante, one of the best golden age actors in Mexico, this is a Mexican story. Themes that are typically explored in Mexican Folklore, such as rebirth and decay are also present within the novel. As a Latinx reviewer, the representation that is organically written into Moreno-Garcia’s narrative is not only enlivening but also a must when the modern western landscape of horror is lacking with Latinx stories by Latinx creators.

In an ominous letter, Noemí’s cousin Catalina details that High Place has ghosts and that she is in danger. Like most haunted house stories, the novel is atmospheric but subverts this with its self-awareness. Mexican Gothic has constant references to classic gothic literature from authors Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë and reading Moreno-Garcia’s full embrace of the camp and romanticism in her exposition was delightful. The residents of El Triunfo leaves High Place and it’s occupants alone. The family that resides there, The Doyles, has stern rules that isolate visitors from the real world. They request that Noemí not go into town, ask her to not speak to any of the housekeepers, and consistently keep her away from Catalina, despite the fact that Noemí is only there for her cousin. To make matters worse, there is no modern electricity in the house at night. This allows the atmosphere to quickly develop as readers experience the same anxieties and fear Noemí has each night at High Place.

What drives and sets Mexican Gothic apart is how Moreno-Garcia writes Noemí. She is feisty, sassy, well-spoken, and inquisitive. She wants to be an anthropologist, wishes to flirt with men at high-end parties, and asks them to kiss her at the end of the night. Her career aspirations are inspiring and it is nice to read about a female character who sees relationships as fun instead of rushing to find romance. Despite the fact that Noemí has limitations put on her for simply being a woman in 1950s Mexico, people are drawn to her sense of progressiveness and personality. So, when she encounters the strange house that Catalina is inhibiting with her husband, Virgil, she challenges it.

There is so much resistance from Noemí to conform to the Doyles’ house rules where they have strange habits like no smoking in the house, no speaking at the dinner table, and no leaving the house unoccupied. For a woman who is as independent as she can be, the wants of the patriarchal Doyle family leave Noemí feeling not only uneasy but also determined to get to the bottom of whatever dark secrets they are hiding. This is when Moreno-Garcia’s brilliant, pointed writing sucks readers in.

Tensions begin to rise as the head of the Doyle house describes their English background. They were colonizers who came to Mexico and seized the local laborers of El Triunfo. They used and abused the workers until most of them mysteriously died. Their bodies were never claimed, left to rot as the Doyle’s neglected and dumped their bodies. Noemí is so easy to feel empathy for because as she hears about the horrors of colonization in her homeland it mimics how readers feel. I felt such uneasiness reading how this historical context can not only be commented on but amplified within the horror genre to critique it.

The utter brilliance of this pops out as The Doyle’s begin to ask Noemí about race and skin tone. The comments from Virgil and his family are uncomfortable and struck a deep chord in me. As a Latinx person whose’s skin color fluctuates deeply, the questions of hereditary, racial, and ethnic purity have followed me around since before I could even comprehend it. The discussion of pure bloodlines and proper skin tones are brought forth in this narrative and I am glad that Moreno-Garcia tackles it. She utilizes science-fiction elements to enhance the innate evil of the eugenics of the Doyles. This evil is presented by the mold growing in High Place, it enters your system and causes intense, visceral dreams that enable a person to create symbiotic relationships with the ghosts of the house. This is how Noemí can tap into the colonizers’ pasts to see exactly how the family has kept their bloodline pure for 100’s of years and it makes her sick to her stomach.

The idea of mold is already frightening. Moreno-Garcia’s decision is to utilize it with the distinction of how it creates symbiotic relationships between the mold and the consumer makes the sci-fi a well-utilized tool for her to make a detailed account of how the Doyles have used colorism as a weapon against the locals of El Truinfo. Through this, her exploration of themes found in Mexican folklore are also apparent. The past shows the decay of Mexican people, of laborers, of Doyle family members wishing to break the cycle of horror they are trapped to in High Place. Noemí represents the rebirth that could happen if she escaped the house. She is the beacon of hope and renewal for those of High Place that she can take with her.

The realistic social horror is coupled with intense dream sequences that Noemí experiences. The unsettling nature of the wants and desires of the Doyle family seeps into Noemí’s sleep. There were scenes that were so atmospheric that I forgot that I had to take a moment to look away and then continue to read. There are nightmares of body horror, gore, incest, and assault. Since the mold creates symbiotic relationships between the family’s history and the consumer, Noemí’s dreams are exacerbated fears and desires. The scene of her assault from a member of the Doyle family may only occur in a dream, but it feels wholly real to Noemi. The feeling of shame, exposure, and weakness is tackled well.  The way that Moreno-Garcia continues to build tension allows for the last third of this novel to mix dreams and reality for a thrilling escape from this family’s horror house. The science-fiction aspect sets it apart and offers an amazingly original addition to the genre.

There are still some standard tropes that are explored such as forbidden love and fairy tales. However, I find these aspects are built up strongly but fizzle quickly during the ending. The characterization of Noemí’s romance interest is the usual shy, quiet, soft man found in horror. The exchanges between Noemí and him are so fun to read. Noemí’s quick wit and strength makes him an endearing man who can’t help but be dazzled with her. The slow build of the first two acts sets up a wonderful relationship dynamic. However, I wish that Mexican Gothic was a chapter or two longer so that the romance that occurs is built up stronger. It was a slow burn to get these two characters to end up together but the pay off is contained only within the last chapter. The ending feels wrapped up tightly with a neat bow and seeing as there was a lot of originality, I would not have expected such a genre-predictable ending.

Despite my one critique, Mexican Gothic was crafted with expertise. It is a dark and tantalizing tale with an atmosphere that is heavy and dreadful. The intricate usage of Mexican folklore themes, history, and racial issues grounds this haunted fairytale to the horrors of racism, misogyny, and colonization. Wait until it gets dark, light up a few candles (or an oil lamp), and set the mood for a gothic horror adventure that will leave you feeling strange and wanting more.

Mexican Gothic is available to read everywhere on June 30th, 2020, you can pre-order it through our Bookshop affiliate link here

Mexican Gothic
4.5

TL;DR

Despite my one critique, Mexican Gothic was crafted with expertise. It is a dark and tantalizing tale with an atmosphere that is heavy and dreadful. The intricate usage of Mexican folklore themes, history, and racial issues grounds this haunted fairytale to the horrors of racism, misogyny, and colonization. Wait until it gets dark, light up a few candles (or an oil lamp), and set the mood for a gothic horror adventure that will leave you feeling strange and wanting more.