Mexican Gothic – by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Happy Halloween, folks! The final entry of this month’s reading list takes us back to the the classic atmosphere of gothic fiction, combining its timeless appeal with more modern sensibilities and symbolism. A much anticipated read and a very satisfying one.

Title: Mexican Gothic

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publisher: Del Rey

Publication Date: 30 June 2020

Genre: Horror Novel

Stand Alone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: In 1950s Mexico City, socialite Noemí Taboada is enjoying her glamourous, lavish lifestyle, when she receive an alarming letter from her cousin Catalina, who all but disapperaed from radar after hastily marrying a mysterious English man, Virgil Doyle, and moving to his estate in a remote mountain location. In her frantic message, Catalina is now claiming that her husband is trying to kill her, however her delirious words also raise some serious concern on her own sanity. Suspecting that Virgil may be after Catalina’s money, Noemí’s father sends her to the Doyle’s mansion, known as High Place, to investigate on the situation and possibly help the unfortunate woman.

Once there, Noemí finds herself in a most unwelcome atmosphere: the Doyles are odd-mannered and controlling, and all but keep her away from seeing Catalina, who is proclaimed to be suffering from consumption and hardly left alone. Besides, the mansion is moist and decrepit in ways that go beyond ordinary neglect, and its history is full of distrubing stories of death, brutality and madness. The longer Noemí stays, the more unsettling and bizzare things she experiences – to the point that she must doubt of her own perceptions. With the help of Francis, Virgil’s melancholic unfavourite cousin, Noemí keeps on investigating, finally unearthing secrets even darker than she had ever imagined.

Analysis: The third person narration follows Noemí’s point of view, with some rare exception where it adopts a broader perspective; most notably, this happens in the very first pages of the novel, where the character at first appears as a part of a larger scene, and as such framed by her context and social role, shortly afterwards shifting the focus on her perspective and revealing the inner depths that hide behind her frivoulous appearance. The prose is mostly clear and straightforward, often using a quippy informal language that befits the main character’s personality. It is not shy, however, of indulging in a more sombre and morbid tone in its description, highlighting the contraxt between Noemí’s background and attitude, and the disconcerting reality she is now facing.

On the one hand, the tropes of gothic horror are played fairly straight: the story is set in a gloomy isolated mansion, the main character is a young woman who finds herself alone in a hostile, claustrophobic environment, her cousin may or may not be a Mad Woman in the Attic, and above everything looms the shadow of morbid past misteries and the creeping suspicion of being overwhelmed by madness.

Such themes, however, are seen through more critical lenses, as per the principles of postcolonial gothic: while the story features some clearly supernatural element, the real horror is embodies by the Doyles themselves and their acts of ruthless exploitation; the degeneracy that taints the land doesn’t stem from solitary transgression, nor from atavic barbarism, but is a direct consequence of patriachal and capitalistic hyerarchies. While the fungi that pervade the mansion and the characters’ bodies are an immediate source of shock and revulsion, it must be noted how there was nothing inherently wrong or corrupted in their original nature, and they were instead twisted to darker ends by Howard Doyle’s malappropriation of local traditions.

A similarly reflection can be applied to feminine figures, so often portrayed in gothic fiction as either virginal and pure or mad, extreme and dangerous. Noemí does not fit any of such stereotypes: she’s a resourceful young woman and a distinctively heroic character, but at the same time she has an undeniable hedonistic side that makes her appear very human; the Doyles keep her under their morbid gaze for her femininity and her mixed blood, but far from being another exploitable resource, she always is the driving force of the novel. As mentioned above, the theme of the Mad Woman in the Attic is evoked by the character of Catalina, as well as by other figures that emerge from the family’s tragic past; their role, however, is actually vindicated, as their “madness” doesn’t turn them into dehumanized hindrances, but actually brings us closer to the truth, and speaks of their struggle not to give up on their free will.

All such topics are explored through the atmospheric descriptions and the puzzling inquieries that make for the first part of the novel, which procedes at a suggestive slow pace, hinting more than explaining; as more secrets are revealed and as the story heads to its dramatic conclusion, its rhythm catches up in an action-packed crescendo, and the creeping threats give way to a much more explicit form of horror. Which perhaps detracts from the novel’s original mood, however it is functional to producing a satisfying conclusion to its plot.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Mexican Gothic is, first and foremost, a very entertaining horror story, only made more compelling by its inclusion of relevant themes – that never feel like unnecessary digression, but actually fit and enhance the narration. Surely recommended to any lover of the genre.

Content Warning: Graphic violence – Death – Sexual assault – Body Horror – Racism – Sexism – Death of child – Suicide – Mental illness – Incest – Cannibalism.

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