Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic is deeply rooted in the ancient Mexican mythology, interspersed with references to gothic classics such as the Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca, as well as the original, Grimm and Andersen fairy tales, while dealing with a topic that hits close to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Moreno-Garcia successfully intertwines elements of Mexican folklore with the tropes of the gothic and horror genres, whilst tackling the themes of colonialism and women empowerment to create a truly enjoyable reading experience.
Gothic stories are always about escape. Early gothic novels usually had a female heroine whose only function was to get herself in trouble and then remain captive and utterly helpless until a male savior came to her rescue. As many gothic writers in the past decades have done, Moreno-Garcia gives the agency to her protagonist, who eventually needs to defeat the corpselike family patriarch, who represents the forces of an old imperial power. The author deftly plays with the tropes of the gothic novel including women in nightgowns and torn wedding dresses roaming the halls of a crumbling mansion, family crypts, eerie candelabras that never seem to cast enough light on the overwhelming gloom, and sinister power-hungry men with terrible secrets.
The plot is set in the 1950s (the years of domesticity) when the protagonist, 22-year-old socialite Noemí Taboada, lives a rather carefree life of parties, numerous beaus, and expensive tastes. Her parents hope that she will soon marry and settle down, but (horror, oh horror!) she wants to go to college and get a masters degree in anthropology. In order to test her maturity, her father sends her to visit her cousin Catalina who quite recently married fair-haired and blue-eyed Virgil Doyle and who seems to have fallen ill, and that is how Noemí ends up in the High Place.
The High Place, the Doyles’ ancestral home, ‘is sick with rot, stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.’ It is a dilapidated, mouldy mansion built from the proceeds of a once operational silver mine that is conveniently wrapped in thick milky fog and inhabited by a cast of eerie characters and their strangely robotic servants. Catalina seems to be in a kind of a daze oscillating between clarity and ramblings about the ‘people in the walls’. All in all, she is much closer to the traditional gothic heroine waiting to be rescued, except the rescue comes in the form of Noemí. Observing the family portraits, Noemí notices an uncanny resemblance going down the Doyle family line, she discovers books about eugenics, hears stories circulating the village, and starts having phantasmagoric dreams.
For the purpose of this book review, I won’t go further into details in order not to reveal some of the major plot twists. I’ll just say that the horror in the Mexican Gothic functions on multiple levels. It is not only in the gloomy setting, the supernatural presence, the pervading myths and legends, but also in the moral and ethical aspect of the narrative. Mexican Gothic revolves around a set of powerful women who need to find a way to save themselves from the mouldy talons of the High Place. The narrative is fast paced, intriguing, intoxicating, and ultimately quite satisfying. The feeling of dread pulsates and buzzes throughout the novel like the terrible heart of the being that lurks underneath the peeling wallpapers and crumbling masonry.
© 2020 Erna Grcic