Could there be a more straightforward title for a Gothic novel set in Mexico? If the title seems too on-the-nose, though, too baldly descriptive, don’t be fooled into thinking the novel might be a paint-by-numbers affair. Moreno-Garcia’s stylish novel is atmospheric, inventive, and a pleasure to read.
Mexican Gothic as Gothic
The past two years have seen four new Moreno-Garcia novels published and two reissued (her 2017 The Beautiful Ones and her 2016 Certain Dark Things), with Mexican Gothic one of two published in 2020 (along with Untamed Shore).
That prolific schedule has seen Moreno-Garcia’s flair for the fantastical—the vampires of Certain Dark Things and the magic of Signal to Noise (2015)—recombined with other genres in delightful new ways. Mexican Gothic brings the mystical and fantastical to the Gothic’s ‘traditional’ concerns around inheritance, heredity, and declining family fortunes.
Mexican Gothic follows stylish and thoughtful university student Noemí Taboada on a family mission to check on the welfare of her newly-wed cousin, Catalina. She finds her cousin shut up, apparently unwell, in a dilapidated country house full of unresponsive servants and hostile hosts.
Catalina’s husband, Virgil Doyle, has brought his new bride to live at his family home in the Mexican countryside, High Place. The other residents include his father, Howard, sister, Florence, and her son, Francis. Unrelated family members, such as Virgil’s first wife and Francis’ father, don’t seem to last long here.
That alerts Noemí, and us, to the threat that Catalina might be facing, whether merely from the gloom and resentment that pervades High Place or from something more calculated and sinister, we cannot tell.
Moreno-Garcia’s straightforward (and in some ways unromantic) title invites us to bring to her early, scene-setting chapters the range of conventions and tropes that we know populate Gothic and related sensation fiction stories:
- the ill-used wife declared insane, or otherwise incapacitated, for nefarious purposes (usually involving inheritances);
- the figure of the rigid housekeeper working against the heroine;
- or the lengths to which a doomed family on the decline will go to cling to its glorious past.
For predecessors to the domineering and controlling Howard Doyle, we might look to the Svengali of George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894) or W. Somerset Maugham’s Oliver Haddo (The Magician, 1908), and the effects of High Place on Noemí and her cousin could well be attributed to similar forces of personality and influence until the novel is nearly at its end.
All of these tropes and conventions Moreno-Garcia recombines with her own unique, speculative twist. While much Gothic fiction might tell a story of the supernatural only to resolve it into a matter of more earthly guilt and sin, Moreno-Garcia’s novel holds the two together neatly and compellingly. (No, I won’t give away the ending!)
Mexican Gothic as Mexican
Moreno-Garcia’s heroine, Noemí, presses into High Place’s morass of old Gothic tropes in the same way that her costumes insert a vivid splash of colour into the Doyles’ gloomy decor.
She is thoroughly modern; a young, beautiful, wealthy woman in 1950s Mexico who alternates between considering her dating choices and possible postgraduate study, and trying to determine what will save her cousin from the oppressive illness that seems to have befallen her.
With a cigarette in one hand, Noemí wields her inability to put up and shut up before her like a sabre, cutting down eugenicist talk from the Doyles’ patriarch and slicing through the family’s attitude towards all women as breeding stock.
Like her cousin before her, Noemí seeks support in the nearby village, where the local doctor and local healer offer her both material assistance—including medication to combat Catalina’s illness—and moral support, while the Doyles insist on receiving treatment only from their own family doctor, another European immigrant.
The Doyles conceal the depths of their depravity, which necessitates a cadre of special servants, behind the veneer of commonplace racism and classism; we could easily believe that they refuse to use the local doctor out of pure prejudice, and this helps Moreno-Garcia conceal the supernatural twist of her tale for as long as she does.
The abuses of colonising groups from Europe are a carefully drawn backdrop to the tale, reminding us of how this story is localised, as the title starkly demands we remember.
Mexico’s long history of silver mining, how the industry was impacted by the War of Independence, and the connected violent histories of colonialism and misogynistic patriarchy, provide a vital framework for the novel, but to follow the emotional thread of the story, you need not know anything beyond its pages.
Moreno-Garcia’s skill as a novelist, with careful plotting and characterisation, provides all the scaffolding we need to understand the exploitative practices of the Doyles.
Mexican Gothic thus incorporates Howard’s domination of supernatural power as just one more instance of the ravenous resource-stripping of the colonialist Doyles and their family narcissism, which Noemí and her cousin must try to escape.
This is the first of Moreno-Garcia’s books that I’ve read, and I picked it up precisely because I’m interested in the Gothic as a genre. As I went along, it had me thinking not only about its connections to the staples of the genre, including Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca (1933) and her grandfather’s Trilby, mentioned above.
But it also reminds of the eco-gothic sub-genre and how it intersects with weird or horror fiction like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. It is a testament to Moreno-Garcia’s storytelling power that she can blend these allusions and associations so deftly into a short novel that engrosses and, frankly, grosses out the reader.
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