Books: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The book I’m discussing today was one that I was seeing everywhere when the hardback first came out in the summer of 2020; it appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, and a bunch of horror book reviewers I follow, as well as pretty much all the “mainstream” book reviewing channels, were covering it. Because it’s a classic gothic story, and the cover of it was so beautiful, I was really anticipating it, and my broke ass even considered buying the hardback, even though I couldn’t really afford it. My wiser financial sense overcame my initial desire, though, and I actually ended up waiting for the paperback to come out before I purchased it (at an actual, brick and mortar bookstore, no less). The novel I’m talking about is Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

I’m a big fan of gothic stories in the classical sense, so this book pressed pretty much all my “happy” buttons: it has a creepy old mansion, a sinister family that appears to be cursed, crumbling cemeteries, madness, secrets, and all the other things that never fail to make me squeal with morbid delight. If you’re at all a fan of stuff like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or more recently, Guillermo del Toro’s films (particularly Crimson Peak), then I can’t see how you wouldn’t adore this. There are some Edgar Allan Poe and some slight H.P. Lovecraft flourishes as well, though in the latter case it’s not so much a cosmic horror story as it is more akin to science fiction or body horror.

The story of Mexican Gothic is set in 1950, and our main protagonist is a young woman named Noemí Taboada. She is a very modern, independent woman, a beautiful, sophisticated, and intelligent socialite who is very adept at navigating the wealthy circles her family travels in. She always dresses in the height of modern fashion, has little time for tradition (especially marriage), and enjoys going to parties, flirting, and generally living the high life in Mexico City without regard to societal expectations.

Very near the beginning of the book, though, a troubling note intrudes on Noemí’s carefree existence. She and her father receive a letter from Noemí’s cousin Catalina which causes them a great deal of concern. Catalina and Noemí were very close as children, like sisters in fact, and they have kept in touch regularly, but they haven’t seen each other much since Catalina married into a rich English family and moved to a remote estate in Hidalgo.
Catalina’s husband is a man named Virgil Doyle. The Doyle family are the remnants of an English clan who once owned a series of silver mines in the area, though since the mines closed, the family’s fortunes have dwindled considerably.

In the letter, which sounds alarming, Catalina insists that her husband is trying to poison her, and also makes some more out-there claims, such as the fact that she believes there are things moving around in her bedroom walls. Noemí and her father are very worried; they’re not sure if Catalina is simply losing her mind, or if Virgil is actually trying to kill her in order to get his grubby mitts on her money. Either way, they decide something has to be done about it.

Because Noemí is closer to Catalina than anyone, and because she’s much more diplomatic and practiced in getting her way using her “feminine wiles,” she and her father agree that she should be the one to travel out to the Doyle mansion—called High Place—to figure out the lay of the land.

Once she gets there, things get more and more creepy and gothic as time passes. The Doyle family are pretty much all weirdos who have really strict rules about the way things have to be done in the house. They’re all very dour, uptight, and condescending, and treat Noemí as though she’s a recalcitrant child. The patriarch, Howard, is this ancient, mummy-looking dude who is super into eugenics and misogyny, and the rest of the family—including mom Florence, son Francis, and of course the sketchy Virgil—aren’t much better, though Francis seems at least somewhat normal in the sense that he also thinks his family are kinda lunatics.

The Doyles seem very put out by Noemí’s visit, and are reluctant to even let her see her cousin Catalina. They explain that Catalina has been ill with tuberculosis, and has been having fever dreams, which might explain the crazy shit she wrote in her letter. When Noemí is finally allowed to see her cousin, Catalina seems to confirm this explanation, saying that she’s been bedridden and delirious, and that she must have written the letter in some fugue state, because of course there aren’t things in the walls, and of course Virgil isn’t trying to murder her. Of course not!

Noemí knows something’s up, though, and she’s not going to let this family of reactionary crackpots stop her from finding out what it is. The family forbids her from smoking, but she does it anyway. The family says they have their own doctor who sees to Catalina, but Noemí goes into town and brings another doctor to the house for a second opinion. The family tells her she can’t leave the house anymore, but Noemí says nah, son, and sneaks out. She’s a grown-ass adult, after all, no matter how these wackjobs are treating her.

As the story goes on, though, creepier and creepier shit starts to occur. After a medicine that Noemí brings for Catalina supposedly causes her to have a seizure, Noemí is absolutely forbidden to see her cousin anymore, and is essentially made a prisoner at High Place. Both Virgil and old-as-fuck Howard start trying to mack on her. She begins sleepwalking, and also starts seeing weird shit moving around on the walls. She learns about the history of the family from Francis, and discovers some unsettling shit about their pasts, including a pretty grim murder-suicide and some super exploitative stuff having to do with the family ownership of the silver mines and how they treated their workers.

Mexican Gothic does sort of play out in a haunted house type of way, but it’s definitely not a haunting in the traditional sense, and actually has a cool, somewhat unique angle that shades more toward a kind of scientific or organic body horror type situation. That’s really all I can say about it without spoiling the premise, and this story is actually much better if you know as little about its secrets as possible.

Anyone who enjoys gothic horror should have a great time with this one; it’s wonderfully atmospheric and eerie, with a slant on the haunted house trope that I don’t think I’ve ever seen done in precisely this way. Be warned, though, that towards the end it does get pretty gross and graphic in regards to the body horror aspect; even though the story is set in 1950, this is still very much a modern gothic with more modern horror elements. I loved this book unreservedly, and definitely felt it deserved all the praise it received.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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