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When I was a child, the neighborhood drugstore where I snuck out to buy candy also trafficked in another forbidden treat: a tall, rotating rack stocked with mass-market paperbacks, the covers of which mostly featured women in nightgowns fleeing from looming mansions by night. This was a type of genre fiction that flourished in the 1960s and ’70s and has entirely vanished since called the gothic. Our branch librarian informed me when I tried to check some out that I was too young to read such books, vastly increasing their glamor in my eyes. Eventually, though, I got my hands on a few, and while I remember enjoying them well enough, their predictability soon bored me.
Only years later, in school, would I read the literature that inspired these pulps and gain a full appreciation of the gothic mode. (There ought to be a name for this disorienting experience of encountering the genuine article only after a thorough exposure to its thin simulacrum, like visiting New Orleans for the first time after many childhood wanderings through New Orleans Square in Disneyland.) Some of the literary gothic’s foundational novels are acknowledged classics—Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights—while others—most notably, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca—were unfairly diminished in reputation by their countless imitators and the prestige hit taken by any genre that’s particularly popular with women.
But truth be told, even those of us who love a high-end gothic novel must admit that many of the genre’s devices have lost their flavor. How many books can you read about inexperienced but scrappy young women (or, in the case of Rebecca, gormless ingenues) arriving in gloomy English country estates where dark secrets lurk behind moth-nibbled velvet drapes? Even this premise, once so delicious, can get stale. The genre’s palette is typically limited, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be—as Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic amply, deliriously, and gloriously demonstrates.
The setting, at first, is Mexico City, 1950. The heroine is Noemí Taboada, who, unlike the typically mousy gothic heroine, is as handsome, clever, and rich as Emma Woodhouse. The novel, narrated in the third person but limited to Noemí’s point of view, refers to her more than once as a “socialite,” an old-fashioned label I associate with newspapers—would anyone call herself this?—and signals that Mexican Gothic, in accord with its artless but absolutely on-point title, is not afraid to be a little bit trashy. A promising sign, indeed.
For me, gothic fiction will always be associated with the endless afternoons of a suburban childhood summer, a wedge of vicarious shadow injected in long, blank, bright days when there was nothing much to do and nowhere really to go. This pandemic summer is the ideal season for that kind of book, and Mexican Gothic is one, at least in the beginning. Noemí obeys her industrialist father’s request to check up on her newlywed cousin Catalina, whose husband has whisked her away to an old family mansion so high up in the mountains that despite its latitude, the place always seems to be swathed in a chilly mist. Catalina has been writing her uncle strange letters, accusing her husband, Virgil Doyle, of trying to poison her and raving about “these restless dead, these ghosts, fleshless things” that “whisper at night.”
When Noemí arrives at this house (dubbed, in accordance with Moreno-Garcia’s curiously literal naming approach, High Place), she finds such classic gothic character types as the unsympathetic middle-aged woman who runs the place; a pair of men, one darkly dangerous and alluring, the other more decent but less exciting; suspicious servants; and a creepy dying patriarch who, when he learns of Noemí’s plans to study anthropology at the university, begins spouting noxious ideas about race and eugenics. The Doyles monitor her time with Catalina and refuse to consult anyone about her cousin’s puzzling illness besides the longtime family physician, whom Noemí mistrusts. The place is obviously riddled with secrets, and our heroine, of course, resolves to dig them up.
But if Mexican Gothic begins like du Maurier, it veers a little before its midpoint into the territory of a Guillermo del Toro movie. (In a recent Twitter thread, Moreno-Garcia attributed this similarity to a shared influence, the Mexican filmmaker Carlos Enrique Taboada, whose last name she gave to her heroine.) It’s an audacious and satisfying move, because while Moreno-Garcia lacks du Maurier’s gift for conjuring a hypnotic atmosphere, her skill with the baroque and hallucinatory is peerless. Noemí has a series of dreams in which she wanders the house, surrounded by clouds of golden spores and confronted by a woman in a yellow dress whose face has been replaced with a pulsing, featureless glow. This figure attempts to speak to her, despite not having a mouth, and “the woman made a noise, like the crunching of leaves, like the dripping of water onto a pond, like the buzzing of insects in the pitch-black darkness, and Noemí wished to press her hands against her ears, but she had no hands anymore.” Later, in another dream, she will feel that “the floor beneath her was wet and soft. It was a sore. A great sore she walked upon, and the walls were sores too. The wallpaper was peeling, revealing underneath sickly organs instead of brick or wooden boards.”
These are quintessential gothic concepts—female powerlessness and voicelessness, the house as body or psyche—but Moreno-Garcia turns them up to 11, as del Toro did with his own gothic film, 2015’s Crimson Peak. But bringing such florid intensity to the table is not Moreno-Garcia’s only technique for making the gothic more Mexican. The Doyles, fair and blue-eyed, implanted themselves outside the village of El Triunfo, running a silver mine with ruthless disregard for the local workers, whom they considered little better than livestock, until the mine, and the family’s fortunes, succumbed to a series of mysterious afflictions. One of their ancestors even imported earth from his native England (rather like Count Dracula, who arrived in England with a shipment of Transylvanian soil), so determined were they to preserve themselves as distinct from the land and people they came to exploit.
And so, while sustaining the gothic’s old-fashioned appeal, Moreno-Garcia converts its motifs into a supple metaphor for colonialism, which she conceives of as a kind of disease. Even Noemí’s intermittent attraction to the Doyles serves the author here as both a painful truth about the unruliness of desire and a covert dig at Mexico’s ruling class. Without giving too much away about what Noemí discovers at High Place—chances are you won’t figure it out in advance—I’ll say that it’s possible to read Mexican Gothic for its shiver-inducing surface pleasures alone, but you can also find much more should you choose to look for it. And no lazy afternoon spent reading it will ever feel wasted.