Pitch-Perfect 'Mexican Gothic' Ratchets Up The Dread
Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic is a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking novel. I want to discuss it around tea, preferably while in the mountains, preferably somewhere well-lit. I remember placing my bookmark in the book and thinking, I should not have read this before bed.
I was afraid of what I might dream.
Noémi's cousin Catalina writes a strange letter begging for help. She claims her new husband Virgil Doyle is poisoning her, that "fleshless things" and ghosts trouble her, that "they will not let me go." Noémi — self-assured, chic and stubborn — leaves the glamor of 1950s Mexico City for the countryside, still depressed after a mining bust and fecund with secrets, to determine whether Catalina needs rescue.
Reader, she does. The situation is more complicated and sinister than the initial fear of just a con artist husband isolating his new wife and convincing the world she's mad so he can steal her money.
The Doyles of High Place are so Anglo and insular they brought European earth for their garden. Rot seeps from cracks, corrupts wallpaper and slimes the ceilings of the house. There is no regular electricity, so our heroine must get around with candles and oil lamps. Smoking cigarettes, going into town, and conversation at dinner are all against house rules. And when conversation does happen, the patriarch of the clan (Howard) says things like "You are much darker than your cousin," and approvingly discusses eugenics. Virgil and Florence (High Place's mistress) keep Noémi away from Catalina, saying she's in mysterious "treatments." Noémi's only potential ally is Francis, Florence's sheltered and delicate son. But even his friendship only stretches so far — and can it stretch further than the family land he's never left?
Noémi's dreams become haunted: A woman whose face is a golden cloud tries to speak, accompanied by visceral dread. Dream Virgil appears, a figure of lust and terror. A dead woman repeatedly tells Noémi to open her eyes. Where the dreamworld ends and reality begins feels uncertain. Noémi wonders whether she is losing her mind.
The reader isn't sure, either.
There is a gradual rise of dread in Mexican Gothic. It never quite falls off, even at the end, which I loved for its satisfying ambiguity; this is a novel that will leave you wary even after the last page. Mexican Gothic touches on racial, class, and labor inequity, the way these things fester, infusing the landscape and blighting generations. High Place is haunted by memory. The very air is possessed. This is Silvia Moreno-Garcia's greatness as a storyteller: She makes you uneasy about invisible things by writing around them. Even when you think you know what lurks, the power to unsettle isn't diminished. Secrets brought to light stay disquieting.
During the more surreal sequences, I was reminded of Remedios Varo's paintings, Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (this story is much better crafted), or Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris. I appreciated the frequent winks at classic Gothic novels, even as Moreno-Garcia hit all of the expected tropes.
This is Silvia Moreno-Garcia's greatness as a storyteller. She makes you uneasy about invisible things by writing around them. Even when you think you know what lurks, the power to unsettle isn't diminished.
Mexican Gothic is a pitch-perfect Gothic novel. The Gothics knew the only thing more full of horrors than the landscape is the human heart, that the human heart is a haunting. We often think of Frankenstein's monster as magical; a limb drops off and cartoon Frank sews it back on, but Frankenstein's monster was more Romantic than that. So is Mexican Gothic. Moreno-Garcia (an occasional NPR contributor) spins science, myth, and obsession into an effective tale of supernatural horror and determination. We are asked to consider the terror of losing agency, of being part of or becoming monstrousness whether you will or not. Something is sick. Nothing is as it seems. We are possessed by the air we breathe. We are haunted by our bodies and the people who came before us. Can one escape that?
To help us through, there is a bright whisper of goodness — Noémi's wit and vivacity, even as the Doyles pick her apart with criticism, Francis's quiet will, light growing where it shouldn't. You will want to see this heroine succeed, you'll desperately root for her escape; as desperately, you will want other characters to fall. But in Mexican Gothic we are asked to consider the things abusers do to create their next victims, the lengths one might go to control the future, and whether the snake can ever stop eating its tail.
You will be left unsettled, unsteady, and uncertain. You will also be left satisfied.
And you will remember High Place, though hopefully not in your dreams.
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.