Updated: 2 days ago
Growing up, I spent a lot of summers with my extended family in Panama. The months my brother and I were not in school were also the rainy season in the tropical climate, so much of my time was spent reading. My favorite kind of books were the ones that made me feel cold, or frightened, or in an otherworldly place. In Chiriquí, with the rain pattering on the roof of my abuela’s patio, or when we went to the ocean on a sunny day, I loved a ‘beach read’ that I could get lost in—but not too lost; I needed to be able to look up and know I wasn’t in Hannibal Lecter’s cell or in the house with rooms that were bigger inside than outside. I love a book I have to set aside at climactic moments in order to calm my heart rate; I tend to get enveloped by a good book’s atmosphere. I love that feeling, and my nostalgia for it was gleefully awoken by Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.
In 1950s Mexico, we meet Noemí Taboada, a college student from a well-to-do family with a bubbling social life. She’s electric as soon as she’s introduced, exiting a costume party with her handsome date, and dismissing him easily though she knows he’s a catch. She’s got bigger things on her mind than courtship, and it mainly has to do with convincing her father that she should get her masters degree in anthropology. Her father says he will allow her to continue her schooling (though he wants her to marry), if she investigates why he’s been receiving ominous letters from her cousin Catalina, recently married to a British man in the Mexican countryside.
Noemí’s sparkling demeanor and wit is the perfect contrast to what she finds in her cousin’s dark and gloomy family home. It’s a huge house elevated on a rocky mountainside. When Noemí arrives, not only is there something amiss with Catalina (she’s sickly and must rest constantly), but the whole extended family of in-laws she lives with feel as damp and moldy as the house is described. The Doyles are an old British mining family, purveyors of a long since closed silver mine. Her introduction their house, named High Place:
“The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, evoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired, slats missing from a couple of shutters, the ebony porch groaning as they made their way up the steps to the door, which came complete with a silver knocker shaped like a fist dangling from a circle.”
High Place seems like a character itself, a rundown Manderley in the gothic tradition, but Noemí is nothing like du Maurier’s meek narrator. Noemí is the light in a house that has no electricity, and in my mind her beautiful dresses and jewelry popped against the faded wallpaper as she walked through the eerie house. Moreno-Garcia’s descriptions have the power to evoke such cinematic imagery—and her words will put a spell on you.
As Noemí tries to acclimate to High Place and the family, she begins to have odd dreams and starts sleepwalking. At times can’t tell if she’s having a nightmare or she’s awake—often, the reader can’t tell either. But this is where I got goosebumps, where Moreno-Garcia slowly builds the tension and unfurls the surreal horror of Mexican Gothic. When Noemí feels out of control, where the descriptive imagery deepens the mystery, were also the parts I had to set aside the book out of fear, or to take a breath. There are moments of beauty turned into wretched ugliness, disturbing sexual encounters, and visions of utter revulsion. The filmic writing makes sense; apparently Moreno-Garcia named her heroine after Mexican filmmaker, Carlos Enrique Taboada, whose horror movies I haven’t seen, but now I intend to seek out. Mexican Gothic’s imagery often brought filmmakers to mind: Noemí’s detailed dresses evoked the memory of Edith Head’s sumptuous designs for Hitchcock heroines, and the creepy visions had a similar feel to David Lynch’s horror-bent exploration of reality versus dreams in Mulholland Drive (as well as the 2017 season of Twin Peaks). It’s not that Mexican Gothic needs to be turned into a movie: it’s that the descriptions are so good and immersive, like you’re already watching it on a 30-foot screen. The reader begins to feel the claustrophobia of High Place, the madness that is seeping into Noemí in which she doesn’t even know if she can trust her own mind. An example of her (possible) delusions:
“The door swung open, and Noemí saw a man on a bed. Only it wasn’t truly a man. It was a bloated vision of a man, as if he’d drowned and floated to the surface, his pale body lined with blue veins, tumors flowering on his legs, his hands, his belly. A pustule, not a man, a living breathing, pustule. His chest rising and falling.”
I often felt the rising of bile while reading, but determined to continue—I needed to figure out what was happening in this awful house, where the truth lay hidden, and to assure myself that Noemí would be okay, since I’d grown to like her so much. In her waking hours, she explores while her cousin rests, from the cemetery out back to the musty library filled with books about eugenics. Her hosts are not shy about their interest in the topic. Almost immediately after meeting the old, decrepit patriarch, Howard Doyle, he makes note of her darker skin in contrast to her cousin’s and continues:
“‘What are your thoughts on the intermingling of superior and inferior types?’ he asked, ignoring her discomfort.
Noemí felt the eyes of all the family members on her. Her presence was a novelty and an alteration to their patterns. An organism introduced into a sterile environment. They waited to hear what she revealed and to analyze her words. Well, let them see that she could keep her cool.”
Moreno-Garcia threads the historical spectre of colonization throughout the book, dealing in overt bloodline discussion and the obvious white supremacy of a family that moved to Mexico in order to wield power with little intrusion. The reader learns that the Doyle's abandoned mine was the site of constant sicknesses that wiped out its Mexican workers. I was reminded of Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury, a nonfiction account of a mine fire in Pachuca, Mexico that killed 87 workers, in which no one was held accountable from the U.S.-owned company. The historical comes through when I thought of the mass grave that the mining company dug for the bodies, and then here in Mexican Gothic: “They said that in the last epidemic, around the time the Revolution started, the Doyles didn’t even bother sending down the corpses for a proper burial. They tossed them in a pit.” Horror does not just lie in the unexplained mysteries haunting Noemí, but in the true history of Mexico and its colonizers as well.
The narrative of Mexican Gothic builds slowly, the tension rising as Noemí begins to understand more. It culminates in a brilliant payoff. Upon learning the truth of the Doyles and High Place, I wanted to reread the book again. Mexican Gothic has gained prominence on my shelf as one that I could give to anyone looking for a scare, or a transportive beach read (especially if they're fans of Jeff vanderMeer, Carmen Maria Machado, hell, Stephen King). As the heat of summer descended on my part of the world, Morena-Garcia’s heroine and dark journey kept me good company. I was glad to look up and find sunshine and vivid colors around me, but I know I’ll return to Noemí and High Place when I need a shiver.
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia