Book Review: Mexican Gothic

If we’re honest, it’s annoyingly common to hear someone talk about speculative fiction and only bring up science fiction and fantasy. And while sure, they’re technically right, the glossing over of horror is a mistake many, including myself, can make. And while reading big names could’ve been easy, I instead picked a new horror book from a writer I already knew and enjoyed: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

I was first introduced to Silvia Moreno-Garcia, through the fantastical and Nebula-nominated Gods of Jade and Shadow, a fast paced blend of Mesoamerican inspired fantasy and the Mexico of the 1920s. (You may be seeing a trend here. I happen to like it.) But where that was familiar and enjoyable in the fantasy elements, her newest venture disturbed and enthralled me.

Mexican Gothic follows Noemí Taboada, introduced as a typical, if slightly outrageous Mexican socialite of the 1950s, fluttering between parties and studies in her beloved convertible. When a strange and disturbing letter arrives from her newlywed cousin, Catalina, her father sends her away from Mexico City and her socialite lifestyle. Noemí arrives in the mountainous countryside of El Triunfo and the strange, perched house of High Place, where her cousin lives with her English husband, to learn the truth of what is happening to her cousin.

Then, all of a sudden, they were there, emerging into a clearing, and the house seemed to leap out of the mist to greet them with eager arms. It was so odd! It looked absolutely Victorian in construction, with its broken shingles, elaborate ornamentation, and dirty bay windows.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Pg. 20 (Hardcover, US Edition)

As the novel’s title suggests, there is a Gothic tone which is persistent, creeping through the novel and growing as the pages pass. Moreno-Garcia’s word choice does the dirty handiwork of building the tone and mood to reinforce those Gothic traits while sowing the seeds of the horror to come. Throughout the first half of the novel, the writing draws upon the disturbing elements of Catalina’s letter and slowly, like a growing mold, inflicts strange images and troubling dreams onto Noemí, seemingly from the house itself. The power of this novel comes through the crafting of wordplay, and how the selection emphasizes or de-emphasizes the images and events of the narrative.

The Doyle family, whom Catalina has married into, are as disturbing and creepy as the writing itself. From aging patriarch Howard, the waspish Florence, and troubled Francis, the Doyles are a mysterious and discomforting lot. They all hold their secrets close to their chest, and it becomes clear early into the book the disturbing views they hold. Between the family’s English heritage, the works Noemí discovers, and the fate of their old silver miners sets into place a view of the world that is both historically realistic and amps up the horror.

Building upon the excellent writing and genuinely disturbing characters is the pacing. For a fantasy snob like me, 300 pages is wildly short, yet Moreno-Garcia uses those 300 pages to almost perfect effect. It begins slow and atmospheric, drowning with Gothic description and imagery. And then there’s a moment, as though a match has been struck. Noemí spirals, beginning the revelation of secrets, and is forced to confront the novel’s underlining horrors – elsewise she may fail to save her cousin. I read the final 200 pages in a single sitting, and part of me wished I had read from page 1 to the final page in one go.

Horror is more than merely blood and gore, monsters and fiends. There’s an unease, a distress that defines the genre. Mexican Gothic oozes with unease and distress, and I would never want this story to have been any other way.

Mexican Gothic was published by Del Rey Books, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, on June 30, 2020.

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