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Monthly Literature Review: Mexican Gothic

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*Contains Spoilers for Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia *

If you’re a fan of horror, ghost stories and gothic tales, October may be your favourite month of the year. I know that I get excited every time I see Halloween decorations appearing in shop windows and doors. It’s a sign that I should start re-reading my favourite chilling novels. But there’s only so many times you can read the classics.

Last year, I began to expand my reading and started looking for more modern takes on the gothic genre. That was when I found Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, a novel published in 2020 and set in 1950’s Mexico. Whilst the novel does take inspiration from big names such as Ann Radcliffe and Bram Stoker, Moreno-Garcia makes sure to create her own unique narrative and play with the generic conventions of classic horror stories. She births a new nightmare in this suspenseful tale.

The story begins in the middle of the glamourous city of Mexico City with our protagonist Noemi Taboada who dazzles society with her charm, wit, and style. Noemi is a strong and independent woman, unlike the delicate heroines of classic gothic tales such as Emily St Aubert who faints no fewer than ten times in The Mysteries of Udolpho. She is the most capable character in the novel, so when her cousin Catalina sends her a letter saying she fears her husband is trying to kill her, she risks her own well-being to save her.

One of the best aspects of this novel is the setting which leaps off of the page thanks to Moreno-Garcia’s compelling prose. Like many gothic stories, the main action is set in a dilapidated house with creaky staircases and dark corridors. But what is unique about this story is that it is set in South America. The author goes into great detail about the rolling hills of the fictional El Triunfo and transports the reader to the captivating but disturbing setting.

According to the author, this town is based on a real place located in the mountains of Hidalgo. She says that ‘it’s rather chilly up there and misty and it rains buckets certain times of the year’, the perfect setting for a haunting ghost story. The history of the town is also used as inspiration in the novel as Moreno-Garcia includes allusions to the mining operations that scarred the landscapes in many British Columbian areas. The Doyle family who lives in the old house, the family that Catalina married into and the people who may be poisoning her, once ran a silver mine in the area and are responsible for much of the pollution and death that stemmed from the operation.

In Mexican Gothic, the town is haunted, metaphorically in this case, by the sins of the past. The landscape itself is marked by death as a mass grave filled with indigenous people who once worked the mines lies just beyond the borders of the old house. As Moreno-Garcia writes, “It was the house that disfigured the land”, serving as a reminder to the local population of their loss and suffering.

Although there are no traditional ghosts in the novel, the house itself is still a “haunted house” which plagues its inhabitants with dreams of blood and death. What is fascinating about this novel is that the very idea of a haunted house is exaggerated and literalised so that the building itself becomes sentient. As it turns out Catalina was right after all, she was being poisoned, but by the house rather than the inhabitants. The dust in the air, the water, even the wallpaper is poison to everyone. Polluted with fungi spores, it enters the bloodstream and slowly connects the characters to the building so that they become one with the structure.

Yes, that’s right, it was the fungus all along.

As Noemi realises when she gets trapped in the Doyles’ home, the mushrooms growing on their property aren’t exactly harmless. Instead, they are slightly supernatural fungi which have the ability to heal humans, connect them to a kind of hive mind of memories, and even allow them to achieve immortality by passing their consciousness into another living body. This is what the patriarch of the family Howard Doyle has been doing for decades. He sacrifices his own children so that he might live on in the gloomy house.

So, rather than creating a monstrous Dracula with fangs and pale skin, the author uses the supernatural to reveal the true monsters in our world: the people. Howard takes a substance which is not innately good or bad (but has the potential to advance medical science and help millions of people) and hoards it for himself. He abuses what was once worshipped by a native culture as divine and makes himself a god. He uses his family, the indigenous population and Noemi without a single thought for anyone but himself.

This in itself links to one of the main issues in the novel, racism and eugenics. Whilst Noemi and her cousin Catalina are indigenous to South America, the Doyles are a white, British family. Not only do they prioritise white lives over indigenous ones (they have a burial ground for the British workers who died in the mines but dispose of the bodies of local labourers in a mass grave), but they are also obsessed with eugenics and ideas of purity. Howard takes this idea to extreme levels by having incestuous relationships with sisters and daughters so that he can create an ideal body for his transfer of consciousness. In this way, Moreno-Garcia adapts the gothic genre to address issues of racism in a new setting. She links the supernatural horrors of this fictional world to the real terrors faced by everyday people in the real world.

Mexican Gothic builds on classic gothic stories by giving us a heroine rather than a damsel in distress and by addressing the important issue of racism. It is a ghost story in the sense that the characters are haunted by the colonial past and the horrific actions of Howard Doyle who relentlessly pursues immortality. You’ll finish the book with two new fears: creepy mind-control mushrooms and wicked people.