Every year around Halloweentime, I try to devote at least a week or two to “spooky” reads. This last Halloween season, I read a little collection of haunted poetry, along with The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which I had assigned to my students. The last among these was Silivia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, a breakout hit this year, and I was very much looking forward to reading it.
I’ll start by saying, I might be spoiled by psychological thrillers, like Shirley Jackson’s works. I find that I’m less interested in traditional horror that is filled with supernatural bogeyman, and more interested in the scary things that our subconsciousness’ conjure. Perhaps because of this, I struggled with Mexican Gothic, whose villain is certainly a fresh invention and yet fits into the more traditional role of scary bad guys.
On the other hand, as historical fiction about 1950s Mexico, with family and romance at its heart, the story is quite charming and interesting to read. I found Moreno-Garcia’s characters and atmosphere provocative and compelling. Her exploration of women and men, femininity and masculinity, and the horrors of eugenics, is ultimately more interesting–and horrifying–than the haunted house/ghost story that is the primary vehicle. And perhaps that was the intention. We see, unfortunately, much of the West’s last decade (and further) mirrored in the supremacist themes that sour the soil upon which Mexican Gothic’s haunted house, High Place, is built.
The story begins with a young woman, Noemi, and her father in metropolitan Mexico. They are wealthy, popular, and even powerful. Then, glamorous Noemi, aloof in her world of rich dances and ever-changing academic and career interests, receives a letter from her cousin, who has been swept away by her new husband to the in-laws home on an abandoned silver mine, in a struggling rural village. Noemi’s letter is scrambled, confused, and filled with foreboding danger. It is a cry for help, and Noemi is an unlikely hero.
What unfolds is an inventive haunted house tale that puts at its center a battle of the sexes, and two distinct mindsets: the villainy of an old and backwards view of European superiority versus the championing of progressive equality, a view that all are capable and there is no such thing as inherent worth or racial supremacy. These two foils unfold amidst a bizarre poison that infects High Point’s patriarch and has been passed down, generation to generation, for hundreds of years. As Noemi and her cousin enter the picture, the time has come for this evil to pass again into the next generation, and if it succeeds, it will trap them both forever.
Mexican Gothic is an important story with a, to me, unfortunate villain; and yet, that villain is wildly imagined and certainly unlike any I’ve read before. Overall, I think the book is a success more so for its politics and psychology than its primary story, but I can understand why many will be pulled in by that as well. Those who enjoy traditional horror novels will likely appreciate this one.