Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s gothic horror novel Mexican Gothic is incredible. It has truly mastered the art of its trade, undertaking the ‘something-is-a-little-off' family living in a something-is-quite-a bit-off house’ story without being cliché, melodramatic, or making the characters unsympathetic or unrealistic.
The novel, set in 1950s Mexico, kicks off with its protagonist, 22 year-old Noemí Taboada, at a party with her boyfriend Hugo, when she gets called home by her father. Her father tells her that her cousin, Catalina, who is like a sister to her, had sent a letter to her after months of silence between the two following Catalina’s suspiciously quick marriage to Virgil Doyle. In the letter, Catalina says she hears ghosts in the walls and thinks that Virgil is going to poison her. Concerned for Catalina’s health and safety, Noemí ’s father asks Noemí to go to High Place, the manor in El Triunfo where Cataline lives, in the countryside of Mexico. At first Noemí refuses, but when her father promises to allow her to do a masters program in anthropology instead of simply getting married, she agrees.
Once Noemí arrives at High Place, she discovers that the house is lit only by candles, that Catalina has tuberculosis, and that Virgil’s father, Howard Doyle, is interested in eugenics and believes in inferior and superior races. As her stay begins to lengthen, she starts having nightmares, sleepwalks for the first time since childhood, begins to notice that the family acts strange around her, and realizes that Catalina is no longer the lively young girl she knew so well just a year ago.
The story is quite well-crafted. Noemí is a very interesting, likable, and believable protagonist. She stays in the house for a long time even though it creeps her out because of her love for her sister, her father, and her desire to get a master’s degree. She doesn’t immediately dismiss all the Doyles and her rebellious nature forces her to rock the boat even when it could be dangerous, just out of spite. Noemí, though, isn’t alone in being well-crafted. Each character is understandable, never acts out of character, is lifelike and heir actions are wholly plausible when meant to be, and the plot twists and secrets hidden in the book make sense in relation to the overall arc of the story.
It is very hard to construct a haunted house-esque story without resorting to hackneyed tropes, making your characters unreasonable or implausible, or making the grand reveals too out of the blue to be believable or too obvious to be surprising. Yet Moreno-Garcia avoids all these pitfalls while weaving a masterpiece that caused me to tear through the book in mesmerized fear and spellbound horror. In other words, if you like horror, historical fiction, or gothic novels even the tiniest bit, to say that this book would be worth reading would be the universe’s most profound understatement.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Del Rey Books, 2021. Buy the book here and help support Stone Soup in the process!