What I’m Reading: Mexican Gothic

One of my reading goals for 2021 is to read more horror, and so when Amazon recommended Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I ordered a copy. I didn’t realize until I did a little research today for this review that MG is actually a bit of a phenomenon–a best-seller, and apparently it will soon be a mini-series on Hulu. Well, I can see why, because it’s a fascinating and entertaining novel. It’s something of a haunted house tale, told with a lot of panache.

Mexican Gothic is the story of Noemí Taboada, in her early twenties and the daughter of a wealthy industrialist in Mexico City in the early 1950s. Her life is a whirlwind of dances and balls, flirtation and men. She does have a serious side, though she rarely shows it–she’s studying anthropology at the University of Mexico, and can be quite strong-willed when she needs to be. Her cousin, Catalina, who grew up in her house, was married six months previously to Virgil Doyle. Now Noemí’s father has received a letter from Catalina in which she claims her husband is trying to poison her. The letter is written in such an unhinged manner that Noemí’s father suspects Catalina is mentally ill. Then again, maybe Virgil is after Catalina’s money. He decides to send Noemí to the Doyle family estate, called High Place, to visit Catalina. Noemí is to keep her ears and eyes open while she’s there, to try to figure out what’s really going on.

High Place turns out to be a run-down old mansion in an isolated mountainous area, paid for by the proceeds from a nearby silver mine that’s been closed down since the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The Doyle family was originally from England and moved to Mexico in the 1880s, and the ancient patriarch of the family, Howard, is still alive and runs High Place dictatorially, although he’s ill and near death. He demands that guests follow a number of rules–they can’t go to the nearby town without his permission, everybody must remain quiet at all times, and Noemí must always be accompanied by a member of the family if she goes anywhere.

Noemí quickly finds that the Doyle’s are a strange family, and the longer she stays and the more she learns of them, the stranger and sicker it gets. It seems one reason the mine shut down was that the Doyles…umm, needed the bodies of the miners. And while Catalina isn’t exactly being poisoned, what the family is doing to her is not far off. Eventually Noemí discovers that the Doyle family would rather she not leave and reveal their secrets, and it may be that even the house itself doesn’t want her to go. Will she be able to escape this bizarre, cloistered world with her cousin and return to her happy life?

One disappointment for me in Mexican Gothic was that it’s really not all that…Mexican. Certainly Noemí is Mexican, and we see a bit of her homelife at the beginning of the novel–the endless rounds of social events of an upper-class socialite in Mexico City in the early 1950s. But Howard and his children and grandchildren at High Place are all English, and all except for the grandson Francis (Noemí’s sole ally in the family…if she can trust him) are unable to speak Spanish. The house is modeled on an English manor house, and the food they eat and clothes they wear are all English-style. We see a bit of contrast when Noemí goes to the local Mexican village, but that is not a large part of the book. Still, this has more to do with my own expectations of the book going in, and doesn’t detract from the book’s quality in any way.

I do wonder if there may be some sort of subtle comparison of English (standing in for American?) and Mexican values in Mexican Gothic. Howard and his family, despite living in Mexico their whole lives (well, for Howard, for many decades), haven’t bothered to learn the local language, while Noemí speaks English flawlessly. All the evil, controlling, materialist behavior of the Doyle family is conducted in English, and common, humane, normal life only takes place when Noemí is able to speak in Spanish with Francis or with the local villagers. But maybe this is reading too much into what’s basically an entertaining horror tale.

Overall, I liked Mexican Gothic a lot. It starts off as a bit of a slow burn, but about two-thirds of the way through the pace really picks up as we learn the perverse family history of the Doyles and what they’re willing to do to protect themselves. I would recommend it to any adult looking for an intelligent and stylish horror book that’s more creepy than scary.

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