In a round-up of recent SFF books back in June, The Guardian described Mexican Gothic as “It’s Lovecraft meets the Brontës in Latin America”. Which is oddly dismissive for a positive review but it is a book that is well aware of its own tropes as are key characters. The hero, Mexico City socialite Noemí Taboada and her imperilled cousin Catalina are well schooled in the literature of dubious marriages in large and decaying English country homes. However, I’m not sure the Brontës is quite what the reviewer should have reached for and Lovecraft even less so.
Yes, it is a novel with lurking horrors but the similarities are less with Lovecraft than other writers who have been influenced by Lovecraft. The underlying mystery once revealed feels more like Stephen King, particularly in the moral evil arising out of very human malice that is amplified by the supernatural aspects. That the story also weaves in how the horror both reflects and is built upon issues of colonialism, economic inequality, and misogyny also places the novel in a spectrum with many recent reworkings of Lovecraftian tropes. A Slate review tries the X meets Y approach to summing up the novel with a better combo: “This Haunting New Bestseller Is Part du Maurier, Part del Toro”.
Yet despite that, if what you want is a book about a remote and creepy mansion with disturbing servants, and a lurking secret, Mexican Gothic absolutely delivers. It is both original, disturbing and oddly comforting because it understands the genres it is employing and uses them to tailored effect.
Noemí Taboada is young, bright and somewhat adrift in her privileged life in 1950’s Mexico City. However, a disturbing letter from her cousin Catalina sends her on a trip to a remote part of Mexico. Her cousin had married some months ago, a handsome man from a English family that had controlled a silver mine. The house sits high on a mountain that is beset by fog at the best of times and by torrential rain at the worst of times. The pale blond family that lives there sit amid the crumbling ruins of their wealth which is dwindling ever since the Mexican Revolution and employ creepy British servants and the house adjoins its own creepy graveyard. The deployment of tropes is loving and intentional almost in the way a parody would be.
Where this almost comforting sense of familiarity is effectively deployed is the slow ramping up of the horror elements are used to create a growing sense of insidious terror. The underlying threats are psychological, sexual, physical and sporadically supernatural in nature. Readers should be aware that sexual assault (in various senses) is a recurring threat throughout — not inappropriately given the genre and the misogyny fuelling the Doyle family’s ambitions.
The horror dimension is not teased so much as the possibility that the what-is-going-on explanation might be something more mundane than, say, vampires or ghosts. Once matters are finally revealed and the Doyle men are revealed not to be the fun guys they pretend to be, the pace of the novel shifts. Rather like King’s novels, I kind of like the more fantastical adventure aspect of that style of horror when the underlying thing becomes known and the plot boils down to a question of how to escape its clutches.
This isn’t a mould breaking book but rather a clever and thoughtful twist on genres. The Mexican setting enable Silvia Moreno-Garcia to explore the assumptions about class and wealth and the use of marriage to disempower women in a different way. The very Englishness of the house and Doyle’s adds to that invasive sense that she deploys to both introduce the themes of social power and to enhance the sense of pervasive wrongness needed for the horror. Nor does this multiplicity of themes prevent there being much room for character development (although poor Catalina gets limited chances to show what she is like as a person — due to circumstances).
Best read on a sunny beach and best not read by gaslight in a remote house with creaky floorboards and a sound that might be whispers in the walls…