(some small spoilers)
It’s almost Halloween, and I am feeling a liiiiiiiitle spoopy.
My main priority was to find a scary book with a bit of old-school gothic influence. Having recently read ‘The Institute’ by Stephen King which was pretty terrifying but set in modern-day, I wanted to get back to my English-Lit-student gothic roots.
Gimme some of that Mary Shelley. Gimme some of that Horace Walpole, and Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker. I want some historical terror, man. So when I was asked to read ‘Mexican Gothic’ for my book club, I was totally on board.
As is typical in proper Gothic fiction, the environment in which the story is set is as important as the story itself. The plot itself is rather simple – our young protagonist, Catalina, goes to stay with her cousin who has sent a number of worrying letters, claiming her husband, Virgil Doyle, is trying to kill her. Catalina travels to ‘High House’, their mansion in the mountains, and finds the Doyle family to be uptight, weird and at times, disturbing.
The themes are presented to us plainly. The Doyle family are old, and they have been considered by the village below to be dangerous and secretive. They lost many miners (men who the head of the Doyle family, Howard, describes as ‘mulch’) while digging for silver in two outbreaks, but no-one really knows what happened. There are strange goings on in High House – Catalina experiences strange nightmares, a constant buzzing sound, and witnesses sudden and hysterical turns by her cousin Noemí.
The primary comparative work to ‘Mexican Gothic’ is ‘Dracula’. So much so, that I was convinced the Doyle’s would be vampires. They believe in eugenics, Howard brought European earth to spread on the grounds of High House, Francis Doyle is introduced as a pale wisp of a thing, who “needed iron in his diet and a good cut of meat. By the looks of those thin fingers he sustained himself on dewdrops and honey, and his tone tended toward whispers.” A quite typical Romantic-era Vampire description – and not surprising given the abundance of rugs and “thick velvet curtains that could conceal the thinnest ray of light” inside the house. As a final nail in the coffin, so to speak, Catalina eventually is brought to Howard, bedridden, with “one of his legs […] hideously bloated, crusted over with dozens of large, dark boils.” If that doesn’t read like a blood-sated vampire, I don’t know what does.
Vampires are not actually the monster in this story – but I will leave the twist a secret in case you read it. There are other themes as well as Gothic tropes. Moreno-Garcia also explores the ideas of fairytales, suggesting that Catalina is entering a dangerous place: ““the forest,” that place where Hansel and Gretel tossed their bread-crumbs or Little Red Riding Hood met a wolf.”
I did have a few issues with the novel. Firstly, it is a shame that we don’t find out more about the history of Mexico in this novel, and the dark past which is hinted at regarding eugenics and colonialism. We get a few nods towards Mexican culture, and Francis does occasionally speak Spanish to Catalina when he doesn’t want to be overheard – but there is little of substance.
The New York Times praised it as having a ‘spunky female protagonist’ (weird descriptor in my opinion), but I think some of the problem lies in her personality being ‘spunky’ from the very start. Catalina has very little character progression over the course of the novel. From the very start, it’s clear that she is a woman with opinions, sexual needs and intelligence – someone who would have been unusual in 1950s Mexico. She doesn’t lose much of this personality, despite falling victim to the evil in the House, and she has all the tools she needs to overcome the challenge. It is clear that she’s the powerhouse that will draw everyone ‘weaker’ along with her, and as such, her character seems more one-dimensional. She was created for the purpose of defeating the foe, and does not falter.
However, she also makes some pretty stupid decisions out of character, including leaving an unconscious Virgil (who has just tried to kill her) on the floor, rather than double-tapping him and making sure he’s dead. Guess who appears in the final climactic scene? It reminded me of this very annoying scene from Jeepers Creepers:
“You know the part in scary movies where somebody does something really stupid and everyone hates them for it? This is it!”
‘Mexican Gothic’ did add more of an ick factor than any books I’ve read recently. Dry-heaved at one particular paragraph – prizes if you can guess which one it was! As a last note, I also really hated the last sentence, which seemed, once again, to go against Catalina’s character and what she stood for. It felt like it was a sentence Moreno-Garcia wanted to write, even if it was jarring.
Overall, this is a nice addition to the genre of Gothic horror, but the issues made it stop short of being key text. I’d love to hear any other thoughts though, if you have them leave a comment!