by Mike Ramberg
In the horror genre, it is often difficult to distinguish between tropes and opportunities. A decaying gothic mansion, a family cursed by hereditary madness, a beautiful young socialite imperiled by forces she can’t imagine. These interchangeable pieces have been shuffled around and reused in such classic works as Dracula, Fall of the House of Usher, House on Horror Hill, and even the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. They’ve been tortured through the pages of more than a few clunkers as well. So if you’re going to send a beautiful woman to a haunted house, you’d better go in eyes wide open, all guns blazing.
It is a great pleasure to announce that Mexican Gothic, the new novel from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, has taken the opportunities lent by classic horror motifs and woven a fast-paced, beautiful novel filled with suspense and more than a few new twists.
Moreno-Garcia weaves an ever more complicated tale whose bones are one cursed family, but with obvious parallels to today’s cults of asshole white supremacy, the capitalist habit of treating humans as disposable parts of a machine, and the role of women.
As the book opens we meet Noemí Taboada, a young, headstrong socialite leaving a party early to take an important meeting with her father. He’s a wealthy industrialist who expects that any activity Noemí takes part in should be equal parts pleasure and husband-hunting. But there’s a problem with her cousin and childhood bestie Catalina, who we learn married hastily, and perhaps not well. Catalina has written a letter that makes her seem, well… insane… She says there are forces in her new house, phantoms in the walls, and danger around every corner. Noemí agrees to take a trip to assess her cousin’s condition, in exchange for being allowed to continue her studies in anthropology. Such are the bargains a young woman in Mexico in the 1950s is obliged to make.
Noemí makes the trip to Hidalgo and is taken to the gothic mansion High Place, where Catalina moved after her wedding. Here we meet the dissolute members of the Doyle family: Florence, the dutiful niece who runs the household, Virgil, Catalina’s mysterious and beguiling husband, and Francis, the pale, sensitive younger cousin. Most sinister of all is Uncle Howard, the ailing patriarch of the clan. He sniffs around Noemí suggestively, making small talk of breeding and eugenics. In a hint of what’s to come, he wonders out loud of her opinions on the ‘intermingling of superior and inferior races.’
Soon the house itself starts to reveal its personality. Mold traces strange patterns on the wall, and Noemí has sleepwalking sessions that involve Virgil, whose intent seems less than pure. Could Catalina be right? Are there sinister forces lurking behind the walls? Will Noemí herself be soon in danger?
Yes, yes, and yes! It’s The Gloom, sensitive, alluring Francis explains. An entity that is exposed by degrees as something partly human and partly… other. And the narrative soon gains even greater steam as Noemí seeks clues from the town. A doctor and an old shaman woman provide background information: The Doyles are English, of mining stock, who moved to Mexico to run a silver mine. The Doyle ancestors were once in charge of a brutal operation that exploited and murdered natives and English alike, but who fell on hard times during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, but who are determined to rise once again – with Noemí as a key contributor.
From this, Moreno-Garcia weaves an ever more complicated tale whose bones are one cursed family, but with obvious parallels to today’s cults of asshole white supremacy, the capitalist habit of treating humans as disposable parts of a machine, and the role of women. As Noemí struggles to escape from High House, we begin to wonder what exactly escape would look like – if the terror of High House isn’t just a microcosm of a world that runs on the same rules, just on a larger scale, with less accountability. And we see evil isn’t just in the forces of nature, but it involves the intentions of men to control, to rule, to be immortal gods.
Not that Noemí is a damsel in distress – far from it. She’s headstrong and clever, and willing to use her charm to manipulate people to do her bidding. It’s a character trait that leaves the reader conflicted in their sympathy, and later works in parallel with Howard’s mind-control abilities, and lends complexity to the romantic subplot. Who’s using who? What’s a genuine emotion? We wonder. And then all heck breaks loose and a classic creep-fest caps the horror with a bang.
All in all, this is a great addition to the haunted house genre, a solid gothic romance, and a fun escapist beach read.