I’ve had Mexican Gothic on my TBR for some time now, and with each new work published by this prolific author I kept promising myself that I would read this one and move on toward her other novels, but you know how it goes between bookworms and their TBRs… It’s thanks to this year’s Word & Wonder that I finally “dusted off” the book from the virtual shelf: sometimes all we need is a little push!
Noemì Taboada is a young woman living in Mexico City and flitting between social engagements and more serious academic pursuits: she’s smart and very determined under her frivolous appearance, and that’s one of the reasons her father asks her to travel toward the fairly remote area where her older cousin Catalina went to live after marrying a handsome Englishman on the heels of a whirlwind courtship. The senior Taboada received a letter from Catalina in which his niece accused her husband of poisoning her, and also spoke of ghosts and of being a virtual prisoner: Noemì will need to find out if there is any substance to these accusations – which are expressed in a way that raises some doubts about the new bride’s mental stability – and eventually provide whatever help Catalina needs.
Noemì’s arrival at High Place, the isolated mansion built by Catalina’s new family, the Doyles, is far from auspicious: the house is clearly in disrepair, the Doyles’ welcome is far from warm, and the surrounding area – once the site of a now-closed silver mine – speaks of neglect and… something more ominous. Noemì finds herself dealing with the too-brief, heavily supervised encounters with an ailing Catalina, the strict rules imposed by the family (like total silence at dinnertime) and the disturbing vibes coming both from her cousin’s husband, Virgil, and the family patriarch Howard; what’s more, she starts suffering from vivid, nightmarish dreams featuring the house itself and encumbered by a sense of impending doom. The only potential ally for Noemì seems to be Francis, Virgil’s younger cousin, but the boy is also too enmeshed in the family’s secrets to be entirely dependable, and any information she gathers about the Doyles and their past serves only to increase Noemì’s dread, until the situation evolves into actual, inescapable danger…
I am of two minds about Mexican Gothic: on one hand I enjoyed the slow buildup of tension and the evocative atmosphere, the almost Lovecraftian suggestions offered by the story and the unhurriedly unfolding mystery that worked well in compelling me to keep reading until far into the night; on the other hand, however, once the revelations start to come, the novel takes on a far more grisly tone that offsets the previous atmospheric horror with grotesque touches, and to me this new tone felt out of place with what had come before.
What I liked: of course Noemì – she is an engaging character, only ostensibly concerned with fashion and appearance, but in reality quite solid and fearless, holding her own against the coldly creepy members of the Doyle family. The unsettling manifestations in her dreams and the pervasive rot and decay of the house do little to wreck her determination and the only moment when she’s truly afraid comes from the realization that she might lose independence and agency, because the loss of her power of choice is the most horrific condition she can think of – and that’s the perfect measure of the person she is.
The setting is also wonderfully drawn: first High Place, the Doyles’ house, a place of rotting wallpaper, barred windows and almost no creature comforts like hot water or constant electricity – the descriptions of the shadows created by candles and oil lamps, the only reliable source of illumination, help reinforce the sense of dread that hits the reader, and of course Noemì, from the very start. The isolation and the closeness to a graveyard, which is more often than not shrouded in impenetrable mists, add to that feeling and enhance the cloying sense of dismay that stands at the roots of the unfolding events. And then there is the constant presence of the mushrooms, which play an important – and creepy – role in the economy of the story…
And lastly, the nearby village, which shows all the signs of abandonment typical of a mining town well past its better days, where people struggle to eke out what meager life they can, burdened by a past of exploitation and disregards for rights, mixed with barely disguised racial inequality: there is a scene in which Noemì enters a small shop and observes the proprietor’s broken glasses, which is quite emblematic of the villagers’ conditions.
Sadly, once the mystery surrounding High Place is revealed, the tone of carefully orchestrated apprehension turns almost abruptly into over-the-top body horror whose lack of subtlety obtained the opposite of its intentions, at least for me, because instead of being scared by the descriptions I found them bordering on the ludicrous. Even the menacing evil that came off in waves from Virgil and his father, which until that moment had engaged in leering innuendo, lost its threatening impact to turn them into something closer to maniacally laughing, mustache twirling villains that looked more caricatural than dangerous. Not even the final portion of the novel, with its adrenaline-infused scenes and hellish battle for survival managed to offset my disappointment at the revelation of the Doyles’ century-long secrets, which I found more repugnant than shocking.
Still, I consider Mexican Gothic a mostly solid story (if I can overlook the above slip into excess…) and I am certainly not discouraged by pursuing my journey into Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s other works.