Book review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Mexican Gothic - Silvia Moreno Garcia
Sometimes the title of a book tells you everything you need to know about the content, but in the case of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic it's hard to know whether the author is making self-conscious allusions to the genre of the Gothic Romance novel and repurposing it for a Mexican setting or just getting wrapped up in an unoriginal play through the genre's conventions with no new ideas to offer. Either way, whether it seeks to be original or not, whether you think it's original or not, it certainly delivers on plenty of Mexican Gothic.
At the centre of the horror about to unfold (might as well set it up with an suitably ominous opening) is Noemí Taboada, wealthy young socialite in Mexico City in the 1950s. Flighty but stubborn, enjoying life and not quite ready to take anything seriously, least of all earnest young men, Noemí is summoned by her father with an urgent request. Her cousin Catalina has been acting strangely and has sent a rambling letter to Señor Taboada talking about ghosts and claiming that her husband has been trying to poison her, but the medical diagnosis is that she appears to be suffering from tuberculosis.
Taboada has never been happy about Catalina's marriage to Virgil Doyle, an attractive man but a bit of a cold fish who Catalina married much too soon after they first met. Little is known about Doyle or his family's background other than they once ran a successful mining business in a small provincial town, which now appears to have fallen on hard times. Taboada wants Catalina to return to city but her husband is objecting, possibly afraid he will no longer have access to his wife's money. Securing a promise from her father that he will allow her to go to university instead of spending her time looking for a husband as he thinks she ought to do, Noemí reluctantly agrees to go to country to see what the truth of the matter is.
It's soon apparent that the glory days of the formerly busy mining town of El Triunfo are long gone, as indeed are the former splendours of the Doyle estate, the High Place, a fading Victorian construction of European design perched in the mists up a road that is barely passable in bad weather. With its chandeliers and dour portraits of ancient family members hinting at close to incestuous relationships, a family curse, a creepy patriarch, an unreliable electric generator that means everyone carries candles and candelabras and a cemetery out the back haunted by shadows… well, you get the picture. Aside from Mexico it's a typical location for a Gothic melodrama where the lady of the house is held prisoner suffering from apparent madness.
With heavy referencing from Dracula, The Fall of the House of Usher and a whole range of Edgar Allan Poe works, SIlvia Moreno-Garcia really leaves no Victorian Gothic novel unmined, overtly referencing Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but also referencing The Yellow Wallpaper as an indication of madness. With hallucinogenic mushrooms found growing on graves in a damp misty cemetery and fungi perhaps causing chemical reactions and nightmares, it's hard to know whether to take Mexican Gothic seriously or as a parody. The only difference is it is all transposed here to Mexico in the 1950s, but even that feels contrived with all kinds of dubious rationale for it looking like a damp cold Victorian Gothic mansion where they speak English as their first language and keep up European customs, even going as far as shipping the earth over from their homeland. Hmmm, let me think what that reminds me of...
There's an attempt to give Mexican Gothic a bit of character and depth through the subject of eugenics and social anthropology related to the maintaining of family traditions and to historical cultural differences between the white and native population of Mexico, with some Freud, Jung, mycology and perhaps a little Mexican Day of the Dead imagery thrown in. The writing however isn't particularly strong enough to bind this all together in any meaningful way and the patching together of ideas and imagery from every Gothic horror imaginable is deeply lacking in originality. Despite this Mexican Gothic certainly delivers on the expected dark thrills as it develops towards a suitably bloody and ludicrous conclusion.