Mexican Gothic made me remember why I love Gothic literature

I have always loved Gothic literature.

Even before I knew what it was called, I already loved it. I was in elementary school when I saw a short version of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, and I remember reading it with this fascination that I didn’t usually get with those shortened versions of bigger stories. I was enthralled.

Later, when I was around 11 years old, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, which remains the only book I’ve read three times in three different editions. I love the story and the way it’s written, but most of all, I love its use of supernatural elements, its intense emotions and extremes, and its social commentary. That’s what keeps me coming back to it.

In short, it’s the Gothic aspect of it that keeps me coming back.

Since then, I’ve read a bunch of other Gothic novels, though not nearly as many as I would like to. I’ve read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and more recent Gothic such as O Caledonia, and Hotel World.

Gothic literature is known for its supernatural and dark elements, and for dealing with death and the extreme. It emphasizes intense emotions and it embraces the concept of the uncanny, which is when something seems familiar, but there is something odd and uncomfortable about it.

Some other characteristics include:

  • a big house or castle, like Count Dracula’s castle, or Ebenezer Scrooge’s big empty house;
  • a mysterious faraway place, like the Arctic, where Victor Frankenstein tells Robert Walton his story;
  • isolation, like Jonathan Harker is in Dracula, or like the Blackwood sisters living alone in We Have Always Lived In The Castle;
  • a supernatural curse, torment or sickness, like Heathcliff’s torture in Wuthering Heights or Dorian Gray’s aging picture;
  • extreme emotions like anguish, depression, paranoia, eroticism, and supernatural desires;
  • duplicity or repetition, like Catherine Earnshaw and Catherine Linton in Wuthering Heights, or a situation repeating itself through several generations.

There are many examples of Gothic in cinema too, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a relatively recent example that comes to mind. Netflix’s 2020 Rebecca is also an example of gothic romance, but I heard it wasn’t a good adaptation, so I didn’t watch it.

So when I saw that a writer named Silvia Moreno-García was about to publish a book called Mexican Gothic, I was intrigued. The book came out in 2020, but it wasn’t until 2021 that I purchased and read it. I didn’t know anything about it, except that it had «Gothic» in the name, so, besides the gothic elements, I had no expectations.

Mexican Gothic tells the story of Noemí Taboada, a young woman from Mexico City who, after receiving a strangely alarming letter from her newlywed cousin Catalina, decides to travel to a little town in the Mexican state of Hidalgo to find out what is going on. Catalina has just married Virgil Doyle, a mysterious Englishman who is part of the Doyle family, owners of a mine and inhabitants of the English mansion, High Place, located close to the mine and next to an old English cemetery. Noemí will, of course, find out that there is more behind the walls of High Place and behind the appearances of her hosts.

I really liked this book.

Set in the 1950s, it presents a portrait of what life was then for a young socialite from the city and infuses it with all the elements of a traditional Gothic novel. It has all of it: the big spooky house, the isolated place, the strange noises and visions, the family secret, the ghost stories, and the big emotions.

I read a review on Goodreads of someone who said they hadn’t liked it because nothing was happening until the last 20 pages, but I think they were just thinking about plot and were overlooking the underlying commentary that ran throughout the novel.

«One of the direct sources of inspiration for the novel is a real town located in central Mexico in the state of Hidalgo called Real del Monte […]. It was a mining town for a really long time and in the 1800s, mining operations were taken over by British people and was nicknamed Little Cornwall. It has a very particular type of architecture, it’s high in the mountains, and it tends to be colder there. They also have a very heavy rainy season where things get pretty misty. And because this town was mined by the British, it has an English cemetery which I visited.

Silvia Moreno-García for EW

Noemí’s position as a young rich woman with Mazatec ancestry makes for some subtle but interesting comments about her position in society. Her family’s money opens many doors for her that would not be accessible to other young women of the time, but her being a young unmarried woman also means men constantly underestimate her and disregard her opinions. More than that, she is Mazatec, which makes her an «exotic curiosity» to the racist Englishmen around her. Throughout the novel, there is a constant commentary on neocolonialism, race, eugenics, and the concept of mestizaje (the -problematic- idea that in Mexico, among other Latin American countries, there are no «races» but that everyone is «the same race». If you want a quick primer on this, here’s this article by Emiliano Rodriguez Mega).

There were, of course, some aspects that I didn’t fully like. There is a romance, for instance, that felt a little out of nowhere. Romance is common to the Gothic genre, but it could have been developed a little more. There are also two or three characters that were left quite unexplored. They were «evil» and «good», and little else, but I feel like they could have had some more layers. These issues didn’t take away from the overall experience of reading this book.

In short, this was a quick and very enjoyable book. I enjoyed reading it and I look forward to reading more from Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I hadn’t read anything Gothic in a couple of years, and this book made me remember why I love it so much.

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