The Walls Have Ears

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic reinvents the horror novel with a fresh, feminist take

Classic Gothic novels contain easy-to-identify hallmarks. There will be creepy old isolated houses, a woman in distress and spooky moments.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia gives us all that and so much more in Mexican Gothic, the freakiest novel you’ll read all summer. I promise you will never look at mushrooms the same way.

Moreno-Garcia knows the genre she’s reinventing, as well as its links to domestic noir bestsellers like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. Mexican Gothic is her sixth novel and the first to hit the New York Times bestseller list, just days after publication.

Swapping settings

Instead of the English moors, Moreno-Garcia’s fearsome crumbling manse is outside El Triunfo, a train ride from Mexico City. It’s the mid-1950s, and young Noemí Taboada travels to El Triunfo after a worrisome letter arrives from her cousin. Catalina married the dashing Virgil in haste, but sends a missive back to her family that sounds positively unhinged:

“I bar my door but still they come, they whisper at night and I am so afraid of these restless dead, these ghosts, fleshless things. The snake eating its tail, the foul ground beneath our feet, the false faces and false tongues, the web upon which the spider walks making the strings vibrate.”

Clearly things are going to go bump in the night once Noemí arrives, but Moreno-Garcia takes delicious time building the fear factor inside High Place, Virgil’s family mansion. Virgil and Catalina live there with Virgil’s mild-mannered cousin Francis, Francis’ perpetually sour mother Florence, and decrepit patriarch Howard.

Moreno-Garcia includes callbacks to the British roots that traditionally underpin Gothic literature, with an “English cemetery” on site that holds the dead workers who mined silver from the mountains that surround High Place. A devoted Anglophile, the elder Mr. Doyle even imported British soil to Mexico and insists on speaking only English in the house, an affectation that later serves Noemí when she can secretly communicate in Spanish.

Weird nightmares and a listless Catalina greet Noemí upon her arrival to High Place. By the time she’s scouting out herbal remedies in the nearby village and getting scolded for smoking in her room, the contours of the evils at High Place are taking shape. The unabashedly racist paterfamilias is a fan of eugenics, and there are dead wives in the family history along with colonial plundering.

A modern heroine

Noemí is a wonderfully complex heroine who subverts the helpless-lady trope. She’s smart enough to trade being volun-told to go to High Place for her father’s permission to enroll in Mexico City’s National University. She’s stylish. The book-club kit for Mexican Gothic features divine paper dolls complete with the nipped-waist day suits and calotte hats that a 1950s socialite would favor. And she has appetites. She finds herself simultaneously shocked and entranced by the house’s power to awaken her sensual desires.

Back to those mushrooms. Moreno-Garcia is fascinated with fungi. She’s studied mycology and even edited a small-press anthology on the plants and their different properties, many of which play a role in Mexican Gothic.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Photo by Martin Dee)

“There are several types of mushrooms that have these parasitic qualities, and are kind of terrifying when you think about it,” she told Bookselling This Week. “One of them is an insect I name in the book, and when I talk about those, I’m not making it up. The mushrooms do take over an organism and change its behavior. Whenever you have an organism that can take over another organism to change its behavior, I think it’s kind of freaky.”

I won’t spoil the novel’s slow burn and say more. But know this. Moreno-Garcia’s story scares on multiple levels, and this novel marks a welcome reinvention of a classic genre for modern readers.

(Del Rey, June 30, 2020)

 

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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