Wrangling the specters today is guest blogger Kristen M, who has been blogging at WeBeReading.com for most of twelve years and is the creator of March Magics (which annually celebrates Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett). She lives in Seattle, loves baking, tolerates yard work, and hates laundry. In this post, Kristen’s review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 best-selling novel is framed within traditional Gothic tropes (similar to e-Tinkerbell’s use of classic plot arc to analyze The Betrothed), thus providing an excellent final post for this week of Gothick thrills.
When deciding on a gothic book for Witch Week (in my case, likely a reread since this is my most frequently read genre), I started getting curious about a book I was hearing a lot about and actually hadn’t read yet–Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The gothic tale is typically held to be a British and American custom, based on the restrictions and trappings of patriarchy, class, and religion. Could this Mexican-Canadian author tap into the heart of the gothic tradition even while setting her story in 1950s El Triunfo, a derelict mining town based on Real del Monte, Mexico?
When asked about specific books or inspirations, Moreno-Garcia said that “… I have read a whole slew of Gothic novels, too many to list”. I am always up for a challenge so I went through various online resources and my own library and created a list of more than 75 novels and short stories that I had read over the years. (This list can be found on my blog today.)
After being reminded of so many favorites, I was ready to reread some of the sensational gothic books I’ve loved over the years. Since I revisited Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) last October, I decided to start my list with that classic. What else made the list? Brontë‘s Jane Eyre (1847), Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1803/1817), du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), John Harwood’s The Seance (2008), the short stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (Hawthorne, 1844), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Poe, 1839), and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892), and most of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (1993).
While reading, I kept a word cloud of the elements that felt essential to each story. What were these gothic building blocks, you may ask, and did they appear in Mexican Gothic (MG)? Let us compare.
First there is the young, dependent, educated but self-doubting Hero or Heroine. In MG, this is Noemí Taboada, a twenty-two year old debutante who can’t make up her mind about men or studies but who does want to go off to the university. She still lives with her father and is reliant on him for money and good will. He wants her to go check on her orphaned cousin, Catalina, who has married and moved away to live with her husband’s family and has sent a disturbing letter to the family. Noemí has no choice but to go. She is smart and strong-willed but also knows what she must do to eventually get her own way in life.
Then there is the primary setting, which is almost universally The House, be it Manderley, Thornfield Hall, or the titular Northanger Abbey. The house is usually old and dark and either physically or psychologically difficult to leave. High Place, the home of the Doyle family, is on a mountainside above the abandoned silver mines that the English family used to manage for generations. It is an English-style home, out of place in Mexico, and is dark and in disrepair. It is also isolated from the village below because of the narrow road and regular mists and rain.
There is also the requirement of a Physical Mood. This is rarely one of sunshine and warmth, at least not for long. Eventually there is always cold, damp, rain, darkness, decay, dust, and/or illness. The house’s location in the mountains means lots of rain and mist, and damp and darkness are inevitably present most of the time. Also, Noemí goes because her cousin is ill, supposedly with tuberculosis, although she seems to be having a mental breakdown of sorts as well.
But just as important is the Intangible Mood. This is always one of discomfort and sometimes even fright. It can be based on the actions of others, for example their secretiveness, misogyny, or hostility. It can be based on history: past events or deaths and the grief and consequences and suspicions that attend them. It can exist mainly in the minds of the characters, as through imagination or dreams. MG has almost all of these. There is the inherent misogyny of both the Mexican and English cultures of the time, the shady Doyle family history, and the unexplainable and bizarre dreams that Noemí has once she is in the house.
Even though these stories are usually bleak, sometimes there is a Romance, requited or not. I’m not going to tell you if there is one in MG. You’ll have to read it to find out!
And then there is usually an Influence based in science or the supernatural, for all of the strangeness and discomfort must be explained but only sometimes is there an earthly reason. MG skirts the line between science and the supernatural in a way that pushes the book toward the realms of a certain founder of the horror genre. Though Moreno-Garcia has named the author in many interviews, they will remain nameless here to preserve some surprise for future readers.
Finally, of course, there is an Ending. This is where the most variety within the gothic stories emerges. Some allow their characters to finally be happy or at least settle into a sort of melancholy contentedness. Others are decidedly sad and tragic. Some end with flight or escape, and a surprising number end in fire. Again, I have to let you, the reader, discover the ending that Moreno-Garcia has crafted.
As you can see, Mexican Gothic manages to gather all of the gothic elements that I found in the classics. Yet, though you could see some influences within, it didn’t feel derivative at all. There were hints, such as one about the chemical used in wallpaper that may have driven Napoleon mad, that an avid reader may have connected to a specific story but nothing that was copied or simply retooled.
One final thing to note is that most gothic novels and stories are written by white men and women. This was why I eventually chose this novel and why I think it is important to note how well it fits in the genre, regardless of the author’s nationality or the location of the story. In a deleted tweet from 8 July, Moreno-Garcia said that she “hope[s] publishing realizes POC don’t just tell stories of immigrant suffering, that we can write books of all genres and that Latino lit doesn’t = only magic realism.” I think this is a great take-away message that only adds to the pleasure of reading this book.