The heroine of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Noemí, is a modern woman, as eager to drive her shiny new convertible to a party as she is to enroll in a Master’s program in anthropology. Her interests are broad, her charm indefatigable. She enjoys her glamorous life to the full, which is why she’s initially put out when her father summons her home from a party. Her irritation quickly curdles to true dismay, however: her beloved cousin Catalina, recently married and whisked off to a provincial estate, has sent a desperate and rambling letter. She claims she’s being watched. She says she needs help.
However, Noemí’s father is unwilling to tread too heavily in the domain of another man, especially when it might just be a case of womanly hysterics. Instead, he asks Noemí to go and find out whether Catalina really needs help, and if so, if it’s the physical or the psychological kind.
It should be straightforward, especially for someone of Noemí’s varied talents. But when she arrives at the house called High Place, a crumbling mansion build to mimic an English home, nothing so simple as a diagnosis presents itself. A note on the name High Place: this may seem like a blunt way to equate the house’s height and status, or maybe like a crude joke. (It may in fact be both, although the joke is a very sly one.) But keep in mind that the high places were, in the Bible, sites of worship. Places where sacrifices were performed.
Inside those walls, Noemí finds that Catalina has become strange; the other inhabitants of the house even stranger. Virgil, Catalina’s husband, is dismissive, while the housekeeper Florence is outright aggressive. Catalina ricochets between catatonic and frantic. The locals all have tales to tell, but in the house, silence reigns. And under that silence, all kinds of secrets are festering, waiting to break free.
Fortunately, Noemí is a socialite: she’s good at getting people to talk.
I love that Noemí’s modern “vices” are part of her successes: her willfulness, her flirtatiousness, and even her cigarettes are assets in her search for the truth. (That being said: don’t smoke, kids.) She’s not weighed down by the traditions that have slowed life at High Place to a crawl, or by allegiance to a family that has all but died out. “What people would say” matters little to her, not balanced against her cousin’s wellbeing.
However, she is still susceptible to some basic standards of social and familial interaction, and even those are enough to snare her in some deadly situations. Mexican Gothic makes you realize how much Gothic horror is predicated on manners. You cannot leave: it would be rude. You cannot refuse a task: it would be rude. Many other types of horror defy the conventions of polite society, festoon them with gore or break them apart with tentacles. Gothic horror, on the other hand, depends on those conventions for the narrative to work.
Take the classic Gothic tale Dracula. Dracula is a creature of appetite the same as any werewolf, but his hungers are genteel. Two polite puncture marks, easily covered by a scarf or a high collar. A misty form that creeps into windows and under doors, rather than breaking them down. There is a reason that Dracula preys on peasants and women: the poor and the disenfranchised are less likely to be believed. The same is true of the horror at the heart of High Place. The Gothic thrives in silence.
Silence also allows doubt to fester. When no one runs screaming or lashes out in self-defense, the veneer of acceptance becomes acquiescence. It’s like the Asch Conformity Experiments. It’s exhausting to constantly fight everyone around you. You’d much rather believe there’s a reasonable explanation you’re missing. Noemí certainly doesn’t want there to be something wrong with Catalina. And she can’t possibly believe there’s something supernatural going on. Not in this modern era.
That’s the other staple of the Gothic: while the modern has answers, the ancient has exceptions. There’s a nice parallel between the ways that women are disbelieved and phenomena dubbed “superstition” are disbelieved. Just like Lucy and Mina from Dracula, Noemí and Catalina are too modern to believe the rumors at first, and then too female to convince others that their experiences are real . Fortunately, this isn’t Victorian England, and they don’t need to wait for the men to get wise.
Like the silver mines that ran dry in Mexican Gothic, English and specifically Victorian gothic can be a bit played out. Corsets and creepy pale children, maybe a porcelain doll, yeah yeah, okay. It’s the underlying themes of the Gothic that really make for good horror and good writing, not the setting. The Gothic has always pitted the retrogressive old against the new. Its hauntings are from a past that people at the time were themselves trying to escape. And so, while some might think that 1940s Mexico is not a “real” Gothic setting, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually perfect. A modern, diverse, fast-paced world leaving behind the dusty country estates? Check. Moreno-Garcia likes the contrast between new money and established families (see also: The Beautiful Ones), and she does it well. Add in a progressive mixed-race woman against a stunted white patriarchy, and it’s a treasure trove of Gothic themes.
Moreno-Garcia’s perspective is unabashedly that of a modern woman of this era. She’s not interested in mimicking the overwrought, dense prose of the Victorians or reproducing their prejudices. She would rather treat those prejudices like part of the horror, and rightly so. The toxic blend of sexism, racism, and colonialism that festers in High Place is inextricable from the other horrors. They feed one another, make the danger and the horror so much more relevant, and therefore so much more intense.
I stayed up late reading this book and then got up early to finish it. It’s sharp and swift when it needs to be, but its real power is in the slow reveal, the gradual terror of things both unseen and that we don’t want to see. Moreno-Garcia keeps the all the strings taut until she’s ready to release the final crescendo of a house gone rotten and a dynasty that reveled in the decay. The cacophonous fallout is magnificently horrific, but Noemí is once again a brilliant heroine: she knows the steps to every dance, and can do it all in high heel shoes.