'Mexican Gothic' Takes Readers Deep into DangerPosted by Cybil on June 1, 2020
Mexican Gothic begins when happily ever after turns into a nightmare.
The story unfolds with the Taboada family receiving a mysterious letter from their cousin Catalina. "My husband is trying to poison me…" she writes.
Her proverbial white knight, Noemí Taboada, arrives at a house called High Place where her cousin now lives with the handsome Virgil Doyle and his mute and mirthless family. His aunt, grandfather, cousin, servants—all inhabitants of High Place—have strict rules that forbid talking, music, laughing, smoking, or any type of amusement. They also forbid leaving High Place.
Noemí spends most of her time in the library reading moldy books about eugenics, with a few trips into town. There, she learns more about the dark and sinister history of High Place. How it has a history of murder and is considered cursed.
Noemí begins to feel herself slipping into the same predicament as her cousin—seeing visions of the past and the house as flesh and blood, struggling to discern nightmare from reality.
Mexican Gothic is the first horror novel by established author Silvia Moreno-Garcia. She spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about eugenics, perceptions of Mexico, and how horror doesn't get the respect it deserves. Their conversation has been edited.
Goodreads: Reading your novel was a real escape, and a story that was bound by fantasy and horror seems strangely apt for this time. What inspired you to write it, and why did you choose to explore horror as a new genre?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I don't like to write the same thing—I like to switch around. I had been wanting to write a horror novel, and I was working on another novel, but it wasn't coming together. So I switched tracks and I decided to do a haunted house story, but not the kind set in Europe. I wanted to do it in Mexico.
One place that I had been to many years ago was a place called Real del Monte located in Hidalgo. It is formerly a silver mining town in the mountains. But it is a little bit different from other mining towns in the area because it was handled by the British in the 1800s, specifically people from Cornwall. Its nickname is little Cornwall, and it has a particular sort of architecture that looks more British than Mexican.
Now the town is more of a tourist attraction. It has been designated a pueblo mágico, but when we went, there was none of it.
When we went there, we were told by people in the town to go look at the cemetery. We literally were told to go to a street, count so many doors, and knock on this person's door, and that person is a caretaker, and he has the key and will take you to the cemetery.
So we went, we knocked, this old guy came out, and he went and opened the doors for us. We walked in and it was like something out of a Hammer Film. It was misty and it was cold and there were all these gravestones with English names. And they were all aligned to be facing toward England.
It just looked very different from all the other places that I had been to in Mexico, all the other cemeteries, and even all the other landscape of Hidalgo.
I remembered this place, and when I was thinking about writing a haunted house story—a horror novel—this cemetery was one of the key inspirations. The town became a focal point of the story just because it was so different from the rest of Mexico.
GR: That's really interesting. How did you do your research beyond this initial visit to the town? How did the book come together?
SMG: That's always hard for me to say because it just kind of comes together. I read a lot of different primary source materials and a lot of historical documents, and then start building up from that.
I knew a lot about eugenics and the type of scientific research that was going on at the time.
Some of the things that are mentioned in the novel, well, the things that are mentioned in the novel are true. Dalton did make a beauty map of Britain, and he located the most beautiful and the least beautiful women. He made conclusions on fitness based on that kind of stuff.
People were worried about things like "germplasm," and classifying people based on their superiority or inferiority in this type of pyramid where white Anglo-Saxon Protestant people were at the top, and at the very bottom were different groups of people of color.
They were measuring craniums and tying physiognomy to biology and looking at things like how your face could express, for example, your criminality. All that was real science of a certain time, for a certain time period.
GR: In writing a gothic novel, what are the elements of that type of book and what does it mean to put the “Mexican” in that genre?
SMG: You can basically divide gothic novels into two slices.
There are scholars of the gothic, which tend to focus on what they consider the real gothic. That's where you find things going back to the late 1700s. You'd find The Monk and The Castle of Otranto and all those books that are considered to be the real gothic cannon, all the way to the late 1800s.
And then what happened was that the gothic went quiet. It ceased to be a popular mode of literary production. Then, around the late 1950s and 1960s, we got what could be called the other half of the gothic, which is the boom in paperback of gothic romance novels.
Those are the ones that most people are probably more familiar with, where there's a cover and there's a woman in white and she's running away from a castle or a tower or some kind of structure. They have things on the cover that say with an exclamation point, "She was caught in the web of a doomed love!"
So we have this kind of gothic revival in the 1960s more or less up until the 1970s when it was very popular. There were things like "super gothic" that was two novels in one; there were comic books at one point with gothic story lines.
Then that went away again. It was kind of eclipsed with the big horror boom of the late 1970s and '80s, when we got Stephen King coming onto the scene. People were moving toward a different kind of horror, and, in terms of romance, they started moving from the kind of very suppressed romance where there is nothing graphic in the gothic book, to more explicit romances.
Mexican Gothic? Is that largely because of the town and the trip? Or are there other elements of the Mexican culture that you suited the story toward?
SMG: I was originally thinking of having a more elaborate title inspired by both the giallo horror films of Italy that have titles such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which is very metaphorical, or the gothic horror movies of Taboada, a Mexican horror director who made things like Blacker Than the Night.
Mexican Gothic ended up being this pithy sort of title, and I liked it because there's also the element of irony that the story is happening on this British estate, in this British-controlled town in Mexico.
Some people might say, "Well, how is that Mexican?" But that flies into our expectations of exoticism and what we expect from a country. So often when people think Mexico the only thing they can tell me about it is Frida Kahlo, and that's it. Or they watch Y Tu Mamá También, and that's it.
Those are the two things that they know about my country and nothing else. And to them, Mexico must be this manifestation of that kind of aesthetic.
If you look at things like the work of Carlos Enrique Taboada and Blacker Than the Night and Even the Wind Is Afraid, if you looked at a film still of them, you wouldn't think that they're set in Mexico because, you know, it doesn't look like Coco.
Yet it is most definitely Mexican, and those are the movies that influenced and created Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo del Toro wouldn't exist if he hadn't seen those kinds of films.
I know some people would be like there's not enough Mexico in this Mexican Gothic. But in a way, if you are from Mexico, you will recognize things and you will see things that you know are part of our culture. Writing a Mexican story doesn't mean that every other word is going to be in Spanish and in italics, and that is what is going to identify the work as purely Mexican.
GR: One of my favorite literary devices is pathetic fallacy and using the environment almost like a third or additional character in your story. Can you talk about that, and the personification of the house?
SMG: The environment is one of the big ones in gothic literature, and it's not only the physical environment, it’s also the natural environment. That's why in Wuthering Heights, things are withering. You know, the weather is bad, the sky is gray and stormy, which reflects the character of two big characters that everybody remembers. It's not sunny and there's no coconut trees.
Houses in literature—memorable haunted houses—have certain personalities. Of course the most famous one, and probably the best one ever, is Shirley Jackson with The Haunting of Hill House, which opens with "no live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within."
That description already puts you in the mood that means the house is insane. Literally. That happens in a great haunted house story, or a great gothic story needs to have a great house. And that house needs to have, you know, a bit of a personality—something that brings it apart.
My house has a specific personality, a specific vibe and mood, and it gives you nightmares. It's moldy and kind of ugly-looking and I think one of the things that's going on is that you've got Noemí, this girl who's very modern—it's 1950, but she is very modern, very sophisticated—and she's going into this old house and she's like, "What. Is. This? And how are you people still going on about eugenics? It’s 1950, and what is going on with this place and these people and everything that is decaying?"
She's the one who's being appalled by the situation here. Normally, it is the other way around and you would have a white person going into Mexico and being disturbed by how antiquated and dirty they are.
In this case, it is the opposite. It inverts this relationship where in eugenics, and in other kind of racist discourse, we see the person of color as the one who carries a certain taint. The one who is inferior as the one who must be stamped out.
Noemí is looking at these English people, or these white people, who are saying, "I am the pinnacle of civilization," and she's just like, no.
GR: Eugenics in and of itself seems so inherently creepy. Do you see this type of behavior as an issue today? Were you trying to create a metaphor for any of the events that are happening now?
SMG: No, I wasn't trying to create a metaphor, but eugenics is still happening. They actually use the same arguments that were being advanced in the 1900s. And almost the same language that was being used then is the same language that is used now.
Some of the fears of immigrants are exactly expressed in the same way that we are expressing them now. You might have changed the name of the particular immigrant group that we're referring to, but fears that, for example, people are innately criminal in a certain way were definitely in vogue in that time period. They are still in vogue now.
Now we've got big data and photographs to do that. I saw a news story about some kind of computer application that was trying to predict criminality based on looking at people's faces. With big data you can pass a bunch of pictures and spit out whether somebody is likely or less likely to be criminal.
And with the pandemic, with COVID-19, when people say something like, "Well, in the old days, you would just let old people or disabled people die because they are the least fit and that's just the way it's got to be."
That is very much what some eugenicists would have said. These kinds of value propositions of people and of seeing them in that way—it's almost the same language that we would have used in a different century. So not much has changed in that sense. A lot of questions about fitness, for example, are still being applied.
GR: Can you talk a little bit about romance in this book and the dark way it is presented?
SMG: Romance is one of those big, important elements in gothic novels. The prime interest of the romance aspect often hinges around this question, which is a little perverse, and that’s Is my love interest trying to kill me? or Is my love interest a criminal?
You have these women who are turned on by these men who might have murdered their wife or might imprison their wife in their attic or might be involved in some nefarious plot to do something.
In these stories, there's this erotic element, where there's this attraction toward this man, yet anybody with any logic in their head would be repulsed [by] them. There's this Eros–Thanatos death drive of wanting something that might be bad for you.
The men here are the emblematic bad boys inspired by people like Rochester, inspired by Wuthering Heights. They are that kind of guy who treat women badly, yet women find them sexy and appealing.
And often, when the women do end up with this man, he turns out to be not so bad after all. Or in the case of Rochester, he is redeemed in a way. He becomes better, or he wasn't bad at all. You know, it was a misrepresentation. We just got it wrong. He's actually pretty cool.
I was not so interested in will she get together with this evil, perverse man? I was more interested in just the perversity of it. There's something that seems really quite sick about wanting this kind of dude and yet, it is a common fantasy.
SMG: This all takes place within a span of two weeks. She is not there for very long before she discovers what is really going on. If you actually map it out, it is a period of a few days.
She also is being told that her cousin has tuberculosis, and the cure for tuberculosis was basically the rest cure.
In that sense, what the family is telling her is not entirely out of the ordinary. When somebody is sick, really sick, they're going to spend a lot of time sleeping or they're not up for anything.
Noemí does make these attempts to talk to her cousin and is always told that she is resting or she's not feeling well, she's taken her medication. There are all these interferences where they don't want Noemí to spend too much time with her because, obviously, if she spent a significant amount of time with her, the truth would come out quickly.
That's just a narrative trick. If you've got seven hours to talk to your cousin, the plot is resolved within one day.
And, same idea, if somebody told you nowadays that your cousin has COVID-19, you need to let her be a little bit isolated, you probably wouldn't be banging at the door.
GR: Who do you hope reads this book?
SMG: It's for the trashy but classy reader.
The reason why any of us read Flowers in the Attic was not because it was great, uplifting literature that exemplified the human condition. It was just so trashy! But you know, this is not quite as trashy as those. [Laughs.]
It’s got some class—you don’t have to be ashamed to be carrying it with you in the subway. I think that happens with horror novels so much. It has all these elements of a gothic novel but it also has, I hope, enough interesting prose and things that are different from the traditional model that will keep you interested and that will make you want to share it with your friends.
GR: And Silvia, what books are you reading now?
SMG: Oh, let's see. I am reading Tender Is the Flesh, which is a translation of an Argentinean novel about a future in which we eat people. So cannibalism is OK. I'm reading The Year of the Witching, which is a novel about a witch and the United States, so that's going on, too.
I just read The Harpy, which I would define as marriage breakup drama, but the woman might be turning into a literal harpy.
GR: What else should your readers know about this book, or anything that I have not asked?
SMG: People should read more horror. We don’t give horror enough respect.
Horror has been very neglected and very mistreated since the 1990s after its big boom. It kind of imploded, and people don't think to give it as much affection. People are proud to say they read things like science fiction because they think it means you're smart. It's good for you.
If you say you're reading horror, there's a minute when people kind of look at you and they say "Why?" Like it's some kind of moral judgment.
But horror can be very fun. It can also be subversive. It can be feminist. It can be post-colonialist. It can be just plain bonkers, and it can be just plain crazy, but it can also be all those other things.
It's not like you have to sacrifice one for the other. I think sometimes people do feel that horror can't possibly be as good as science fiction because science fiction, by the matter of dealing with science, must be smarter, and horror must be really dumb.
And so poor horror is like this sad sack of the speculative fiction genres.
So try some more horror. Even if it's not mine…but I would like it if it was mine. It can be really cool.