Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This novel dramatic paraphernalia consisted first of all of the Gothic castle, with its awesome antiquity, vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends, as a nucleus of suspense and daemoniac fright. In addition, it included the tyrannical and malevolent nobleman as villain; the saintly, longpersecuted, and generally insipid heroine who undergoes the major terrors and serves as a point of view and focus for the reader’s sympathies; the valorous and immaculate hero, always of high birth but often in humble disguise; the convention of high-sounding foreign names, mostly Italian, for the characters; and the infinite array of stage properties which includes strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like. All this paraphernalia reappears with amusing sameness, yet sometimes with tremendous effect, throughout the history of the Gothic novel; and is by no means extinct even today, though subtler technique now forces it to assume a less naive and obvious form.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Silvia Moreno-Garcia would probably agree with H. P. Lovecraft in that there was nothing more insipid than the traditional heroine of the Gothic novel. Which is why the heroine of her Gothic novel is a spurt of new blood in the veins of an old and decaying family, one able to pull a trigger when she has to, and light a cigarette when she wants to. For all that Moreno-Garcia consciously pays homage to the tropes of the Gothic novel, make no mistake: this is a fresh story, a slow burning, slow building tale that goes unexpected places and does so with confident skill and creative flourish.

Gothic fiction was a primary influence on H. P. Lovecraft, and much of his early Poe-inflected fiction especially can be considered as “modern Gothics.” When you read “The Rats in the Walls” with its family mystery, the ancient Priory with its haunted legends, the ghostly skitter that the cat chases—that is an echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and before that Horace, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Readers who ignore this school might find that they’ve missed some excellent fiction, and Lovecraft himself noted:

Indeed, we may say that this school still survives; for to it clearly belong such of our contemporary horror-tales as specialise in events rather than atmospheric details, address the intellect rather than the impressionistic imagination, cultivate a luminous glamour rather than a malign tensity or psychological verisimilitude, and take a definite stand in sympathy with mankind and its welfare. It has its undeniable strength, and because of its “human element” commands a wider audience than does the sheer artistic nightmare. If not quite so potent as the latter, it is because a diluted product can never achieve the intensity of a concentrated essence.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Mexican Gothic is what it says on the cover. Not just “a Gothic novel set in Mexico,” but an original Gothic novel which could not be written except in Mexico. It would not have the same effect if the protagonist Noemí Taboada was an American cousin, the relationships in the story would be entirely different; the Doyles would not be the same if the story was set in New Mexico versus Old Mexico, because the historical events and prejudices that they carried with them and experienced would be entirely different. The story carries its sense of place with it right down to its bones, which is something Lovecraft himself would no doubt have appreciated.

Readers who know Silvia Moreno-Garcia for her Mythos fiction and as editor/publisher at Innsmouth Free Press might be looking for Mexican Lovecraft connections. After all, Lovecraft set a story in Mexico involving a mine (“The Transition of Juan Romero”), played with Aztec mythology (“The Mound” with Zealia Bishop), and revised another story about a miner in Mexico (“The Electric Executioner” for Adolphe de Castro)—but there are no copies of the Necronomicon in the Doyle library, not even a copy of Moreno-Garcia’s own El Culto de los Muertos from The Starry Wisdom Library.

Mexican Gothic is not a novel of the Cthulhu Mythos. But it is a very Lovecraftian one.

[…] all the people in the family seemed to have that similar physiognomy, which she was dubbing in her head “the Doyle look.” Like the Habsburg jaw of Charles II, only not quite as concerning. Now that had been a case of sever mandibular prognathism.
—Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic 126

There are a number of themes in the book that echo some of Lovecraft’s stories; it’s hard not to see a shadow of unspoken sexual relationships of “The Thing in the Doorstep,” the strange ‘scandals’ of “The Dunwich Horror,” and terrible near-destruction of the family by one of its members a la “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”—but this isn’t just a mix-and-match of ideas from Lovecraft and old Gothic tropes. Silvia Moreno-Garcia knows what she’s doing, and if she deliberately re-purposes a few old stones in the house she’s building, it’s because they’re the right size and shape, not because they’re the closest thing at hand.

Which really comes into sharp focus in the character of the Doyle family. In a Lovecraft story, a Mexican character like Noemí Taboada would be the outsider, intruding into the narrative with a corrupting presence; the Doyles almost certainly see themselves as Lovecraftian protagonists and view her as an outsider. Yet in the narrative of Mexican Gothic, it is clear that it is the Doyles who themselves are the intrusive element: the aliens that refuse to be assimilated, who cling to their own traditions and live apart, pursuing their strange and disturbing practices.

Any change which involves an interference with a developed race’s folkways and language and cultural integrity is cruelly deplorable—but in each threatened case it is up to each neutral power to decide whether armed intervention is really justified in the interest of general civilisation. However—in practice, most nations do instinctively draw a line betwixt the civilised and the definitely non-civilised. […] Sometimes a nation forms a sort of borderline case—Mexico being an example. As a whole, Mexico has enough of an established Hispanic civilisation to win it a place in the instinctively favoured category, but this is not true of all its parts. When at various times the U.S. took sections of its southern neighbour, these sections were among the least settled and civilised—hence the gradual Americanisation. But if we were to conquer the entire country in some future war, it seems certain that the intensively developed central area containing the capital would be granted a cultural autonomy like that enjoyed by Puerto Rico.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 7 May 1936, A Means to Freedom 2.930

From a Lovecraftian point of view, the Doyles and their mansion form an enclave or colony of English civilization in Mexico; having conquered and “civilized” a portion of it. Yet to the actual Mexicans, the Doyles are greedy, unlovely, incestuous (recall Lovecraft’s claim that several of his ancestors had consanguineous marriages), and as one wise woman put it: cursed.

Readers familiar with Howard Phillips Lovecraft will find many commonalities with Howard Doyle, patriarch of this clan. Doyle’s obsession with scientific racialism, and his verbal sparring with Noemí on the topic, are a different way of addressing Lovecraft’s prejudices than N. K. Jemisin did in The City We Became (2020). Where Jemisin’s characters mocked Lovecraft’s beliefs from the safe vantage point of Lovecraft being long dead, Noemí has to deal with a very real racist who in 1950s Mexico clings to ideas more suited to the 1890s. The tenseness of the encounter plays against the racial tensions of Mexican history as well as Lovecraft’s personal prejudices: Noemí is neither ashamed of her indigenous heritage, nor does she see herself as particularly defined by that. She is first and foremost a contemporary Mexican, and doesn’t care to be slotted into Doyle’s categories.

Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
I think I’m obliged to say I’d like to reconstitute Lovecraft using his essential salts. I did my thesis work on him and feel in a strange way that I grew up with him. In a way, he was one of my best friends as an awkward kid growing up in Mexico City—which sounds bizarre, but it’s true. I don’t know, however, how the conversation might go. It would probably be very stilted. […] As for talking, I like to talk about books nobody knows about and old movies, so I’d probably show Lovecraft Get Out and Annihilation, and see what he thinks.
—Jared Jackson, The PEN Ten: An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia (9 July 2020)

The slow build-up of the first two-thirds of the book gives way to a precipitously fast descent into hell in the last third. All the hints and suggestions planted lead to a genuinely and fantastically weird climax. The book is worth reading twice just to pick up on some of the care with which the first part of Mexican Gothic is built on, and without which the book as a whole would have fallen apart. Shades of “Arthur Jermyn” again in the final conflagration—but as with “The Fall of the House of Usher,” there’s a certain inevitability to it all. The House of Doyle was always a tinderbox, waiting to be ignited by any stray spark…and no one tells Noemí Taboada that she can’t smoke.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

One thought on “Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

  1. Just finished Mexican Gothic today. Agree with your review. Other reviews say it starts too slowly. Not for me. Each and every breadcrumb (or should I say mushroom) was perfectly placed.

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