Thursday, December 03, 2020

Cthulhu Comes to Mexico

Mexican Gothic, published June, 2020
In the New Yorker this week is a list of "The Best Books We Read in 2020." Staff writer Rachel Syme chose Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic, a story about events in El Triunfo, a small and mysterious town in Mexico, in 1950. A very creepy family live there, in a horror show of a house. At the beginning, Noemí,  a very innocent young woman from Mexico City, is sent there to rescue her cousin. The cousin, Catalina, is the wife of one of the residents of the house, and has sent a mysterious letter begging for help. 

Reading Syme's recommendation, I was convinced: I bought it yesterday and already read it. Here's what she said.
"What makes 'Mexican Gothic' so fresh is not only its cramped, crawly ambience...but also the fact that it’s steeped in a deep colonial history that haunts the narrative. Is the house in El Triunfo really sick? Or is it just tainted by colonizers who want to strip the land down to its bones? Moreno-Garcia deftly raises these questions and then brings them all together in a gory, monstrous, and utterly satisfying twist."

Mexican Gothic definitely belongs to the genre of horror fiction -- not a type of novel I usually read. Like anything that is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying, you can't stop looking, or in this case, can't stop reading. The English family that inhabit the threatening house, and have lived there for over half a century, aren't just living there: they are trapped by the house and it's poisonous and murderous past, but I won't reveal more spoilers. The Gothic elements definitely include sexual threats to the pure and untouched Noemí, as well as many other creepy features that may be similar to other horror tales.

One repeated theme throughout the novel is the captivating idyll of fairy tales, which Catalina, the older of the two cousins, would read to Noemí during their childhood. In their thoughts are constant references to Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty, and to the horror of fairy tales:

"She recalled, rather grimly, that certain fairy tales end in blood. In Cinderella, the sisters cut off their feet, and Sleeping Beauty’s stepmother was pushed into a barrel full of snakes. That particular illustration on the last page of one of the books Catalina used to read to them suddenly came back to her, in all its vivid colors. Green and yellow serpents, the tails poking out of a barrel as the stepmother was stuffed into it." (p. 86). 

Moreno-Garcia has written several earlier novels that refer explicitly in their titles to the works of H. P. Lovecraft, though I've never read any of her other books. Mexican Gothic has some powerful resemblances to Lovecraft's tales. Lovecraft hated non-white people, and his monster Cthulhu embodied an inexpressible threat to white people (blogged here). Mexican Gothic, in contrast, depicts a supernaturally evil monster who himself is a white supremacist from England. He's the cruel colonial owner of a silver mine where Mexican workers have slaved and died, and he espouses eugenic and other racist theories that Noemí's college major, anthropology, have made her able to dispute. 

Another aspect of the theme of racism is the pallor of the very white people in the horror household, in contrast to Noemí's native Mexican complexion. The first person from the house that she meets is the most extreme example: "He was fair-haired and pale— she didn’t realize anyone could be that pale; goodness, did he ever wander into the sun?— his eyes uncertain, his mouth straining to form a smile or a greeting." (p. 17). Later: "He seemed a bit ghostly, still standing by the doorway, with the glow of the lanterns and candles in his room lighting his blond hair like an unearthly flame." (p. 179). And a reaction of one of the English wraith-like people to Noemí: “And what a pretty face you have. Dark skin, dark eyes. Such a novelty.” (p. 236). 

The anti-racist reversal of Mexican Gothic from Lovecraft's hatred of dark people makes it somewhat amusing, though knowing Lovecraft's work isn't necessary to enjoying the novel -- there's plenty to ponder if you are just aware of current racial politics. Other parallels to Lovecraft's work also appear -- for example, the association of the monstrous paterfamilias of the household with overpowering stinks, also a feature of the horrors presented by Lovecraft, as well as other writers. 

The passive and uncooperative servants and townspeople in the novel also create an atmosphere reminiscent of the New England towns which Lovecraft's alien monsters terrorized. Very nondescript meals (English style) that Noemí is served also recall the dull food in these New England towns; her first dinner: 

"The plates were taken away in silence, and in silence there came the main dish, chicken in an unappealing creamy white sauce with mushrooms. The wine they’d poured her was very dark and sweet. She didn’t like it." (p. 28).

Or the next morning: 

"Breakfast was brought to her on a tray. Thank goodness she did not have to sit down to eat with the whole family that morning, although who knew what dinner might bring. The chance for solitude made the porridge, toast, and jam she had been served a bit more appetizing. The drink available was tea, which she disliked. She was a coffee drinker, preferred it black, and this tea had a definite, faint, fruity scent to it." (p. 37). 

And at the end, the theme of fairy tales reappears at a crucial moment in the action:

"The scene reminded her of a picture in one of her childhood fairy tale books, when the wedding banquet is in place and an evil fairy walks into the room. She recalled the table laden with meats and pies, the women wearing high headdresses, and the men in box coats with huge sleeves." (p. 256). 

As I mentioned, Mexican Gothic is so suspenseful that you just can't stop reading! While it has similarities to traditional horror tales, including the Greek myth of Persephone which it mentions, it also has a highly original slant on the usual forms.

Blog post © 2020 mae sander.


Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I'm not big on horror fiction, but you make it sound interesting. Seems like the racial politics of the day work their way into this book, too. Thanks for the review, Mae.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Thank you for this thoughtful review. I've been torn about this book. I love fiction set in Mexico but I can't read horror.

Divers and Sundry said...

You had me at Cthulhu :)

My name is Erika. said...

I've seen this book but knew nothing about what it was about. Thanks for the info!

Iris Flavia said...

Sounds very... creepy-interesting!

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

I don't think this one is for me. Thanks for sharing and Shabbat Shalom Mae

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I haven't read horror fiction in so long. I used to read Stephen King but then he got to weird for me. Your review has me intrigued.

Camilla M. Mann said...

I almost never read horror, but I am intrigued by your review. I might take a look. Thanks for sharing.

Debra Eliotseats said...

This has been on my to-read list for some time (ever since I saw the cover). I'm hoping it ends up in my stocking.