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Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves Mexican history and supernatural elements into an increasingly unnerving tale of Gothic horror in her latest novel, Mexican Gothic. Set in the 1950s, the spookiness unfolds in a creepy mansion owned by a creepy family in a mountain town inspired by Real del Monte, a place with architecture influenced by the British who arrived in the nineteenth century. Like the British who left their mark on Real del Monte, the fictional Doyle family came from England to run the town’s silver mines and built an English cemetery there—and the story’s horrors are bound to their home and past.

The novel revolves around Noemí, a socialite and university student living in Mexico City, visiting her somewhat recently married cousin, Catalina, a couple of weeks after her father received an odd, rambling letter from her. Catalina wrote of being poisoned by her husband, described ghosts and whispers that can sneak past barred doors, and asked for Noemí to come save her. Concerned, Noemí’s father tried to learn more from Catalina’s husband, who said she’d been distressed but was getting better and refused offers to bring her to the city for care. After her cousin keeps asking for her, Noemí is invited to visit, and her father asks her to determine if there’s an actual problem or if her cousin is just being melodramatic.

It’s immediately clear that something is not right. Noemí found her cousin’s letter to be rather unlike her and thinks it unfair to characterize her as being prone to melodrama, and her cousin’s new home gives off an aura of wrongness from the very start—both the old, decaying mansion itself and most of its occupants. They expect Noemí to be quiet, ask for permission before going into town, and not leave on her own, and the first time she meets her cousin’s new father-in-law, he starts discussing eugenics with her as casually as most discuss the weather. Noemí rarely even gets to see her cousin since she’s told Catalina needs her rest, and what little she does see of her just makes her more concerned about her well being.

And the longer Noemí is there, the weirder it gets. The Doyles’ behavior keeps getting odder, and when Noemí does manage to go into town, the townspeople tell her stories of the house being cursed and a murder-suicide that occurred. The mystery and tension just keep escalating as she learns more about the family and their history, uncovers more secrets and questions, and eventually begins sleepwalking for the first time since she was a child, seeing visions, and having unusually realistic dreams. (Content warning: These dreams do include sexual assault, and there is an attempted rape outside of dreams.)

Although this is horror with humans facing the eerie unknown complete with some supernatural elements, Mexican Gothic is ultimately about facing and fighting evil committed by other humans. Much like how technology is often utilized in science fiction, the fantastic aspects were not a threat on their own: a literal horror was born out of greed, colonialism, misogyny, racism, and an overall disregard for the humanity of others. The backstory is not subtle with its parallels, but I thought it worked well in this case. It was not only fitting for the characters involved and the area’s history, but it was also haunting and creative. (I will never look at mushrooms the same way again.)

It’s a novel that’s more focused on plot and mysteries than delving deeply into characters and relationships, but I liked Noemí and was rooting for her the whole time. Regardless of how clear the message to run from this house and its family gets—and it does indeed scream through the pages—she does not abandon her cousin, nor does she let these horrible people get under her skin. She’s fiercely loyal, determined, and kind at heart, and she never stops advocating for better care for her cousin. She’s resourceful and largely self reliant since Catalina is not able to speak freely or leave her room. However, she’s not quite on her own since she starts to befriend one member of the household who is rather unlike the rest of his family, but she’s also not entirely sure how much she can trust him—although he is kind and helps her out despite cost to himself, he is still a part of this family with its myriad secrets.

The writing style is fairly straightforward, which makes devouring its chapters effortless as they move from quietly disconcerting to loudly disturbing. There were times I felt the prose was more stilted than flowing, and as much as I enjoyed the references to Gothic literature and dark fairy tales throughout, there were also times I thought they were intrusive and self indulgent. However, these were minor issues considering how much I enjoyed reading Mexican Gothic overall.

The way it keeps increasing the stakes to become more and more riveting is part of its charm, but the beginning may seem a bit…slow. I’m hesitant to call it “slow” since it doesn’t meander and keeps moving forward, but I did want to mention this since I had no plans to read this novel after sampling the first chapter. Fortunately, I heard enough praise for it afterward that I decided to at least give it a shot when I was invited to download an electronic copy—and I’m so glad I did since I could hardly put it down after the first couple of chapters or so.

In fact, Mexican Gothic is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. If you’re in the mood for a standalone novel that keeps ramping up the stakes and getting more and more sinister, it may be for you too. (Or maybe even if not—I rarely read horror, and yet I found this one so engaging I want to get a print copy!)

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished electronic copy from the publisher.

Read Chapter One of Mexican Gothic

Read Another Excerpt from Mexican Gothic