Gothic literature as an active, living genre is inching towards obsoletism. Quite ironically, it seems to be becoming a species of the past.
More often than not, contemporary Gothic borrows fragments from the multifarious tradition, injecting artistic components that help produce a mood of mystique. In a way, such writings are merely vestigial, regurgitating traditional Gothic formulas and motifs in empty renditions lacking the dissection of societal facades and the conceptual depth intrinsic to the transgressive Gothic works of the past. Contemporary Gothic works are far less an addition to the genre of Gothic literature than pale imitations.
Exceptions to the rule, in this matter, do indeed exist; at least, to a sparse degree. The 2020 bestselling novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic, is a clear deviation from this streak of empty Gothic echoing.
Mexican Gothic is an echt gothic horror novel, a refreshing literary inclusion amidst the descent of ersatz contemporary novels—mere mirages promising a worthy tale only to fall short in content. With pulsing suspense, poetic descriptions of a rancid and outmoded house, and psychological decay, Mexican Gothic is the epitome of sensational gothic horror. In this work, Moreno-Garcia assiduously captures each crucial attribute of Gothicism: a haunting ambiance, unassuming heroes, socially-refined villains, atmospheric writing, mystery, a melodramatic mood, supernatural elements, old architecture, and a focus on nature.
The story follows the heroine Noemí Taboada—a 22-year-old Mexican City socialite—as her father sends her to visit her recently-wed cousin’s new home after he receives a distressing, out-of-character letter. This first news from Catalina after settling in her new English-styled manor High Place bodes quite ill with an ostensibly psychosis-induced claim that “fleshless things” haunt High Place. More disturbing than this is her following insistence that her husband Virgil Doyle is deliberately poisoning her.
A foreboding message and the catalyst of Noemí’s departure from social life and home. Virgil dubitably insists Catalina is receiving top-tier medical services, as he adamantly refuses to listen to Senor Taboada and seek out any psychiatric expertise. In an act of paternal concern for his niece and ward, Senor Taboada sends Noemí to High Place as a sort of family-ambassador to ensure Catalina is receiving necessary care.
Noemí arrives at El Triunfo, an old Mexican mining town that was entirely impoverished long-ago and still struggling for a reprieve. Nothing could mask its state of utter desolation. High Place which is nestled in the mountains above El Triunfo is no better than a mimesis of shoal grandeur reflecting the town’s deterioration. The Doyle’s ancestral house is now a living mockery of its once splendor, a mere shell of its former extravagance.
This is when Moreno-Garcia enters gothic territory. Noemí’s departure from the vibrant atmosphere of Mexico City signals a drastic alteration in mood by turning away from the brilliance of social life into a world of somber mystique. Gothic literature scraps away at society’s carefully-crafted gaudy film of unctuousness, placing mundane often-shunned-truth under harsh scrutiny; coincidentally, Noemí faces weighty real-world trials foreign to her accustomed frivolous—almost artificial—lifestyle.
Atmosphere and Antediluvian Architecture
High Place is your quintessential gothic setting. This eerie and dilapidated house set apart from humanity becomes the mise-en-scène of extraordinary gothic horror. It is the asylum for an unreceptive supernatural presence, a prison that ensnares the psyches and bodies of its internees.
High Place was built in an English fashion in order to bring “a little piece of England” to the Doyle’s home (20). It is both this “very English” essence as well in the house’s layers of decay that cause Noemí to believe that “it was the house that disfigured the land” (20; 55).
A miasma of death pervades throughout the property and the house. Fungus and mold lurk from every niche in High Place, the structural desuetude fertilizing the copious mycorrhiza growths: “the fungus, it runs under the house, all the way to the cemetery and back. It’s on the walls. Like a giant spider’s web” (182).
These parasitic growths naturally feed on the house’s decaying frame, consuming the entire house and tainting whatever they touch. This pervasive fungus is at the very heart of High Place’s terror, as the mushrooms harbor and conceal a preternatural anomaly.
Fungus—the appropriate vessel, out-rightly signifying consummate putrefaction and death. It is a subtle creeper skirting just outside of Noemi’s consciousness from the moment that she arrives; she sees it without being able to fully comprehend the depth of its influence.
It is Francis Doyle—the highly disregarded and undervalued youngest member of the family—who first explains the fungus’s function. As he tells Noemí, the fungi “can enter into symbiotic relationships with host plants. Mycorrhiza. Well, it turns out that it can also have a symbiotic relationship with humans” (182).
The fungus works as an ideal artistic symbol in Mexican Gothic. It is a symptom of decomposition which immediately exudes an atmosphere of death. Thus, it subtly betrays the house’s underlying darkness.
From the onset of her stay with the Doyle family, Noemí is immediately aware of some foreboding, disturbing weight. High Place feels entirely off-kilter. This manifests visibly through its utterly atypical inhabitants—from verging-on-robotic servants to the mentally-unhinged, entitled members of the Doyle family, as “the Doyles and their servants were all an odd lot” (62).
To Noemí, the family’s individual idiosyncrasies reveal themselves through bestial attributes, thus she aptly relegates the different members of the Doyle family to matching species of the animal kingdom: “Howard looked like an insect and Florence was an insectivorous plant. But Virgil Doyle, he was a carnivore, high up the food chain” (125-126).
Howard Doyle is the domineering master of High Place, a warped old man who drones on about the promising, imperative benefits of eugenics. Noemí astutely describes him to be “like a stick insect, an insect hiding under a velvet robe” (70).
Howard’s “thin, insect-like body” is deceptively fragile; beyond his visual, surface-level disfigurement lies an abysmal moral corruption. A depravity with roots reaching back for generations, germinating over centuries.
Even while confined to his bed, Howard word governs High Place with a single word; his whims dictate his family’s individual lives. All those living within High Place are ostensibly his mere appendages, almost like senseless sentinels presiding over a cryptic secret that surrounds Howard: the gloom.
Noemí quickly finds that consciousness, memories, and even time itself become tangled amidst the copious growths of fungus in the gloom: “we can preserve memories, thoughts, caught like the flies that wander into a real web. We call it that repository of our thoughts, of our memories, the gloom” (182).
The gloom feeds on people; it not only archives the most minute of reminiscent details, but it literally parasitizes any human existence—in some cases, pulverizing one’s self. The Doyle’s servants are an ideal demonstration of this, as Francis states that “you might have noticed they don’t talk much. There’s very little of them left. It’s almost like their mind has been carved out. […] They’re a special case, Great Uncle Howard calls them his bondservants, and the miners, they were mulch. But you can have a symbiotic relationship with the fungus” (183).
The gloom’s horrors reach an apex in Agnes Doyle—the first wife of Howard Doyle. Her memory lies behind sealed lips; she is nearly a topic verboten within High Place. Few memorials remain as a reminder of her brief life; one of these is a statue made in her likeness—which doubles as her gravestone—inscribed with the simple epitaph “Agnes Doyle, Mother. 1885” (130). As Noemí points out, it is quite odd that this is “all Howard Doyle had chosen to leave behind to commemorate the passing of his first wife,” especially considering the fact that Agnes bore Howard no children.
Mother. Seemingly a misnomer of a title with which to epitomize Agnes’s life. Yet here with this simple word Moreno-Garcia cleverly signals some deeper history.
Howard at one point suggests that a woman’s only “function is to preserve the family line” (75). To Howard this does not simply mean continuing the blood line. More precisely, it is preserving his own life force: “Howard has lived many lives, in many different bodies. He transfers his consciousness to the gloom and then from the gloom he can live again, in the body of one of his children” (213).
Agnes’s “spirit lives in High Place” as she exists entirely within the gloom (75). She is its mother, the source of its existence. In creating the gloom, Howard needed “a human mind that could serve as a vessel for memories” and so he “needed her mind. (240).
Agnes became the first victim to the gloom. The first sacrifice. It devoured her life until there “was no Agnes” anymore, just a “screaming maw of a woman, frozen in time. A mummy, a few teeth dangling from her mouth, her skin yellow (239). Until “Agnes was the gloom and the gloom was Agnes” (241).
Deceptive Appearances: Hero or Villain?
Gothic literature emerges out of perceived deceptions; nothing vitalizes this genre more than tolerated, normalized farce. Truth is, quite often, shunned by society—rejected and thrown by the wayside. Instead, what is instead typically favored over it is the mere appearance of truth.
This reality is made particularly clear through the essence of one’s personality. Duplicity of character runs rampant through society, an issue that gothic writing critiques as a social artifice that arises from misconceived emphasis on reputation rather than disposition.
The Charismatic Villain: Virgil Doyle
Virgil, who is Catalina’s husband, is the picture of charisma—suave, attractive, and confident. He immediately captures the approval of those who are around him; a typical persona for a literary hero. Moreno-Garcia expertly unmasks this outward charm as a veneer that shields his true nature: he was a carnivore, high up the food chain” (126).
Virgil is a truly squalid character whose personality was forged in the heat of praise and admiration—an attention wrought by the serendipitous distinction of ‘good appearances’ and an ideal family name. Nothing here regards morality or truth; naturally, in such a world that places minute values on virtue, Virgil assumes the spotlight as a likely hero.
As a true gothic writer, Moreno-Garcia deals a heavy hand of criticism on the fallacious ‘hero’ archetype which hinges on appearance alone. Substance over semblance—rectitude before refinement. In Mexican Gothic, specious propriety has only a modicum of correctitude whereas virtue instills an integrity of character.
Virgil is the paragon of this sophistic decorum. Noemí frequently alludes to his excellent politesse and physical beauty: “she thought most men would have had a hard time competing with Virgil. No doubt that’s what had hooked Catalina. That pretty face” (53-54).
It does not take long for Noemí to learn that Virgil’s true nature lurks behind this appealing façade, that there was some unsettling “edge to his expression that [his] smile could not mask” (106). Deception is the the mark of Virgil’s character. His culminating act in life is the underground coop against Howard Doyle in seizing control of High Place: “I will have absolute power over the gloom” (244).
Here Moreno-Garcia reveals the face of a true gothic villain—a corrupted persona that can only mimic virtue and traditionally heroic qualities. A villainous character who is protected by a beguiling manner.
The Improbable Hero: Francis Doyle
Francis is the outlier in the Doyle family. He is underappreciated and dismissed by his family, largely because he “irradiated weakness” in a family dedicated to eugenics and the inane desire for family and race betterment (41).
In this way, the Doyle family places a considerable weight on outward appearances—similarly to society. While comparing the two Doyle men at face value, Noemí finds that “Virgil was good looking, Francis was not” and that Virgil’s “features—the eyebrows, the cheekbones, the full mouth—were bolder, entirely more attractive” (118; 41). Virgil is the paradigm of strength and is thus deemed the ‘superior’ family specimen.
Nothing could, however, be further from reality. The Doyle family presides with a fallacy of appearance, therefore placing a higher value on Virgil because he is physically the exemplar of social perfection.
Yet there is something innately magnetizing about Francis, the kindhearted young man whose “tone tended toward whispers” (21). Francis is entirely endearing; he possesses a reserved nature, a love for any form of life, and a constant focus on others. He quickly becomes Noemí’s only ally and friend as she settles into High Place, which to her is a foreign, hostile environment.
Francis is merely a guide who helps Noemí succeed in her own family mission to protect Catalina. Where Virgil would eagerly dominate Noemí, Francis seeks only to help her to procure the truth. It is for this exact purpose that Francis ostensibly betrays his own family—certainly defying the carefully-fostered instincts to hid the Doyle family secrets—and informs Noemí of the gloom and its impending threats.
Such behavior is selfless, and the true mark of a hero. A man of cultivated virtues who lacks the appealing charm of social artifice that is so masterly captured by Virgil. Francis is the true hero of Mexican Gothic, and it is through this characterization that Moreno-Garcia presents a comprehensive critique on society’s preference for the sensational crafted pretense of an beau idéal over the anodyne, almost-prosaic nature of virtuous man.
Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Mexican Gothic. Del Ray, 2020.