Horror in High House

Mexican-born writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia is on the rise. Currently residing in Canada, Moreno-Garcia became a household name when her 2019 novel, Gods of Jade and Shadows became an instant bestseller. It earned several accolades and was even nominated for the 2019 Nebula Award Best Novel category and the 2019 Locus Award, Best Fantasy Novel Category. With this, the red carpet has been rolled for Moreno-Garcia’s grand entrance as one of the up-and-coming contemporary writers.

Taking advantage of this momentum, Moreno-Garcia published her latest work, Mexican Gothic in June 2020. Set in 1950s Mexico, Mexican Gothic commenced when Noemi Taboada’s father received a letter from his newly-married niece, Catalina. He thought that Catalina was happily married but the cryptic content of the letter alarmed him. He then commissioned his daughter to rescue his niece in exchange for him granting her daughter’s wish of pursuing her masteral studies. Reluctantly, Noemi agreed and found herself traveling to the Mexican countryside village of El Triunfo.

Francis, the cousin of Catalina’s husband, Virgil, picked her up and brought her to her final destination, High Place, the estate owned by the Doyles. Shrouded in the mist, High Place is tucked on the slopes of the mountains surrounding El Triunfo but once saw better days. At High Place, Noemi was reunited with her cousin Catalina who was a shell of her previous self. Noemi also found herself being surrounded by a hostile environment and a motley crew of staff. The members of the Doyle family exuded enigma as well. What she didn’t expect, however, were her unusual encounters in the mansion.

“The truth was she was afraid of going to bed, of what nightmares might uncoil in the dark. What did people do after witnessing the horrors they had seen? Was it possible to slip back into normality, to play pretend and go on? She wanted to think this was exactly the case, but she was afraid sleep would prove her wrong.”

~ Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

Noemi’s first impression of High Place is reminiscent of Rebecca’s Mrs. Maxim de Winter’s first glimpse of Manderley. An ominous atmosphere hovered above it, Noemi aptly describing the feeling that the decrepit house “loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle.” It was a bleak abode populated with dusty antiques. The furniture, fireplaces and rugs were decorated with snake motifs. As soon as Noemi settles down, her keen sense observation made her cognizant something unusual going on in High House. It was something beyond the physical. Everyone’s evasive attitude towards her underscored what she had earlier surmised.

The Doyles were wrapped in an enigma which Noemi found difficult to describe or fathom. The patriarch, Howard Doyle, was once a successful businessman, the owner of the silver mines which once flourished in the area. But the mining industry crashed and so did the family’s fortune. There was, however, more to the story than what one sees on the surface, as Noemi would later discover in her amateur sleuthing.

High House was a presence that gave the narrative its distinct personality. The gothic theme, which was vividly incorporated in the narrative, also gave High Place an atmosphere that is reminiscent of Jane Eyre’s Thurston Hall, and Wuthering Heights. All four mansions were shrouded in unsettling mystery and were seemingly occupied by unsettled souls. As Moreno-Garcia sketched it, High Place evoked the same bleak picture and eerie atmosphere.

Whilst majority of the the story immersed in the haunted house trope, the novel underscored several themes such as the concept of immortality. It vividly captured man’s unceasing conquest and obsession with immortality. Also woven into the story are discussions on colonialism, eugenics, incestuous relationships, and misogyny. The novel also subtly discussed genetics, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, concept of inferior and superior traits 

“It was the sum of it, she thought, and not the individual parts that made the English cemetery so sad. Neglect was one thing, but neglect and the shadows cast by the trees and the weeds clustered by the tombstones, the chill in the air, served to turn what would have been an ordinary collection of vegetation and tombstones into a fiercely displeasing picture.”

~ Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

With such an atmospheric setting, it was inevitable for romance to slowly bud and develop. In the same mold as its predecessor, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Mexican Gothic contained the undertones of a romance story. Rather than acting as a distraction, the romance was ingeniously woven storyline; it barely deviated from the main plot. Parts-romance, parts-horror story, Mexican Gothic also contained allusions to fantasy, magic, and local folklore.

One element that propelled the narrative is Noemi. She was a well-rounded character who had the right combination of smarts, wit and bravery. Noemi, however, is no angel as she can can be extremely self-absorbed and superficial. Despite this, she showed genuine care for her cousin and for Francis. The Doyles, on the other hand, were the antithesis of Noemi. Except for the creepy aura they exude, rarely were they absorbing. The narrative was accentuated with details of their past but their individual histories were like distractions to fill in the gaps in the narrative. The Doyles came across as flat and monochromatic characters.

Moreno-Garcia’s writing made the narrative flourish. In the gothic tradition of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican version was outstanding. The descriptive nature of Moreno-Garcia’s writing wove an environment that breathes. The writing gave the readers an evocative picture of High House. The readers can smell the damp and decay that was eating High House. The writing evoked a sense of claustrophobia that Noemi felt during her stay at the mansion.

This eerie quality was complimented by the descriptive quality of Moreno-Garcia’s writing. However, Moreno-Garcia spent a hefty time weaving the atmosphere of High Place that she nearly forgot about the story. Moreno-Garcia refused to rush the story, hence, its sluggish start which can impair one’s appreciation of the story. It took the story some time to percolate but once it took off, the plot turned into an explosive action.

“Marriage could hardly be like the passionate romances one read about in books. It seemed to her, in fact, a rotten deal. Men would be solicitous and well behaved when they courted a woman, asking her out to parties and sending her flowers, but once they married, the flowers wilted.”

~ Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

With a slow pace, Moreno-Garcia had to rush the ending with a more upbeat pace compare to the rest of the narrative. However, in rushing the last fifty pages of the story, some loose ends were hastily or were never tied up. The origin of the major mysteries were too puerile and too predictable it made the readers feel incredulous. This diminished the sense of suspense that Moreno-Garcia constructed and built on from the start.

Albeit it was branded a horror story, Mexican Gothic was rarely terrifying the way one projects a horror story to be. It was more magical and fantastical but it was still horrifying but in a starkly different way. It was not the type that would keep one from sleeping alone at night. The atmospheric and descriptive writing complimented the gothic theme. In Mexican Gothic, Moreno-Garcia showcased her skills in conceiving a bleak yet captivating atmosphere. It was a flawed story but the combination of gothic, horror, fantasy, and atmospheric writing made the story flourish.

Rating

72%

Characters (30%) – 19%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%

I was not originally planning on buying or reading Mexican Gothic. When I kept reading positive reviews on the book, my interest was piqued and resolved to buy a copy of the book. Even though it is rare for me to read “new” books during the same year they were published, I opted to read Mexican Gothic. The first thing that made impression on me is how it had the same bleak atmosphere that Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca had. High House reminded me of Manderley. Moreover, Moreno-Garcia’s writing was very atmospheric. I am just glad that the book wasn’t hardcore horror as it is a genre I am averse to. Overall, it wasn’t a perfect read but impressionable nonetheless.

Book Specs

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 301
Genre: Gothic, Horror Fiction

Synopsis

After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin, Noemi Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside, unsure what she will find.

Noemi is an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough, smart, and not afraid: not of her cousin’s new English husband, a stranger who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems fascinated by Noemi; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Noemi’s only ally in this inhospitable place is the family’s youngest son. But he too may be hiding something dark. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place, as Noemi discovers when she begins to unearth stories of violence and madness.

Mesmerize by this terrifying yet seductive world, Noemi may soon find it impossible to save her cousin – or even escape this enigmatic house.

About the Author

Silvia Moreno-Garcia was born on April 25, 1981 in Baja California, Mexico to parents who worked for radio stations.

Raised in Mexico, Moreno-Garcia’s first works were published in various fiction magazines and books. In 2011, she was a finalist for the Manchester Fiction Prize. Two years later, she published her first short story collection, The Strange Way of Dying. In 2014, her second short story collection, Love and Other Potions was published. Signal to Noise, her debut novel, was published in 2015. The novel won the 2016 Copper Cylinder Adult Award. Her 2019 novel, Gods of Jade and Shadows was nominated for the 2019 Nebula Award Best Novel category and the 2019 Locus Award, Best Fantasy Novel Category. Her latest work, Mexican Gothic was published in June 2020.

Apart from writing, Moreno-Garcia also serves as a publisher of Innsmouth Free Press. She co-edited several works such as Historical Lovecraft (2011), and She Walks in Shadows (2016). The latter won the 2016 World Fantasy Award, Best Anthology category. She also serves as a book columnist for The Washington Post.

In 2004, Moreno-Garcia moved to Canada. She currently lives with her family in Vancouver, British Columbia.