- Media: #Books #Books 2020
Socialite Noemí travels to High Place, a decrepit English manor out of place far in the Mexican countryside where her newlywed cousin is either ill and possibly insane or in grave danger (or a bit of both). What she finds is a stifling house, even more stifling rules and racist people in the form of her cousin's English husband and family, and her mysteriously sanguine cousin.
Slowly (soooooooo slowly), Noemí explores the house, hears hints of a dark past from the family's son and only redeeming member, and experiences strange nightmares. Annnd that is pretty much the book until the final 30% when those nightmares come out to play.
SPOILERS Turns out the creepy old patriarch is an immortal mushroom eater/cannibal who lives on through his incestuous descendants. The fungus has formed a kind of mutual bond with his bloodline and the whole house is its mind, bringing the nightmares to life in a kind of dream they all share. Noemí, infected by the spores, must escape a forced marriage and murder her way out with cousin and the only not-totally-insane member of the family in tow. /SPOILERS
- Dark desires (and when they go way too far)
- Bloodline 'purity' & racism
- Don't eat the mushrooms
Review (feat. spoilers)
I wanted so badly to love this book. The premise (Mexican gothic horror with a socialite heroine) sounded incredible. I expected a kind of Jane Eyre but with agency and an actual payoff complete with folklore and plenty of dread. The rave reviews only added to that hype. So I am disappointed to say, Mexican Gothic was not for me.
Things I loved...
“So I’ll be wed in the Church of the Holy Incestuous Mushroom?” she intoned. “I doubt that’s valid.”
- Killer concept and I love to see the gothic expand beyond England
- Fungi and horror just go well together
- The idea of the 1950s setting and a socialite tackling fungi monstrosities in a remote manor
- The bad guys felt incredibly icky
Things I didn't...
- The actual execution
- The telling (rather than showing) writing style
- The reliance on shocking topics rather than building atmosphere and dread
Show, don't tell
The book dragged for me. Not a whole lot happens in the first 70%. Now that would be grand if this was dedicated to lots of delicious atmosphere and growing dread (which is the type of horror I enjoy). However, I felt no dread. No tension. I didn't even really care about Noemí. Why? Well Mexican Gothic feels a bit like a case study in [[!Show dont tell]]. The entire novel is 'told'. We are told about Noemí, about how she always does this or that, we are told about the horror, we are told how scary that was, but we are shown very little. It made everything feel a bit dry and none too subtle. (For a case study going the opposite way, [[!Knives Out]], which is not horror but features an old house, infighting family, and prejudice against one woman stuck in the middle of it all is a better example of showing).
Horror does not always have to be explained
I was also not a huge fan of everything having to be explained. The setup (woman seeing things and everyone says she is crazy, something in the walls) reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which is actually creepy but does so with a heaping of ambiguity and claustrophobia. Mexican Gothic has to explain how the patriarch works (even down to an extensive flashback), explain how the fungus works, explain how this skeleton is the brain unleashing the horrors she received back on the house, etc.
In my opinion, there could have been a lot more creep if we actually had to work some things out or parts were left ambiguous (imagine if the twist was you are left unsure if the mushrooms are actually supernatural or if the crazy racist ideals of the patriarch have just been passed down and the family acts like his mind is implanted). Which leads on to the second factor: revulsion.
Revulsion vs horror
Due to the writing style being more straightforward, the horror didn't feel much like horror. It felt more like revulsion. It felt like the author had to tap into the grossest topics possible (rape, incest, cannibalism, etc) to stir up emotion and revulsion because otherwise the writing held little creepiness or dread. You would be repulsed by an awful conversation or, in the end, a lot of awful history, but then it would be over and you'd go back to not caring. The ending packed the most horror only because it jammed so many revolting bits together in between information dumps explaining how everything worked.
I wanted to love it, but the execution fell short and my tender wee heart isn't a fan of the reliance on shock-topics for horror. I felt like there was a great idea in there, but it's still waiting to get out. Actually, exactly like Get Out which nailed similar concepts (trapped with creepy racist family implanting minds) but executed them much better. There is so much room to tell more stories like that, but Mexican Gothic wasn't one for me.
- "Beneath her the floorboards pulsed too; a heart, alive and knowing." #locations #fragments
- Ghost which sounds like bees buzzing #fragments #creatures
- "“They’re not for me.” “Then for whom?” “Saint Luke the Evangelist,” she said, pointing to one of the plaster figurines on her shelves. “Cigarettes for saints?” “He likes them.”"
- "And afterward someone had scrubbed the blood away, someone had burned the dirty linens or replaced the rugs with the ugly scarlet splotches on them, and life had gone on. But how could it have gone on? Such misery, such ugliness, surely it could not be erased." --> someone who has to clean up the old haunted houses
- Mushrooms that grow in the graveyard. Do they suck up memories? #creatures
- "Like feeding an animal madder plants: it dyes the bones red, it stains everything inside crimson"
- "It was as if the forest had tiptoed into the house in the middle of the night and left a part of itself inside." --> a forest that invades a house at night #locations
- "I read a book about Tibet once. It was written by this woman called Alexandra David-Neel, who said people there were able to create ghosts. They willed them into existence. What did she call them? Tulpa."
- Mold growing in books like Morse code
- "The fungus, it runs under the house, all the way to the cemetery and back. It’s in the walls. Like a giant spider’s web. In that web we can preserve memories, thoughts, caught like the flies that wander into a real web. We call that repository of our thoughts, of our memories, the gloom."
- "“Ours,” the maid said. It didn’t sound like the woman’s voice. It was an odd, raspy sound. It was the voice of the house, the voice of someone or something else, reproduced and approximated by these vocal cords." #creatures
- “The dead sleep there. I don’t want to go. Listen.” #locations #rooms
- "The chamber was festooned with mushrooms of varying sizes, a living, organic tapestry gracing the walls." #rooms
- A mummy held to the wall by a web of mushrooms growing through it.