You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
And just like that, it’s almost Halloween! I’m a teensy bit out of the trick-or-treating age range and in any case COVID, but I thought I’d celebrate Halloween week by reviewing two spooky reads, one of which I read at a completely inappropriate time (August). Plan ahead, kids, because I did not and this is what happens when you’re disorganized. (Full disclosure: I would’ve only done one single review, but as it happened I had two spooky books and I couldn’t decide which one would be better. Go figure.) As for the other review, you’ll just have to wait till Halloween proper to find out what it is.
Mexican Gothic is a 1950s retelling of The Yellow Wallpaper, a Victorian-era short story that lampoons the Victorian practice of gaslighting unwell women. The protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper is driven out of her mind by a combination of depression, domineering men, and the eponymous yellow wallpaper, but Mexican Gothic takes the story a step further and turns the wallpaper into one facet of a malevolent, mind-obliterating force. I’ve seen at least a couple of reviews describing the book as slow-paced (to put it kindly), and, well, they’re not wrong, but at the same time – and particularly given the source material – this seems appropriate. I can’t say I wasn’t frustrated at times, but everything eventually falls into place and the ending is satisfying, so I really can’t ask for anything else. Also apparently this is going to be turned into a TV show and they’re already promising a racially appropriate cast, which is pretty exciting. I’ve been keeping Hulu literally for the sole purpose of watching The Handmaid’s Tale, so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for Mexican Gothic and trolling the interwebz for casting news now that I know it’s on its way. If Hulu thinks I’m not going to hold them to that racially appropriate thing, they’re wrong. If we end up with a spray-tanned Scarlett Johansson struggling through the Spanish dialogue, heads will roll.
Mexican Gothic is a creepy, diversified take on the classic Gothic horror novel. Noemí Taboada – college student, socialite, and aspiring anthropologist – is mainly interested in classes and parties, but finds her social calendar inconveniently disrupted when her father packs her off to El Triunfo, a little mining town a train trip away from Mexico City. Her cousin Catalina has recently married Virgil Doyle, a seemingly wealthy Englishman, and has since gone AWOL, with the exception of some disturbing letters. Noemí’s father has tried to get Virgil to send Catalina to Mexico City for psychiatric treatment but has been rebuffed every time, and, as a last resort, decides to send Noemí as his emissary. Bribed with the promise of graduate school, Noemí packs her bags and makes her way to El Triunfo, where she clashes with Virgil’s super English family and their super creepy house. The only person who likes her is Francis, Virgil’s younger cousin; the rest of the family despises her, and they sneer and obstruct and gaslight while Noemí tries to figure out what’s going on with Catalina. On the off chance I haven’t made this clear enough, they’re fucking annoying. Through it all, Noemí struggles with sleepwalking, insane dreams, and sexual innuendo and assault inflicted by both Virgil and his father; and, though it wasn’t her original intent, she learns about the history of the Doyles, and the numerous ways they have conspired to exploit, murder, and silence the Mexican people employed in their silver mines.
We’ll start with the bad stuff, because I want to get this out of the way. The writing isn’t amazing, and some of the characters really start to grate on you after a while. I really hate Virgil. I hate Noemí’s interactions with him, which tread a fine line between civility, loathing, and desire. To be perfectly fair, you’re supposed to hate him. Normally I’d say that you like what you like and that’s fine, but if you like Virgil I want you to know that I am judging you so hard right now. I was initially outraged that Noemí found her womanly passions ignited by the assaults practiced upon her in her dreams, but then I found out that Virgil’s creepy fucking house basically slips her a roofie every time he pops into her dreams, so that explains that. This isn’t a case of a woman falling in love with her abuser; it’s a case of a woman realizing she is being drugged and abused, and that she would never consent while sober. It’s also a case of her wising up and combining forces with her cousin to kill her cousin’s horny gaslighting husband and burn his house to the ground, which I will always be here for.
The worst part of the book actually ties into the best, which is that the house is fascinating. Infused with a sentient fungus reminiscent of cordyceps, the house is a character unto itself, both antagonist and victim. It is built on the body and mind of a woman who was murdered specifically for this purpose, whose life was ended by the greed of a man who wanted to be a god, and maintained by generations of women who had their agency stripped away the minute they entered the house. Though it is controlled by Virgil’s father and answers to him, it still has a mind of its own and tries to warn Noemí about the dangers the Doyle family presents. I will never turn away from a sentient house, and this one was particularly well done. I suppose this particular house isn’t technically sentient, given that the fungus is the driving force behind the supernatural doings, but for all intents and purposes the fungus is a part of the house, so I’m counting the house as more or less alive. The ending was extremely predictable because it seemed perfectly clear to me that the corpse at the center of the infestation would have to be destroyed and the house would have to be burned down and I’m not really sure why it took Noemí so long to figure it out, but maybe it would’ve been less obvious if I’d actually been in her shoes. Somewhere around the middle of the book I said that I wanted a flesh-eating ghost, but, though that’s not quite what happened, I’m still satisfied with the reveal and the resolution. The main point is that the Doyle curse wasn’t a hoax, and that’s more than enough for me.
And, though I can see how she might rub other readers the wrong way, I actually like Noemí. I like that she’s not stupid or shallow; she’s stubborn and smart and resourceful. She does the best she can against the opposition mounted by the Doyles, and in the end is able to save her cousin. I kinda wish Catalina had been fleshed out a bit more, but she spends most of the book as a vegetable and isn’t freed till the end, so I suppose that can’t really be helped. Like I’ve said before, I’m always here for stories about women killing their abusers, and on that score at least Mexican Gothic really delivers.
Final verdict: Recommend, but be prepared for a slow burn. It’s not a book I’d recommend to anyone looking for an action-packed slasher horror, but I enjoyed it and would willingly read it a second time.
P.S. I really was not expecting a romance, because when I read the synopsis I thought “the family’s youngest son” was referring to a five-year-old and I was mildly disappointed when I found out that Francis was in fact an adult. Granted, a five-year-old would not have been useful, but it would have been an interesting angle nonetheless.