'Mexican Gothic' Shines a Beautiful Light on Dark Horror

Author Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves both joyous and troubling themes from Mexican culture and history throughout her new horror novel, 'Mexican Gothic.'

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.

Edwin de la Cruz: Hi, I'm Edwin, Audible editor. And today I have the pleasure to sit down with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, author of the new novel Mexican Gothic. It is an atmospheric and character-driven, genre-bending listen that blends history, culture, and the supernatural. Welcome, Silvia.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

EDLC: You're welcome. So, let's dig into the story in Mexican Gothic. After receiving a disturbing letter from her newly married cousin Catalina, Noemi Taboada, a young socialite, is sent by her father to High Place, the mansion where Catalina has fallen ill. Set against the backdrop of the misty Mexican countryside, Noemi soon finds herself embroiled with a family full of secrets and lies that span generations. First things first, Silvia. Noemi Taboada's family name. I was thrilled when I first heard it, considering the type of listen I was diving into. By any chance, is her name inspired by Mexican film director Carlos Enrique Taboada? For our listeners out there, Taboada is best known for his supernatural horror and suspense films that include Hasta el viento tiene miedo, Más negro que la noche, Veneno para las hadas, and El libro de piedra.

SMG: Yes, that's correct. She's named after him.

EDLC: When I first heard her name, I was very happy because I'm a big fan of his works. After I listened to the audio, the way you describe High Place is very much like his works, in the sense that they're full of color, but they still managed to have a Gothic atmospheric feel all around. What can you tell us about the development of that in your work?

SMG: That's right. Well, the inspiration for this novel are several things. One of them, yes, are the kind of classic Gothic films which include little-known works by people like Carlos Enrique Taboada, who is not really known outside of Mexico. People know Guillermo del Toro, but Guillermo del Toro doesn't exist without somebody like Taboada making those inroads. So, when people sometimes read my book, and they say it's just like Guillermo del Toro, is you're wrong. It's like Taboada, but you didn't get the reference. And the other thing is, it's obviously inspired by this huge body of work of Gothic novels. Both what is considered the true Gothic, which are the 19th century Gothics, and the mid-century Gothic revival that takes place in paperback form beginning around the late 1950s and goes all the way until kind of like the 1970s. So the bulk of that work is kind of like what takes up a kind of inspiration that includes... People think about Wuthering Heights, but I was not thinking of Wuthering Heights, actually. I think that's the one Gothic novel that they know.

But there's two types of Gothic novels, and Gothic scholars still debate about this, but it's pretty common to say that there's a male Gothic novel and a female Gothic novel. The female Gothic novel is defined as one that has an emphasis on the romance, and where there are no supernatural elements. So that is Jane Eyre or Rebecca, where you find that what might seem like a supernatural occurrence, in the case of Jane Eyre, turns out to be a wife in the attic, not a ghost. However, the male Gothics are much more violent, much more graphic, and they do include explicit supernatural elements. And the perfect example for that is The Monk, which kind of initiates this wave of Gothic. So there's two types of Gothic novels. Mine mixes both, and uses things from one and the other. But I think if people come in looking for an experience like with Wuthering Heights, it's not Wuthering Heights. It's a horror novel.

There's certain characteristics of Gothic novels that I was playing with, and I had a list of tropes that I wanted to hit. And one of them is definitely the environment. And another one is the weather—there's always bad weather in these books.

EDLC: I got the sense of that. And I agree with your assessment about having both, because I tend to like the mixture of both, but in this case... I'm a big fan of Rebecca, actually, so I see where you're coming from. And this is a great segue, because the name of the mansion, High Place, I think it joins the ranks of other haunted houses in literature, such as Bly House in Turn of the Screw, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and Manderley, of course, in Rebecca. How did you approach making High Place an actual character in Mexican Gothic?

SMG: I think the best Gothic novels have a house that is very memorable, or in the case of The Shining, we might say a hotel or a building that is very memorable, since that is not exactly a house. But in the beginning of The Haunting [of Hill House], by Shirley Jackson, which I think is one of the best horror novels ever written, the opening line says, "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might stand for 80 more."

So I always love that description, because it gives Hill House a personality. It's not sane, it's a madhouse. And it speaks, and it dreams, and by correlation, it must be awake then, therefore, at some points. So it definitely has a personality. Manderley has a personality too. All these places, the environment and Gothic novels, going back also to kind of like the 19th century ones, is a very big part of it. There's certain characteristics of Gothic novels that I was playing with, and I had a list of tropes that I wanted to hit. And one of them is definitely the environment. And another one is the weather—there's always bad weather in these books.

EDLC: Speaking of the weather, I had a thought about it: Where in Mexico is it this misty? But at the same time, I agree with you. It lends into the tropes, and it adds a great atmosphere. Let's talk a little bit about our main character. At the start of the story, we were introduced to Noemi. She's a socialite, and loves parties, and dresses and style, yet she's really accomplished and independent, something that may be a little out of step in the typical representations of women at the time. What helped shape that for you?

SMG: The initial idea about Noemi was a photograph of one of my great-aunts, where she was wearing an off-the-shoulder gown, and she was in kind of like an evening attire. And she was looking at the camera. It's a photograph that I unfortunately lost when I moved to Canada, but I did remember a lot. The look that she had on her face, and she was with a guy, but the guy was kind of unimportant in the background. It was just like she was staring at the camera, like she knew her place in life. And so that was kind of one of the initial visuals. It's somebody who is very sure of herself. I mean, there's all kinds of characters that go into Gothic novels, but one of the most common characters, especially when you're talking about the mid-20th century Gothic novel, which are all those paperbacks that we find in stores, with a woman running away from the house. The typical heroine of those kinds of books is kind of like somebody who is subordinate to a guy. So she occupies a lower kind of social position. She is maybe teaching for him, maybe she's taking care of his daughters, or his son, something like that. There's always that... Jane Eyre also was working for Mr. Rochester. So there's this kind of... And she's younger, and so there's this kind of like, in the ladder of life, she's a few rungs down the ladder in these situations. If she marries a guy, she's going to marry up. Right? It's going to be good for her.

And in this kind of situation, what we have here is this woman who is successful and accomplished, and yeah, a socialite. She comes from this wealthy Mexican family, so when she comes into High Place, she doesn't come with a sense of subordination. She comes with a sense of being an equal to all these people here. Now, of course they don't think that is correct, but that's why she's also a little bit taken aback by everything that's going on there. One of the things is that they are not treating her like their social peers. That's also why she feels that she can say certain things, and do certain things, that maybe if she was a governess, she wouldn't have done or said.

EDLC: That is a great segue to my next question, which plays into what you just said. Noemi's initial clash with Howard Doyle, the patriarch of High Place, who subscribes to theories of eugenics. That's one of my favorite parts of the novel, because of their back and forth. I have a cursory awareness of Puerto Rico's history with eugenics, but not Mexico's. But without giving anything away, what drew you to make that a driving force within the story, the idea of eugenics?

SMG: I have a master's degree in science and technology studies. My thesis was actually on eugenics, early 20th century eugenics and literature. Eugenics was a widely practiced science. It was included in textbooks of many types. It was practiced differently depending on the country that we were talking about. So, concerns about women, about ability or disability, and about race, manifested in different ways in these regions. It wasn't exactly the same in the United States as it would have been in Mexico. There was a widespread concern, however, in many of these countries about race mixing. And thinkers, such as Herbert Spencer, who speaks in The Principles of Sociology, talked about the issue of race mixing. And so he discusses how "the half-caste individual, inheriting from one line of ancestry, proclivities adapted to one set of institutions. And from the other line of ancestry, proclivities adapted to another set of institutions. It is not fitted for either." And then he goes on to talk about how modern Mexico and South America show this issue of race mixing very clearly. Where somebody cannot belong to one group or the other.

When you have somebody like Frankie [Corzo], who is not only reading the words, but actually bringing other stuff into it... It really helps put together the work, and really bring it to life.

Anthony Ludovici, speaking about eugenics and consanguineous marriages in the Eugenics Review... There was a Eugenics Review, it was a magazine. In 1933, he talked about consanguineous marriages, about incest, and basically ended up arguing in this essay that sometimes it's okay to marry your cousin, or to marry within the family. It's better than to marry somebody of a different race.

EDLC: Incredible. Just switching gears slightly, so far I've seen two playlists for your works. In Signal to Noise, I found one. And now in doing research for Mexican Gothic, I ran into another one, on Spotify. I absolutely loved it, because I like Chromatics, and because I was a teenage goth. Is this a thing for you? How does music factor in your writing?

SMG: Well, Signal to Noise was my first novel. And it was a novel about teenagers who are casting spells using vinyl records in Mexico City in the 1980s. So music was an integral part of it. I don't necessarily create playlists for everything that I write. I just tend to sometimes listen to the same stuff over and over again, because I have kind of like a repetitive thing going on. But in the case of Mexican Gothic, I did make a playlist with some music that I was listening to. Not all of it, but some of the bands that I was listening to when I was writing this work. Chromatics, and some of older stuff like Bauhaus, and all that kind of music. So I put it together in a single little playlist, but I don't need necessarily music to be writing. It's just that sometimes there's other stuff going around my home. To block out the noise from other people, I do blast on things like Metallica, or "Bela Lugosi's Dead," or something like that to keep writing.

EDLC: I found that a nice soundtrack to go along with listening to Mexican Gothic. Did you have a hand in casting Frankie Corzo for your audiobook version of Mexican Gothic?

SMG: Yes. I was fortunate that in the case of Del Rey, in both Gods of Jade and Shadow and with Mexican Gothic, I've been asked to provide input on both the narrator, and the pronunciation guide, so they know how to speak words. So that's been very good, because not all publishers do that. And if you do end up with people who can't speak Spanish, or yeah, and they just can't say the words at all, which can be a huge problem.

EDLC: Yeah, of course. Yes, but I totally understand. And what do you find the voice actors bringing to your works?

SMG: Well, I think I'm not a very good listener, but I know that there are people who really are transported by a performance. And I think if you're that type of person, that person who likes to listen to audiobooks, when you have somebody like Frankie, who is not only reading the words, but actually bringing other stuff into it—acting, almost in front of you, like if she were declaiming as a Shakespearian actor. It really helps put together the work, and really bring it to life. So, I think Frankie did a really good job.

EDLC: I really liked her performance. And one of the first things that I noticed early on in the listen was when you, in your writing, and Frankie's performance, when you talk about how Hugo looks like Pedro Infante. And then later on, you name-drop Katy Jurado, whom I also loved as an actress. So it's always great, especially if you're writing something from a Latino perspective, to have a Latino performer voice your work. Will there be more horror for you in the future, or Gothic literature?

SMG: I don't know about the Gothic literature in the future. Horror, maybe. I have an idea for something right now, but my very next novel will likely not be in the same genre, because I like to switch it around a little bit. So, yeah, no, I've written plenty of horror stories, and I was an editor of The Dark, which is a horror magazine. So I do like the genre. I think it's kind of like the ugly category that nobody has liked for a very long time. We had a…big horror explosion in the 1980s, and then an implosion in the 1990s when the industry kind of collapsed. And that's why there's no horror section in any bookstore anymore. There's maybe a shelf, and it's all Stephen King and Dean Koontz, maybe.

So, the landscape that was left behind was kind of little presses, and indie presses. And that's kind of where I've been, in terms of reading, and also my stories have appeared in very small press anthologies, specialized press anthologies. And so, I like the genre, it just doesn't seem to get a lot of love. Maybe that's changing, but yeah. Everybody, whenever you say you read horror novels, people ask, why? As though it's like a bad mark against your character. Why would you read that trash?

EDLC: I'm a big horror fan, hence how I knew about Carlos Taboada, no? But I love it. So bring it on, if you're going to do any more, but I'm always looking forward to new genres as well. One last question. What kind of things did you need to research for the book? One of the things that surprised me about the story is the talk about the fungi and the mushrooms. Without spoilers, I found that really intriguing, how they fit into the story. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

SMG: Yeah. There's a bunch of things that are actually factual. This is inspired by a real town in Mexico. It's called Real del Monte; it's located in the mountains of Hidalgo. Real del Monte was a mining town first under Spanish control, and then under British control. It's called Little Cornwall because it has a very particular architecture, and there's a cemetery there called the English Cemetery, which is the direct inspiration for my novel. It is cold and misty, and that's one of the things that when people think about Mexico, they don't realize the variety of the geography that we have. It is quite cold there because it's quite up high in the mountains. It also has this very long history of mining, and because of that, it has also a very long history of exploitation.

So coincidentally, I didn't know this until it came out, but Yuri Herrera, who is a Mexican writer from Hidalgo, just released a book called A Silent Fury, which is an account of a tragedy in the same area where my novel is set, right there in the Real del Monte district in Hidalgo. A Silent Fury deals with the death of over 80 Mexican miners in the 1920s in Mexico, who were sealed and left to die, and basically cooked alive when a fire spreads through the mine. And then they were all thrown into a mass grave. So, the stuff that I talk about, there being a mining industry, and there being many issues of abuse, that is based on true stories, on true stuff. So if you want to know more about specifically that region, and its mining history, Yuri Herrera has that book out right now.

Aside from that, there are some scientific concepts that are integrated into the story. The eugenic stuff is one of them, historical scientific stuff. And the other part is, yes, some issues related to botany, or where Noemi talks about a wallpaper being able to release her from toxic fumes. Actually, there are some wallpaper samples from the 19th century that are kept in libraries, that you cannot touch or be exposed to, because they have that toxic component. So this thing about the wallpaper killing you is not fantasy. It's just like asbestos; it was an old material that can be very deadly. There were certain materials that were used in previous decades that can be really toxic. And the green coloring, specifically, in certain components of the time, is very bright green that they slowly started developing in Victorian gowns, and in curtains, and in wallpaper, does actually, connects you to fumes that will make you hallucinate, and will send you to your grave.

EDLC: Just a little follow-up after that. You reminded me about the cover, which I find really striking. What can you tell us about the cover art of Mexican Gothic? Especially, I'm curious about the flowers.

SMG: Oh, the flowers. Yes. Originally when I saw the first designs, the cover model was not dark enough. And that was one thing that I went back, and I said, "Ah, she looks white." And so they fixed that, so that was really good. Because I was looking at that, and I was like, "Yeah. She's paler than me, and that's not happening." And I'm not exactly like the darkest thing around that there can be, but still, it was very milky. And so, they fixed that.

And the other thing, was that she had a key in her hands in the original cover. And I said that I wanted something that was botanical, vegetational. And one of the things I suggested was the marigolds, the cempasuchil, because they have this association with the Day of the Dead, but it's not such an obvious association, that I thought many people would get it. So, it's just this... And they look kind of grungy when she's holding them. They don't look like very nice flowers. So I thought it turned out okay. I don't like that everything in Mexico is associated with Day of the Dead. It's kind of lame. Well, no, lame is a bad word. It's kind of bad, but I like this image of it.

EDLC: Yeah. And for a moment, I thought that it may be related to a line in Mexican Gothic, where you talk about mal de aire, which I had to go back and research, because I had heard that before. I'm originally from Dominican Republic, and we have a different version of mal de aire. I cannot remember what it is, but it's basically the same concept. And I thought that the cover was related a little bit to that, to mal de aire.

SMG: Yeah. There's mal de aire, there's also mal de tierra.

EDLC: Mal de tierra.

SMG: Mal de tierra. That one is when you touch the wrong type of stone. But I think that's only in a certain region. But mal de aire is much more common. Yeah. This idea that the air that you're breathing is actually noxious, and has some kind of capability to induce some toxicity, I guess. And also one of the common things in curandera beliefs, is the idea of hot or cold things being... Like you're trying to make the body hot or cold to achieve a certain result. But yeah, I wanted the flowers in there. But mal de aire is something that, yeah, my great-grandmother would have said that. "Oh, that's why you're not feeling well."

EDLC: And speaking of curanderas, a character that I wish you had gone back to more in the novel was Marta Duval, which I looked forward to after the first meeting between Noemi and her. I really liked that character. Can you talk a little bit about any original ideas you may have had for the curandera character? Or was she always supposed to be who we get to listen to in the book?

SMG: I wanted to have a curandera along with the doctor, because I wanted to have kind of like that other kind of knowledge. I think that kind of folk knowledge is something that's like, yeah, my great-grandmother would have used it. It's just another resource in the community. It's not very common for white people to think about these kinds of resources, but it's much more common in my country, still nowadays, to go to get a limpia done, to get a cleansing done. If something's going wrong in your life, or if you're not feeling well, to make more extensive use of certain plants to cure things like susto, mal de viento, mal proximo, mal de aire, all these kinds of things. Some even mix this with ideas about witchcraft, but some of this is herbal area. It's really naturalistic knowledge of plants that is being passed on.

So I wanted to have that kind of character there, because like I said, although white people wouldn't probably go to the yerbera, as we would. And it was kind of this contrast that probably the Mexican doctor that appears there is actually quite nice, but he seems to know less about what's going on than the folk healer, who seems to be a little bit more in tune with what's happening. They both don't have the complete answer of what is it that is going on, but I think the folk healer is more on the right track than the traditional doctor. And of course, the doctor that the Doyles are employing, he is completely just like, yeah, nothing's wrong. Here's your bill, and I'm leaving.

It's a very kind of a different stance with Noemi, whenever she wants to talk to him, he's kind of like, "Well, I'm the doctor of the guy here, and so I say everything's cool." And when she sits down to him, and she has her interactions with both the young Mexican doctor, and with the healer, they're much warmer, and they're really conversations as opposed to one-sided dialogues, which is what the other doctor is doing. He's basically just talking over Noemi. And I thought it was good to have that kind of dynamic, so that you could see what is really a true conversation, and what is just being ignored, and belittled by somebody who thinks that they are superior, for a number of reasons, to their patient and to the relatives of their patient.

EDLC: I completely agree. And I think one of the great things about that whole relationship between the curandera and the Mexican doctor is that the Mexican doctor validates la curandera. When Noemi goes back to her, and doesn't find her, that she might be out in the fields looking for plants, and that sort of thing. I really felt that was a great little touch that he adds to the conversation, that she knows the plants. That whatever the potion that she had given Noemi to bring back to Catalina did not cause the seizure.

SMG: Yes. Yeah, yeah. Which is what the English doctor says, basically. It must have been the lack of knowledge of the local healer, and it turned... Yeah. And it's like, really? Maybe not.

EDLC: Well, Silvia, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I really enjoyed this chat, and to everyone listening, Mexican Gothic is available now on Audible. Thank you.

SMG: Thank you.

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