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‘Mexican Gothic’ is a creepy, intoxicating mystery that’s almost impossible to put down

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic” is a feminist horror novel inspired by Gothic classics including “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” It’s also a nod to fairy tales, though not the Disney versions. “Mexican Gothic’s” characters recall the macabre stories in which Cinderella’s sisters chop off their feet and Sleeping Beauty’s stepmother meets her fate in a barrel of snakes.

Like Moreno-Garcia’s widely praised 2019 novel “Gods of Jade and Shadow,” “Mexican Gothic” is also rooted in the ancient mythology of Mexico, where she was born. Its heroine is 22-year-old Noemí Taboada, a rich, flirty party girl living in Mexico City in 1950. There’s more to Noemí than her expensive clothes and penchant for Gauloises cigarettes. She wants to attend college and pursue a degree in anthropology.

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That’s a horror story for her parents, who want her to focus on finding a husband. But Noemí’s father promises she can continue her education if she first checks in on her cousin Catalina, who lives with her husband, Virgil, in his family’s ancestral home in the countryside. Catalina has written a letter in which she claims her husband is slowly poisoning her and that High Place, their home, “is sick with rot, stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.”

Noemí’s first glimpse of High Place is as melodramatic as the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter’s first view of Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” Noemí feels the ominous house “loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle.” Later, she thinks “it was the kind of thing she could imagine impressing her cousin: an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel.”

High Place is an ominous presence, and Moreno-Garcia, who is one of the science fiction and fantasy columnists for The Washington Post, uses its grim atmosphere to great effect. It’s a gloomy wreck filled with dusty antiques and oddly robotic servants. A snake motif garnishes fireplaces, rugs and furniture. Mold and fungus grow on everything.

Noemí discovers Catalina sleepy and confused. “There’re people in the walls,” Catalina says. “There’re people and there’re voices. I see them sometimes, the people in the walls. They’re dead.”

Soon, Noemí begins having nightmares and starts sleepwalking. The descriptions of her hallucinations are hypnotically poetic. At one point, she watches as the mold on the wall begins to move: “It rearranged itself into wildly eclectic patterns that reminded her of a kaleidoscope, shifting, changing. Instead of bits of glass reflected by mirrors it was an organic madness that propelled the mold into its dizzy twists and turns, creating swirls and garlands, dissolving, then reemerging.”

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Virgil and his creepfest of a family are equally disturbing. Noemí considers Virgil a “beastly” man hiding his true self behind a “veneer of wretched civility.” His younger cousin Francis is a “faint sketch of a man,” and worst of all is Howard Doyle, the family patriarch: “she thought he was a corpse, afflicted by the ravages of putrefaction, but he lived.” Noemí wants to escape with Catalina, but the house and its inhabitants have them spellbound.

“Mexican Gothic” drips with a miasma of dread for these captive women, especially after we learn what this strange family has in store for them. But this is a novel about powerful women. Not just the headstrong Noemí but also, surprisingly, Catalina, and Ruth, a dishonored ancestor whose own power may prove invaluable to their survival.

It’s as if a supernatural power compels us to turn the pages of the gripping “Mexican Gothic.” The true identity of the Doyles and the fate of these women is an intoxicating mystery that allows us, for a little while, to forget the horror story taking place in the real world during the summer of covid-19.

Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Del Rey. 320 pp. $27

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