Mexican Gothic

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia


I’ve been excited to read ‘Mexican Gothic‘ for months now. I first heard about it from an agglomeration of New York Times reviews of horror novels:

“While the book draws inspiration from Gothic classics like “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” — there is a spunky female protagonist and an ancient house filled with disturbing secrets — its archly intelligent tone and insightful writing make “Mexican Gothic” an original escape to an eerie world.

In 1950s Mexico, Noemí Taboada, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, is sent by her father to help her cousin, Catalina Doyle, whose impetuous marriage has landed her in High Place, a moldering mansion perched in the “steep and abrupt landscape” of El Triunfo.

Noemí, who prefers parties and fashionable dresses to the staid Anglophile Doyle family, finds her cousin much changed. While the family doctor claims Catalina suffers from tuberculosis, she doesn’t have any of the usual symptoms. Indeed, she claims that the walls tell her secrets, a dreamy delusion Noemí soon comes to experience firsthand. In her attempts to help Catalina, Noemí is pulled into a frightening ancestral legacy that has ripped the Doyle family apart.”

Doesn’t that sound great? I bought the book basically immediately after reading that and have been saving it for a treat.

I would have been a lot less keen if I had known it was about mushrooms.

Literally: mushrooms. The “frightening ancestral legacy that has ripped the Doyle family apart” is that, generations ago, their patriarch Howard allowed himself to be infested with a fungus that gives him an unnaturally long lifespan and the ability to control people’s minds – you know, one of those cannibalistic immortality hive-mind fungi – and he’s been terrorizing the locals ever since.

And, look, we’ve talked a lot about premises here, but mostly we’ve talked about bad executions of great premises, wasted premises (which really frost me). We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about shitty premises, for the simple reason that I try to avoid reading books with shitty premises because they are almost impossible to pull off.

When I was in high school, my best friend and I loved horror movies. However, in our opinion, most horror movies fall apart at the end – all the energy and suspense that has been built up during the course of the movie sort of fizzles out when it comes time to look at the monster head-on. My friend, who was sort of a genius about stuff like this, framed the problem of the monster-reveal perfectly. She said, “Look, you basically have two choices if you want your movie to be scary. You either devote a lot of time and effort into making your monster really scary to look at, a la ‘Alien’. Or you never show your monster, and it just drags people into sewers off-camera or whatever. But you can’t show a monster and have it be disappointing – if you do that, you lose everyone.”

I’ve applied that rule ever since, and what has become clear over my many years of consuming horror is this: the skills required to build suspense and the skills required to imagine something genuinely terrifying are totally different skills. It’s amazing how many horror plots (movies and books) fall flat when the monster is revealed – the authors of those stories spend a lot of time and effort building up suspense, only to then unveil a monster that wasn’t worth all the fuss they made about it. It’s also probably why many of the really convincing horror stories reveal a human monster at the end – we are already genuinely terrifying.

So, if I routinely find aliens and vampires and zombies disappointing, you can imagine how I feel about a fungus. And it’s not that I hated ‘Mexican Gothic‘, or thought it was a bad book – it’s just that there is something anticlimactic about finding out that the creepy voice coming from the walls is a mushroom!

And I admire Moreno-Garcia for trying (and not in a patronizing, “A for Effort, Silvia” kind of way). It takes courage to say to yourself, “I’m going to write ‘Rebecca’, but with a mind-controlling fungus”. And just because, in my opinion, ‘Mexican Gothic‘ doesn’t succeed doesn’t mean that it’s her fault that it doesn’t. The reason I object to fungus-as-enemy is that I don’t think it could have worked. Moreno-Garcia is a pretty talented novelist, I suspect. But she picked a real lemon of a plot – I honestly can’t think of a novelist I believe could have made this work.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

But that’s not a good reason not to try. It’s easy for me to say, “There’s a reason you can’t think of a single successful horror story where mushrooms are the villains”, but there wouldn’t be, would there, until someone wrote one. All good plots must have a debut, and maybe you don’t know until you try. The next great scary story is waiting somewhere, and someone is going to have to take the risk to tell it.

But it’s not this one. In my opinion, mushrooms don’t make good villains. And my objections aren’t about plausibility – I think people who object to horror stories on the basis of realism ought to be slapped. On the contrary, the plot of ‘Mexican Gothic’ is much more plausible than it is interesting.

And it’s not that mushrooms aren’t interesting – I know that fungi are considered by many to be among the most interesting organisms around. I am in no way disparaging mushrooms, but I think maybe Moreno-Garcia was trying to have two things at once: a villain, and a neat plot mechanic. Fungi are bizarre, and a really creepy story might have been told about a terrible fungal epidemic. But mushrooms aren’t moral – they aren’t wicked. Villains, though, are. And by hybridizing her mushrooms and her villain, Moreno-Garcia squandered her ability to use either to full effect: to have us shudder at the terrible ingenuity of the natural world, or to rally against evil. The mix doesn’t work – it should have been one or the other.

The truth that my friend framed so well all those years ago is that very few things are scary when you can see them clearly. Fear needs darkness – when the bright, clear light of explanation shines on them, when you can take their measure with your own eyes, they usually cease to be frightening.

And this is true of actually scary things, like zombies – fungus didn’t stand a chance, really.

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