Mexican Gothic

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

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.

The Stone Sky

The Broken Earth: Book Three

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Normal warnings aside, I am really, really going to spoil this trilogy in here, so if you don’t want to know exactly how ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ ends, don’t read this.

Um, I’m also going to spoil several movies.

You know that theory (we’ve talked about it before) that there are only, like, seven plots in all of literature? They, supposedly, are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

And they’re pretty self-explanatory. The theory goes that all the works of literature are just attempts on these seven basic plots: retellings, new perspectives, embellishments, interpretations. That these are the only stories there are.

OK, well, that may or not be true*, but I do know that, when you read a lot of stories, you notice that there aren’t so many different things to say as there are books. It’s not just plots – characters, premises, dilemmas, it all comes around again and again.

*I’ve never really been satisfied that any of those plots describes ‘Jurassic Park’. Maybe this is just me getting hung up on dinosaurs again, but ‘Jurassic Park’ doesn’t really fit any of those, does it? Which could it be? The Quest [to get out of Jurassic Park]? Overcoming the Monster [actually many little monsters and no one really overcomes them, just runs away]? I’m not buying it. I propose a new list: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth, Jurassic Park.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter whether there are seven plots or seventy, or whether the above list is exhaustive. The fact is, when you read a lot, the landscape of fiction does becomes familiar to you.

Which can be kind of nice. Familiar landmarks help you orient yourself. They signal to you what kind of story you’re reading, what kind of lessons you’re meant to learn, what sort of characters you should expect to meet and what might happen to them. Often, they tell you how the story wants to be evaluated: it doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story. How do you know that it wasn’t that kind of story? It didn’t have any landmarks of the kind of story where zombies and werewolves battle – no weird contagions which make people sort of bitey, no bodies of eviscerated sheep showing up around the village after the full moon, stuff like that.

But surprises are also nice – think how great it would have been if there had been even one zombie in ‘The Notebook’. Surprises make you realize that life isn’t over yet, that the world is still turning, that it’s worth trying new things, or reading new books. That, even if people have exhausted all the basic plots, they haven’t stopped thinking up new things to decorate them with.

And they don’t need to be big surprises, either; they can be small adjustments to old things, as long as you’ve never seen them before.

Which, I think, in the end, is the thing I ended up liking the most about ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘. Yes, the story was quite strong, and it was never badly written (which is about as good as it gets for genre fiction), and it didn’t get soggy at the end, but what I really ended up loving was that it surprised me.

And it surprised me in the most unlikely way: the villain surprised me!

Villains are never really surprising – even “surprise” villains aren’t really surprising, because you know that, according to the Laws of Fiction, you have to have been introduced to them already. And since, in any given story the number of named characters is relatively small, and since you must be prepared, according to the Laws of Fiction, for any character to turn out to be a surprise villain, even if you are surprised by who the villain turns out to be, you aren’t really surprised surprised, because you knew it had to be someone.

Which is why the last time I was really surprised by a villain was when, in the first ‘Saw’ movie, the villain turned out to be the dead body on the floor in the background! Because that dead body wasn’t a character, really – he was scenery. And scenery doesn’t usually turn out to be the villain*.

*Although, now that I think about it, why, then, wasn’t ‘The Happening’, by M. Knight Shamaylan, a movie in which the villain also turned out to be scenery (trees), more surprising? Maybe because, by the reveal, you were too irritated to be surprised.

This same mechanism is at work in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, but not in a cheap, one-shot reveal sort of way. The villain in ‘The Broken Earth’ is also scenery, but in the most fundamental way that there is: the villain is…the Earth.

I know that this sounds cheesy, but it kind of isn’t. I thought it was going to be cheesy, too: when I started picking up on the hints that the Earth was somehow malevolently set on destroying humankind, I thought for sure I was in for some irritatingly-heavy-handed climate change metaphor, where the Earth wasn’t really alive, but had become so destabilized by hubristic human overreach that it was functionally hostile to human life, yadda yadda yadda, we must all honor Mother Earth, so on and so forth, and I was like, anticipatorily bored.

No, that’s not what happens. In ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, the Earth is alive. Alive and conscious, and angry. It is a living, thinking, speaking core of molten rock and hot gas in the center of the planet, and it hates us.

It’s..pretty weird, actually. It’s a great surprise, because it’s both functionally impossible to imagine ahead of time and totally easy to imagine afterwards: it’s hard to think of dirt as part of any living thing, but the Earth’s molten core lends itself right away to personification. It’s scary and angry already! All of which makes the premise (that we have failed to notice that the earth was alive this whole time) kind of plausible.

The Earth itself is the slow-reveal antagonist of the entire trilogy, but I didn’t begin to really grok that that until the end of ‘The Obelisk Gate‘. Which meant that ‘The Stone Sky‘ was a fun journey of dawning implication for me, especially as I began to figure out that the pseudo-villains of the first two books, the Guardians, are really just under the control of the Earth, via pieces of the Earth’s core which have been lodged in their brains.

N.K. Jemisin (Picture taken from newyorker.com)

Which, again, sounds super cheesy when I say it like that, but it doesn’t play out that way! It’s actually pretty elegant, the way Jemisin rolls everything out, and lets the five or six separate mysteries she has created inform each other until, piece by piece, you realize that they are all the same mystery.

And it takes a while to knit the whole picture together, a satisfying, leisurely length of time, which wouldn’t happen if ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ weren’t surprising. The only way that mysteries can afford to be leisurely (and ‘The Broken Earth’ is a mystery, at the end of the day) is if they are very, very sure you aren’t going to solve everything before the end and get bored waiting for the text to catch up.

And it worked! I didn’t figure it all out because I didn’t expect the, like, ground beneath everyone’s feet to be the bad guy. Who expects that?!?

As I said at the beginning, there is a lot going right in these books. And there is more to say, I’m sure, about the moral of this story, and about the humane character of the books, about what they mean and about how fun they are. There is a lot to be said for how strongly they are executed, how tight the writing is and how well-paced and well-structured the story is – this is really, really strong world-building.

But I’m mostly just so happy to have been surprised. I’m always grateful for a good story, surprising or not, but a story that shows me something new under the sun? Rarer and rarer, and the more precious for it.