After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.
This is the first true horror book I have ever read.
Growing up, I never truly understood why people consumed horror media. Why would anyone voluntarily choose to feel scared instead of entertained? What point is there to feeding the paranoia of being alone in the dark? (It certainly didn’t help that the brand of East-Southeast Asian horror I was raised on tended heavily towards ghosts and apparitions, and still disproportionately frightens me to this day!)
But in recent years, I’ve found myself gravitating towards weird stories with spookier elements, and ended up developing a particular fondness for gothic horror. There’s something absolutely alluring about the morbid, almost pleasurable terror of a gothic novel, wrapped underneath layers of decadence, aesthetics, and decay. After massively enjoying House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig last year, I began seeking out books and other media that could give me the same sense of dread and catharsis that Sorrows gave me a taste of. I eventually found solace in Emily Carroll’s horror comics and the podcast The Magnus Archives, which all built a foundation for my instant attraction to the premise of Mexican Gothic.
And friend, if you are also fascinated by haunted houses and the macabre, in a tension that builds and builds until the threads of the story come loose in a brilliant, repulsive reveal… Then this book was written for you too.
A house on a hill, a strange family
The premise of Mexican Gothic is a tried-and-true one. In 1950’s Mexico, headstrong socialite and debutante Noemí Taboada receives an uncharacteristic distress letter from her cousin, Catalina, who recently wed into the enigmatic Doyle family and now resides in a rural countryside mansion. She is persuaded by her father to investigate Catalina’s condition, and so she travels to High Place—the proverbial house atop the hill where the rest of the novel is set. Over the course of the book, Noemí slowly begins to unravel the dark anxieties that plague her cousin, the curse of the family she’s been wedded to, as well as old secrets within the crumbling mansion itself.
Where this book truly shines, I think, is how it handles its classic horror premise. Never once while reading could I truly pin down the underlying cause of tension in High Place. And boy, does Noemí go through a lot in this book—the Doyle family grows increasingly oppressive and hostile, the local cemetery is coated in a strange mist, and (in true Yellow Wallpaper fashion), a patterned wallpaper in her bedroom seems to come… alive, festering, crusting over with sores. Soon it begins to seem that High Place isn’t just haunted by something, it’s an instigator of the terror. But when her nightmares and reality begin to blur into each other, can Noemí even trust her own assumptions? And why is her family-in-law so seemingly obsessed with eugenics and ideas of a superior race?
A dark mystery that bides its time
In exploring the strange, dilapidated mansion of High Place, a recurring motif that Noemí encounters persistently throughout the house is one of a snake eating its own tail. If you’re as much of a mythology geek as me, you will probably recognise it as an ouroboros immediately—a symbol of the cycle of death and rebirth, fertility and immortality. The snake is thematically important, and also emblematic of how the plot in this book is structured as well.
Much of the early days that Noemí spends at the house fall into a sort of routine: she awakens, dons a stylish outfit, spends time gathering clues in an attempt to crack the mystery, and tries to convince her cousin to leave with her. She never wholly succeeds, of course, but every day gets her a little closer to the truth, until she becomes inextricably linked within the ouroboros spiral of High Place and the uncanny conspiracies of the Doyle family. This part of the book can read a little slow if you’re used to more action-packed thrillers, but Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s masterful suspense writing more than makes up for the more gradual pace of the beginning sections. Every discovery Noemí makes is fraught with complications, and the Doyle family also seem to stop at nothing to implicate her as a villain for trying to disrupt their highly conservative lives. All the build-up also pays off immensely in the third arc of the novel, where all is finally revealed. When I tell you that I had to put down the book several times while reading the conclusion because the truth underpinning it all was beyond sickening, I mean it.
“Noemí, just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted. Nor that you shouldn’t fear the haunting. You are too fearless.”
Throughout it all, though this book is very much plot-driven instead of reliant on its characters, Noemí herself was also an easy protagonist to root for. She is vain, flighty, and stubborn, but also clearly intelligent and cares earnestly for her cousin. In an environment that only grows exponentially disapproving of her presence, she stays, stubbornly digging her (very fabulous) heels into the sickly dirt, and sees the mystery to its grisly, horrific close.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
In growing more acquainted with the horror genre and my own preferences for fictional spookiness, I have come to seriously appreciate the catharsis and escapist moments that these stories can offer—and make no mistake, Mexican Gothic has all of these in spades. This book is a stunning accomplishment within the genre, filled with loving homage to the gothic novels that influenced and came before it. If you’re up for some repulsive, decadent horror, and don’t mind taking a little time to go on a morbid journey, this book is an absolutely bone-chilling read. Don’t turn your lights off.
(But also, a fair warning, and I swear this is relevant: maybe don’t read this if you’re very fond of mushrooms.)
Digital ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review!
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: After receiving a distressing letter from her newly-wed cousin, headstrong socialite Noemí travels to a gloomy mansion, where she begins to unearth the family curse that plagues her cousin’s dark suitor while fighting to not succumb to it herself.
Perfect for: lovers of gothic horror, haunted houses, or spooky novels with diverse lead characters
Think twice if: you’re looking for something lighter, you’re not in a place to handle any of the trigger warnings (below)
Genre: adult, historical, horror
Trigger/content warning: body horror, altered mental states, racism, cannibalism, unreality, sexual assault, eugenics, sexism, incest, compulsion, fire, gun violence, child abuse, mental instability