The Next Chapter

Silvia Moreno-Garcia subverts genre expectations with the spooky suspense of her novel Mexican Gothic

The Mexican Canadian author spoke to Shelagh Rogers about the themes of class, gender and genre in her latest novel.
Mexican Gothic is a novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. (Martin Dee)

This segment originally aired on Oct. 31, 2020.

Growing up in Mexico, Silvia Moreno-Garcia read voraciously — and she is a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy books. Fifteen years ago, she moved to Canada and she started writing her own fiction.

Her latest, Mexican Gothicis a gothic horror novel set in 1950s Mexico. It tells the story of a young woman named Noemi Taboada who is called by her cousin to save her from doom in her countryside home, the mysterious and alluring High Place.

Noemi doesn't know much about the house, the region or her cousin's mysterious new husband, but she's determined to solve this mystery and save her cousin — whatever it takes. The New York Times bestseller is a lush, haunted house story underpinned with themes of feminism and class commentary. 

Moreno-Garcia talks to Shelagh Rogers about writing Mexican Gothic.

Set in the 1950s

"The year 1950 seemed just about right, in a Goldilocks kind of way, because women were going to get to vote in 1953 Mexico. So this is just before women get the vote, but it's after the Mexican Revolution. It's this interim period where some things have changed in terms of how women are perceived, and the rights and freedoms that they have. 

The year 1950 seemed just about right, in a Goldilocks kind of way, because women were going to get to vote in 1953 Mexico.

"But there are still many constraints — the view at the time was that the woman, while she may 'waste' her time engaging academic pursuits, ultimately, the final goal is to get married and to have children."

A mysterious region

"The town in Mexican Gothic is based on a real town. It was a silver mining town. It's located in central Mexico, high up in the mountains of Hidalgo. It has a curious history because it was mined by the British in the 19th century. That's what earned the nickname Little Cornwall. 

"Just like in my novel, there is an English cemetery there, full of English people and English gravestones. It tends to be misty and cold and rainy, especially during certain times of the year." 

Our books columnist Jael Richardson fills us in on a spooky new book to check out: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 7:46

A woman of means

"The main character, Noemi, was inspired by a couple of things. One of them was a photo of my great aunt. She's at a party. She's wearing a 1950s-era dress and she's looking over her shoulder.

"She's sitting with a young man. The way the photo was taken and the way it's framed, your eye goes directly onto her face. You don't see the man or the other people in the room — you are looking at her and she's looking right back at you. She's very self-assured and poised. 

I was looking at what it might have been like to be a young woman of a certain means.

"The other was my maternal grandmother who came from a working class family. My great-grandmother was a maid, and my great-grandfather repaired radios. My grandmother wanted to go and study medicine. But her father torpedoed that idea because he said that if she studied medicine, that would mean going to school with men. Instead, she went to secondary school. It was a suitable occupation for a woman and she needed to contribute to the family's finances.

"On the other side of my family, a couple of paternal great aunts never got married because they came from money and they were able to make different choices. They were unmarried women, they traveled a little bit more and they were able to do other kinds of things and play a little bit of the socialite game. 

"I took some stuff from my family and also from just the time period. I was looking at what it might have been like to be a young woman of a certain means." 

Subverting expectations

"One of the things that I watched when I was a teenager were the horror movies of Carlos Enrique Taboada. He made four Gothic movies in Mexico. They are very interesting because they are different from what most people perceive as Mexican and as horror.

"He made movies that are very much gothic: they have Mexican actors who are speaking in Spanish and yet they don't conform to any of the genre stereotypes that we expect. That was one of the things that I loved. 

There were other ways to tell stories that don't necessarily conform to the narrow expectations that people have of Mexicans.

"They depart from this base of exoticism that is often demanded of us. When I was thinking of this book, I named my heroine after him because I was very grateful that I got to see some of those films when I was growing up — they were visual fodder and influences from the back of my mind.

"It was the possibility that you could do gothic in Mexico and that you didn't have to do it in a pastiche way, where you had to cram it with Day of the Dead imagery. There were other ways to tell stories that don't necessarily conform to the narrow expectations that people have of Mexicans."

Silvia Moreno-Garcia's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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