SPOILER WARNING FOR MEXICAN GOTHIC BY SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA: This post makes many parts of the plot of this book explicit. Do not read this review unless you are okay with being spoiled.
The gothic has always been one of my favourite literary modes. I love gothic literature, I love how it uses aesthetics to explore themes and comment on dominant social ideologies and discourses. The gothic can do so much! Exploring sexuality, nationality, race, gender and more. I’ve read a lot of classic gothic literature, but one of the most fascinating emerging branches of the gothic is, in my opinion, post-colonial gothic. Or more accurately, books which utilise the gothic to explore post-colonial society and discourses which dominate our social consciousness right now.
Which brings us to Mexican Gothic, a 2020 novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia which utilises the gothic to explore post-colonial realities. Set in Mexico, the central character, Noemí, receives a mysterious letter from her cousin Catalina, begging to be rescued from the house in which she lives with her husband and his strange family. Concerned for her cousin, Noemí arrives at High Place, to find things are strange and amiss. The family have strict, unexplained rules, Catalina is perpetually sick with an illness that can’t be explained, and talking about hearing voices in the walls. Also, the family is racist, leave their well-read books about eugenics lying around. Through this twisting story about voices in the walls, murder, sick sisters and weird family members, one thing really stood out to me – the skilful way Moreno-Garcia post-colonial ideas
What is The Gothic?
The first thing you need to know about the gothic, is it is concerned with degeneration, with a return of the repressed, and with ‘the Other’ taking control. It is concerned with exposing the barbaric, and always casts the barbarous as horror. Barbarism is horror, and horror is barbaric. The ‘other’ can be anything, as long as it’s allowing a return of the repressed, or for society or individuals to degenerate, and it usually subverts social norms and ideals. Most importantly in the context of Mexican Gothic, the gothic is used to explore concerns of degeneration brought about specifically the intermingling of British colonialists with other nations during the colonial period.
In 18th and 19th century literature, when imperialism was at it’s peak, English society saw itself as the most advanced, civilised nation, particularly for those living within major cities, and especially London. But English people were concerned about the end-product of process. The Victorian era, in particular, was a moment of rapid change, and English people worried that the end point of this progress would be a collapse into a dark age. The potential for degeneration, for their society to go ‘backwards’, was a dominant discourse, a prevailing horror. And the burden of this horror was placed upon the other, the non-civilised, whose presence in society was deemed to threaten the steady march of progress.
This ‘other’ was frequently represented by those living in colonies. Because the imperial machine relied on racist ideologies such as eugenics, phrenology and mostly importantly, social Darwinism, to continue – the non-white were cast as the other, deemed to be more primitive, more savage, more barbarous. Thus, the gothic comes into play – English people were terrified of the ‘primitive’. They feared that they, despite how ‘civilised’ they were, had the potential to return to a primitive state. Upon meeting ‘native’, ‘untouched’ people who they considered ‘barbaric’, they wondered if it meant the human condition in it’s ‘untouched’ form was inherently barbaric. If, according to the social Darwinism, these ‘barbarous’ people they met were a less evolved forms of themselves, it seemed feasible within all people was the potential to ‘degenerate’ back to this primitive state.
Thus, gothic literature used it’s specific aesthetics and ideas to explore this horror – the horror of a returned past. For example, the prevailing gothic image of the crumbling mansion is intended to be horror because it shows a degeneration of important images of English civilisation. English manors returned to their primitive states, often due to a lack of wealth, which was almost always there because of imperialism, is an extension of a fear of the end to progress. Locations set far away from the city, such as the moors (most famously represented in Wuthering Heights), are often described as pre-historic and primitive, due to the lack of a built landscape. Their distance from the city, the hub of civilisation, leaves great potential for repressed emotions and behaviours to emerge – this is why we see Heathcliff (who also, important, is coded as being non-white) famously represented as engaging in activities – revenge, criminality, violence – which are deemed non-civilised.
Explaining the gothic can be difficult, especially since it emerges in so many forms and can be used to explore many things. But these are the basic principles, that a return of the past is a horror, and the past is barbaric, and that the barbaric people are those who are uncivilised, explicitly linked to those who are non-white, and non-English.
What does it have to do with Mexican Gothic?
As I said, the gothic can come in many forms. One of these forms emerged in the 20th century, the post-colonial gothic. As all post-colonial literature seeks to respond to colonial literature, post-colonial gothic does the same. But it employs, and subverts, the same tropes utilised in gothic colonial fiction.
Julie Hakim Azzam outlines some of the central tenets of the post-colonial gothic in her dissertation ‘The Alien Within: Postcolonial Gothic and the Politics of Home‘
“Postcolonial gothic fiction arises in response to certain social, historical, or political conditions . . . part of the postcolonial gothic’s agenda is unveiling that behind the construction of hominess abroad lies something fundamentally unhomely. . . . Postcolonial gothic employs a gothic historical sensibility, or a sense of “pastness” in the present . . . if the gothic is the narrative mode by which Britain frightened itself about cultural degeneration, the loss of racial or cultural purity, the racial other, sexual subversion and the threat that colonial-era usurpation and violence might one day “return,” then postcolonial gothic deploys the gothic as a mode of frightening itself with images of transgressive women who threaten to expose the dark underbelly of their own historical and political contexts”
Mexican Gothic is an entertaining, unputdownable text, but it’s also one which is explicitly post-colonial in it’s approach to exploring the central characters and the themes. Many of the tenets of post-colonial fiction, as outlined above, are clearly in play within Mexican Gothic. Thus, I wanted to explore for the rest of this post how Mexican Gothic explores post-colonial themes, and the role of the gothic in this text.
The Past is Not Dead:
One of the major ways in which the use of the gothic became present in Mexican Gothic is how often the past is returned in the present. Moreno-Garcia starts the story by employing classical gothic tropes – Noemí must travel out of the city, to a mansion which is decayed, and built through the spoils of colonialism. Early in the story, Noemí thinks, “God, the city seemed so far away” This thought serves to reinforce the countryside as the locus for the emergence of the gothic.
However, in Mexican Gothic, the only part of the countryside that is backwards and representative of the past is the mansion at High Place. Here, there is no electricity (another common symbol of civilisation in gothic fiction), and the mansion is the last standing reminder of the British inhabitants stronghold on the town below the hill. Although decaying, the house serves as a literal representation of the past lingering in the present.
The depiction of High Place reminded me of another colonial gothic text, The Hound of Baskervilles, in which the decaying mansion upon the moors is the final bastion of civilisation against the horror-inducing landscape. High Place visualises itself, in the context of the landscape, in much the same way. Throughout the book, the increasing horror of High Place and it’s inhabitants subverts this image. The mansion is a symbol of the past, but it is a blot upon the present. And so Mexican Gothic begins to set the stage early for a post-colonial, gothic novel.
The past seems to pervade the present in Mexican Gothic. This is sometimes represented overtly, the aging patriarch of the house for example, is literally an enduring symbol of the past within the text. He cannot die, but Noemí needs to kill him in order to escape High Place (which is a node for the past). The past also emerges into the present through the form of hauntings, as those from the past speak to Noemí, and through ideologies. Virgil discussing race, eugenics, and incest also brings the past to the front – and it is through these colonial ideologies, which are so present in traditional gothic, does the post-colonial gothic emerge. Whereas in traditional gothic, the reality of these ideologies is the horror within which the gothic manifests, in Mexican Gothic, it is the endurance of these ideologies which is the horror. The uncanny similarity of the family, and their selective ‘breeding’, is the horror, the gothic this book presents. In doing so, it subverts the gothic. It also brings the past constantly into the present, and Noemí literally needs to kill the past in order to secure her future. The horror that must be dealt with, is the past.
This merging of the past and present, in a way which is uncanny and horrific, is also clear in the plot about the dead miners, and the families attempt to leave High Place. The miners death haunts the house, the townspeople believed it’s cursed because of it, and it is also the catalyst for High Place falling into ruin. What is implied in the miners is a colonial industry – the mining seems to be done on behalf of, and to the benefit of, The Empire. This violence and the atrocities linger in the present, with the voices of the workers heard in the walls, and their stories constantly brought up by the family and the town.
Azzam also notes that, “In the postcolonial gothic, homes and dwellings are the geographic sites in which larger political, historical, and national allegories are cast”, this is clear within Mexican Gothic. First, the name High Place itself denotes a belief by the family of their own superiority. Imperial mindsets cast peoples on a hierarchy, and the name of the house already shows how the family consider themselves to be at the top. So as early as when the name is revealed, the home at High Place is staged as the site in which political, historical and national debates play out. The clash between a colonial post and a post-colonial future is played out within the house, both before and after Noemí’s arrival. The house itself is a hub of the past; it is haunted by voices, visions and people belonging to the past, often in a very literal way. Moreno-Garcia firmly casts the family at High Place, and their beliefs, as the primitive, and she also situates the drama and the political, historical and allegorical narratives relating to the family as being explored, played out, and ultimately defeated within the home.
Therefore, the attention payed to the house in the novel is significant; and it’s final destruction is symbolic of a triumph of post-colonial ideas and debates.
Using the Gothic to Explore Post-Colonialism
Intuitively, it makes sense for postcolonial writers to tap into Britain’s “dark” or
“illegitimate” narrative mode with which to understand the relationship between the colonial era
and the present moment of complicated postcoloniality as one that is haunted by the specter of
the colonial past
As Azzam notes, using the gothic mode, a mode which historically characterises the colonised as barbaric – as the same mode by which to undermine this narrative and explore post-colonial themes makes sense. It’s something which Moreno-Garcia does constantly in Mexican Gothic, taking classic gothic tropes but twisting them. There is an horror in the barbaric and violent deeds committed by colonists, which have lingering results. There is an uncanny horror in these deeds; because they are often the very regressive deeds the gothic writers feared they could succumb to. Simply put, the post-colonial gothic seeks to solve and explore the issues of colonialism, using the very same narrative mode which helped perpetuate them.
In Mexican Gothic, the use of gothic tropes includes the presence of sexual taboo’s, especially incest, as well as the horror of cannibalism, death, and the emergence of undesirable traits, particularly as a result of ‘mixing’ between races. Moreno-Garcia takes all these ideas, each being a staple of the gothic, and twists them in such a way where the horror exposed is the manifestation of these ideals to justify the lingering colonial presence of the house on High Place.
The gothic has always been preoccupied with incest and cannibalism, seeing it as a horrific trait associated with colonised peoples. In Mexican Gothic, this is subverted; it is the English colonisers who practice cannibalism and incest, and they do so in order to uphold antiquated ideas. It is another example of the subversion of the colonial mindset within the novel, exposing the horrors that colonisation and racism brings, to the point of the colonisers engaging in what they novel also portrays as a horror; incest and cannibalism. In doing so, both the past is brought forward to the present, and also the post-colonial narrative is reinforced by displaying where the colonial mind, as enamoured and obsessed as it is in it’s own ideals, will practice complete horror to uphold them. Noemi’s mission leads her to exposing this horror, and in doing so, exposing the barbarism that has allowed the family to continue to exist in High Place.
Exposing the Dark Underbelly:
As Julie Hakim Azzam writes, a marker of the post-colonial gothic is “a focus on transgressive women who expose the dark underbelly of their own historical and political contexts.” Noemi perfectly encapsulates the idea of a ‘transgressive women’ both generally but more importantly, to the family. The most famous feminist examination of gothic literature “The Madwoman in the Attic” by Gilbert and Gubar, argues gothic literature categorises women as either monster or angel. Either they are pure, virginal and docile, or unkempt, mad and rebellious. This dynamic is played out between the women of the cast; Florence and Catalina as docile and angelic, Noemi and Agnes are rebellious and mad. But the dynamic quickly breaks down as these women begin to be explored outside the male gaze. Noemi is rebellious, but she is also kind, logical and the angelic saviour of the book. Catalina is docile, but she is is also her rebellious act which starts the action of the novel. It is suggested, that the women are forced into and type casted by the men, and in turn, the novel eventually breaks each from their mould. They are all somewhat transgressive women, though Noemi in particular, for her refusal to have her sexuality controlled by the men of the novel.
Exposing the historical and political context within which she lives is also central to the plot. It begins early, where Noemí’s ethnicity, being Mexican and Indigenous, clashes with the English family. Noemí is constantly required to navigate the racist beliefs of the family, and have her own legitimacy brought into question despite the text being set in Mexico. The English manor on High Hill, is the ‘English home away from home’, which is demonstrated early as Noemí is told how the British family even imported soil from England to ensure their English plants would grow. Very early then, the dichotomy between Mexico and England is set up, as playing out between Noemí and the family. Exposing the unholiness of this home abroad, and it’s encroachment on the Mexican community, is continuous.
The family believes High Place to be a perfect English home; and yet it is soon revealed they cannot leave, that as much they try to they are drawn back, and into a grim fate. The home abroad is not a home, it is a prison, and therefore it’s homeliness is a myth. Its image of itself, as an untainted English hub on the landscape, is also exposed. We learn High Place is the hub of unspeakable horror, particularly family violence. We learn the house itself, with all it’s supposed English grandeur, is built on the blood and deaths of Mexican workers. And we learn for all the families talk of English purity and ideals, it was only through violence and manipulation that the family was able to continue exist, and that the idea English genetics are inherently superior was undermined as soon as Agnes sought to leave with a Mexican worker who successfully ran an uprising against them.
This book is one, long, exposure. Of the family, of their ideals, and in turn, of the social and political narratives which underpin their characters and and the purpose of High Place. The fear of the scandalous, unseen thing rapturing into the seen, present consciousness is a gothic preoccupation. But the specific exposures, that the home abroad is unhomely, that political and social discourses underpinning colonialism are false, that the colonial hub itself is a nightmare, move this book into the realm of the post-colonial. Finally, it is post-colonial because, as Azzam notes, what Noemi exposes is her own context and history, of herself and her country as the colonised persons.
Mexican Gothic was such a wonderful book to read, and to think about. It’s one of those books that seems richer to me the longer I go since I finished it. I keep constantly thinking, and another thing! Because the depiction of the post-colonial gothic was so clearly well thought out and incorporated. The way this book employed classic gothic tropes, taking the mode which upheld imperialism with every breath, to write a scathing critique of it, and it’s perpetrators, was wonderful. I really loved how this book used the gothic to explore social discourses and pick apart the faults of the logic in colonial fiction.
Mexican Gothic constantly addresses the problems and consequences of Imperialism in Mexico, and uses High Place as the locus within which the tensions of decolonisation and clashing social discourses play out. I really loved how simple and complex this book was at the same time, with scenes such as the literal death of the past in Agnes being the path to the future one that really stood out to me, both as a post-colonial symbol and also just as a satisfying piece of writing.
There is so much I feel I did not get to say about this book, and I think it’s one I would love to come back to again with an even more critical eye to pick over again. I’ll definitely be looking out for Moreno-Garcia’s work in the future.
Azzam, Julie. “The Alien Within: Postcolonial Gothic And The Politics Of Home”. D-Scholarship. Pitt.Edu, 2007, http://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/9521/1/J-Azzam.pdf.
Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. MEXICAN GOTHIC. Thorndike Press, 2021.
until next time!