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Gothic novels are obsessed with borders. Mexican Gothic takes full advantage.

The gothic novel is the perfect genre for thinking about empires.

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The Vox Book Club reads Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Zac Freeland/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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Mexican Gothic wears its genre on its cover. The title isn’t telling you a lie: This book, with its decaying English manor, its psychosexual secrets, its lavish aesthetic, and its sense of deep emotional constraint, is a gothic novel. And it is specifically a gothic novel set in an English manor in Mexico, which means that it is a gothic novel about colonialism.

That makes sense for the genre, because the gothic novel has been interested in thinking through questions of colonialism and empire for a long, long time.

One of the standard gothic plots goes like this: There is a country house, a manor. It’s full of the evidence of old money, but that money is gone now, and the house is crumbling. It is isolated, far away from everyone and everything, a world of its own. It is hiding something.

And as the novel begins, an intruder is walking into the house. She is a threat to its isolation, its purity, and its unknowable and dreadful secrets.

That standard gothic story plot is about borders and border crossing, about the terrors of the other, about wealth and exploitation and plunder and shifting power dynamics. It lends itself naturally to metaphors about colonialism and empire. So since the 18th century, that’s one of the things gothic novelists have used the genre for.

Jane Eyre’s gothic madwoman in the attic is a madwoman from the colonies

In The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert argues that a slew of 18th- and 19th-century gothic novels can be read as responding to England’s increasingly polarized debate about slavery and the colonial practices that came with it. Making colonialism gothic, as the critic Andrew Lachlan McCann put it, reveals “the ‘repressed’ of colonization: collective guilt, the memory of violence and dispossession, and the struggle for mastery in which the insecurity of the settler-colony is revealed.”

Let’s use a familiar example here. Have you read Jane Eyre? Even if you haven’t (you should!), you probably already know that in Jane Eyre, the mystery that the gothic manor is hiding is Mr. Rochester’s mad first wife, Bertha. Bertha is the obstacle keeping Jane Eyre from marrying Rochester, and she is the madwoman in the attic whom the trope is named after.

Relevant backstory: Rochester met Bertha in Jamaica, where he traveled because that’s where his family money comes from. That’s because Rochester is a colonizer, making money from stolen resources. And Bertha is Creole, which means her family is of European descent but she was born in Jamaica.

Bertha is freighted with symbolic weight. The standard feminist reading of Bertha is that she is Jane’s shadow self, making her a metaphor for the violence and unruliness that Jane suppresses out of her life. But there’s also a postcolonial reading of Bertha, where Bertha stands in for the consequences of empire. She is a walking metaphor for what Paravisini-Gebert describes as “the colonial space,” which is “a bifurcated, ambivalent space, where the familiar and unfamiliar mingle in an uneasy truce.”

Jane Eyre’s Bertha is European, but there’s a possibility of racial ambiguity lingering around her. She is English, but not quite; she is Other, but not quite. She is confusing and frightening and probably violent, and the only thing we can do with her is violently repress her, shove her into the attic and hope she doesn’t cause too much trouble. But of course she gets out anyway, and of course all sorts of trouble ensues.

The colonial gothic is all about these fears and anxieties: We have committed violence, and now we fear violence in return; groups are mingling, and that is threatening, but isolation will lead only to decay; what can we do, how can we maintain control?

But going into the 20th and 21st centuries, we started to see new gothic novels that were written from the point of view not of the colonizer, but of the colonized: the postcolonial gothic. Wide Sargasso Sea responding to Jane Eyre.

That’s the tradition that Mexican Gothic is working with. And it’s doing incredibly interesting stuff with it.

In Mexican Gothic, Howard is the imperial past and Noemí is the triumphant cosmopolitan future

The postcolonial gothic allows us to treat the British empire as something uncanny. In these novels, empire is Other and monstrous and deserves to be treated as such.

And god, how creepy is Mexican Gothic’s Howard Doyle, the patriarch of High Place, with his body covered in sores and his leering personal questions; his obsession with the idea of genetics, of when to purify and when to strengthen the line. (Howard’s interest in eugenics is characteristic of the gothic, which is terrified of corruption through outside blood but moreover terrified of the corruption of insularity and incest.) The character is a classically terrifying gothic villain, and he stands for empire and its violence.

The secret in the house of High Place isn’t just Howard’s mushrooms, which grant him immortality and omniscience within High Place: It’s that Howard’s power comes at the expense of the people he claims to serve. High Place claims that it provides El Triunfo with jobs and enriches the economy, but that’s just a pretty lie. Like Jane Eyre’s Rochester, Howard built his wealth and power through the theft of Indigenous resources. And as he builds his mushroom cult of immortality, he is continuing to profit through corrupting Mayan resources — the mushrooms, remember, were pure before he got his hands on them — and exploiting the Mexican mine workers he refers to as “mulch.”

Almost as creepy is Howard’s son, Virgil. Virgil stands for empire, too, but he’s also an interesting riff on a classic gothic trope, which is for there to be a sexual attraction tinged with violence between heroine and antihero. That trope starts to play out in Mexican Gothic when our protagonist Noemí comes to High Place to save her cousin Catalina from her marriage to Virgil, only to find herself plagued by erotic nightmares about him — but here, the structure is different. Noemí takes a creeping, insidious pleasure in the waking dreams she experiences with Virgil, but she’s also disgusted by him, and the ambivalence of her reaction becomes a metaphor for the corrupting pleasure that colonialism dangles before those it exploits. It allows Noemí to acknowledge the reality of her enjoyment while still rejecting it on no uncertain terms.

But Noemí is perhaps the most subversive character in this postcolonial novel. Next to her, the English Doyles are parochial and sorely ignorant, while Mexico City Noémi is widely read, intelligent, and well-traveled. Noemí is the avatar of cosmopolitan modernity, of liberalism and education — and she’s not a hyper-rational white man. She’s not a chaste and virginal white woman, either. Noemí is a brown woman who has had sex, and she stands for the future.

So when Noemí triumphs in the end, we’re witnessing the vindication of the colonized over the colonizer. The subaltern speaks at last.

Discussion questions

  1. What are your favorite gothic novels? What do you think is the appeal of the genre?
  2. We didn’t even get into the “Yellow Wallpaper” stuff! Remember how the mold on Noémi’s wall is yellow and moves? How did that allusion work for you?
  3. Between the mushrooms in Mexican Gothic, the mushroom omelet in the 2017 movie Phantom Thread, and that mushroom episode of Hannibal, mushrooms are shaping up to be a signifier of the modern gothic. (They were not, as far as I know, much of a thing in the 18th- and 19th-century gothic.) How do you feel about them? What do you think makes them work? I keep thinking about the idea of mushrooms as a symbol for fecundity and rot and poison, so sex and death, and also the idea of mushrooms as a nervous system, which means you can play with intimacy and the crossing of boundaries. There’s probably more I’m not thinking of, though!
  4. Speaking of the mushrooms: I’ve talked to a few people who found them a letdown after all the buildup, because they seemed kind of silly as a force for evil. Did they work for you?
  5. How are we all feeling about haunted houses after staying in our houses for seven months? Good, I bet!
  6. What was the creepiest moment of Mexican Gothic for you? I am haunted by that poor lady at the very end. You know the one.
  7. The book’s ending suggests the possibility of a hopeful future for Francis and Noemí. Do you think they’ll make it work?

You can sound off on these questions in the comments below, or in your own communities. Or feel free to post your own questions!

Also, be sure to RSVP now for this month’s live event with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, on Thursday, October 29, at 5 pm ET. In the meantime, sign up for our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.