Decolonizing A Proto-Genre: Author Silvia Moreno-Garcia On MEXICAN GOTHIC

The gothic horror novel that blew readers away last year is available in paperback TODAY. Read it, and read this interview.

By Dolores Quintana · @doloresquintana · June 15, 2021, 2:17 PM EDT
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Silvia Moreno-Garcia's superb novel Mexican Gothic (out on paperback today!) is the tale of Noemi Taboada, a Mexican socialite sent by her father to check on her married cousin Catalina after they receive a disturbing letter from her. Noemi travels to El Triunfo, a small town where the Doyle family – Catalina's inlaws – live in a decrepit mansion called High Place. As Noemi tries to understand the strange and arrogant Doyle family and Catalina’s alarming state of mind, she feels a terror that she cannot explain. She meets Francis, the only Doyle whom she instinctively likes, but can anyone be trusted? When the monstrous plans of the family are revealed, Noemi must find a way to save the people she loves and escape High Place, while putting an end to the horror that the Doyles have brought to El Triunfo for generations. 

I had the opportunity to speak with the author and ask her about her love of horror, her interest in fungi, and how the sprawling shadow of the Gothic genre led her to write a terrifying tale of family, love and twisted ambition. Mexican Gothic has its roots squarely in the Gothic and Horror genres while offering moments of realistic flair and a grounding in science. It's a groundbreaking work that brings the Gothic tale into the 21st century while weaving the culture of Mexico into the fabric of a beloved genre, a novel that is strikingly progressive and still provides the cosmic terror of the greatest genre authors of our past. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has given us a work of blazing brilliance with an otherworldly power to reach inside of us all. Let's learn more.

I understand that you are originally from Mexico, but Canada is now your home? 

Yes, I was born and I grew up in Mexico. I moved to Canada as an adult.

When did you start writing?

My first short story publication was in 2006, so 15 years ago, as an adult.


Are you one of those people who started writing when they were a child? Did you make up stories as a child in your head?

I did. But I consider my first serious writing attempt to be the one when I started selling short fiction. 

Are you a horror fan or did you have a general interest in fiction?


I've read horror for a long time and I've also edited horror. I was the editor at a horror magazine called The Dark for several years as co-editor with Sean Wallace. I won a World Fantasy Award for editing for She Walks In Shadows, which is a Lovecraft-inspired anthology. I wrote short fiction and all that kind of stuff. So I've been involved in the horror field for a while now. I've also been involved in general with figurative fiction and other aspects of the field.

Who are your favorite authors or, say, authors that came to your mind while writing Mexican Gothic? Authors whose work that you considered touchstones for the book?

It's probably too many to name for this novel. Specifically, I was looking at a lot at the traditional Gothic writers, including Poe, many others, and works such as [Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story] "The Yellow Wallpaper." I also named the main antagonist, [the Doyle patriarch], Howard after H.P. Lovecraft. My influences are a rather broad implementation of Gothic fiction, which is what comes into this from both the romantic side and the horror side.


Why did you decide to explore Gothic fiction?

Gothic fiction is a bit of a proto-genre. It is the genre that will eventually give birth to both what we call modern horror fiction, modern romantic fiction, and many of the things that we take for granted now come from that movement, and therefore it is kind of like a safe space where several things connect in different ways... things that are a little bit amorphous and allow you to shift from one genre to the other. 


I'm a horror fan, and I do like Gothic fiction and the Gothic tradition, but I've never really had anything, because I'm a Chicana, to feel connected to in the genre. It's always been kind of disappointing that I didn't have something in the genre to feel represents me, which is one of the things I like the best about the novel.

Yeah, not really.

I think it's important, it's representation, but it's also decolonization of, in particular, as you say, a proto-genre. It's bringing our heritage and our traditions into that proto-genre, which is terrific and something that could really be very helpful to not just young readers, but also to future writers.


There's so much to the novel. I found what you made of mold and spores quite frightening. I was wondering how you came to that? How did you bring Mycology into the story? I really liked that you used something that was natural as being so frightening. How did the idea come about for this specific idea in the novel? 

I'm interested in Mycology and I like the field in general. I have worked at the faculty of science of a university for a really long time. I get to see a lot of research that goes around there and some of the fungal research is very interesting. The scientist, Suzanne Simard, who actually coined the term hub tree or mother tree, which refers to a tree that helps form a central fungal network, is from my university, so I know her work. I am familiar and have been familiar, for a while now, with some of the studies that are related to fungi and their ecological importance. If you know anyone who knows about fungi, they know that actually, the mushroom part, which is a part that we see normally of a mushroom – the part that we see in the supermarket – is the smallest part of the “mushroom” or fungus, because most of the fungal network is underground, long filaments that serve to exchange nutrients and information between each other.


In the last fifteen to twenty years, we have learned much more about the ecological importance of fungi. That's how I was familiar with that. I also learned they have very interesting properties; some of them are psychotropic. That means they are what people think of as 'magic mushrooms.' With these mushrooms, you can experience an altered state. I have read nonfiction about the use of mushrooms for religious purposes and how mushrooms might have contributed to the development of religion. I’ve read a few books and some papers about how maybe mushrooms were the foundation of Christianity and other religions.

I mean, who hasn’t heard about black mold and how dangerous it can be to your health? It just immediately grabbed me like a little finger of fear. I think it's a great way to base the family curse of a Gothic novel in a scientific reality. 

Yes, and some readers don't like that. That's exactly what turns them off. They think there's sci-fi elements in a horror book. But like I said, Gothic is a malleable category. Frankenstein is also a Gothic novel and it's a sci-fi novel at the same time, even though we can't really make people out of dead body parts. Jekyll and Hyde is also another sci-fi-ish concept. We can't create another personality or person and undergo the changes that happen in Jekyll and Hyde just by taking a drink. But that’s exactly what happens in the novel.


So the Gothic is really the space of confluence of different currents. A space where things can change. I think, for some readers who are just not familiar with it, readers who have only, for example, read romantic novels like Wuthering Heights, they might get angry because it's sci-fi, but it's very true to the genre. Because Gothic is a genre that exists at a merging of different points of view and different ideas. It's not exclusively the domain of one single idea. Unlike other genres, like the western where the borders and the boundaries have been very well-defined, Gothic’s borders are much more porous. 

I think that that's not very forward-thinking of them, because a genre that does have those malleable borders ensures that the genre and the writings within it will progress into the future. At a certain point, you have to hybridize it to keep the genre going. Unfortunately, there are some fans of certain genres who don’t want any updates to their beloved and very strict formula because they don’t like change. They’re too hidebound, which doesn’t do their favorite genre any favors. 


Yep, I agree. I think things need to evolve and change. I use a lot of tropes and I was very self-conscious about all the tropes that I used. This was just one deviation that I wouldn't think was big enough for anyone to consider it to not be part of the Gothic tradition or the horror genre. 

The other thing I wanted to talk about is the Mexican component. For once, the white people aren't the heroes. Of course, Mexican people do have European heritage to a greater or lesser degree. But the tragic suffering hero or heroine isn't a purely European person. 



That's another thing that I find incredibly encouraging, because it's also a way of pushing the genre outward. I think that it is the decolonization of literature and the changing of the default. I think it's necessary and makes the novel more vibrant. I am very engaged with Noemi as a character because she's smart and she's strong, but she's not the prototype that most people think of as the strong woman. The non-feminine woman who only thinks of serious things. I was wondering how you came to that characterization?


I was inspired by a great aunt of mine for some of the physicality of the character. But in general, Gothic novels tend to have structure and certain characters that appear in them that are dominant in them. You tend to have a wealthy Byronic male hero in opposition to a female heroine who is submissive to him in one or more ways. Sometimes she's a young bride and he is the man of the house and that’s where the submission comes from. He's at the top of the hierarchy; she is below him. Sometimes it comes in the form of the heroine being somebody who works for him. Somebody who takes care of the kids, basically the nanny or the governess. In that sense, there's always the structural kind of hierarchy going on where the man is the powerful one. He's wildly powerful. The woman comes in and she is not his equal obviously. But then, through love and trials – if it's a romantic Gothic, such as Jane Eyre, they will be united at the end in romantic bliss.

But I didn't want my heroine to come in and be, for example, the maid cleaning the house for this male character. I wanted it to be somebody who would be the social equal of these people, and who, in fact, would kind of stare at them and be a little bit shocked. Someone who would think that [The Doyles] are not superior to anyone. In fact, she would think, 'You live in a dirty old house, what the hell is wrong with you?' Somebody who would be able to have those sorts of interactions, as opposed to if she had been a governess, [or] if she had been getting a paycheck, she probably would never have had Noemi’s attitude and done some of the things that Noemi did.

Noemi does come with a position of privilege, but that also allows her to face the people in privilege and push back at what they're saying, doubting some of what they're saying, precisely because she comes from a different place in life. And so often the characters that are kind of allowed in popular media for Latin American characters or for Mexican characters are either the [nanny] or the servants. Those are the two kinds of positions that popular culture allows us to inhabit. But I know for a fact that as a Mexican, people inhabit all kinds of roles and belong to different socio-economic strata. The fact that we have been put in those two narrow categories doesn't mean that there isn’t more to us. I wanted to show something different that allowed me to do things with the plot that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. If Noemi’s character had been a maid, she would have probably been dead by page 15 and turned into a zombie.


That's one of the things that I love most about the novel is that it shows that Noemi and her family are not just privileged, they're essentially part of the aristocracy of Mexico and their home city – which is definitely not something that most people see a lot in any type of fiction. If they are considered Spanish, yes, but if they are Mexican, too often they are thought of only as servants or laborers. Even with the other characters, the miners, I love that you gave them dignity and a fighting spirit. Showing that they were pro-union and wouldn’t just submissively accept the dictates of the man who considers himself the lord of the manor. I think that's also very important and, once again, a decolonization of the genre. I think that it's very important for a work of fiction and in all books, films and TV to start saying that Indigenous people, Mexican people, People of Color aren't just servants. We're not on a lower strata.

Mexican Gothic also makes a bold statement about eugenics in a humorous way. Noemi comes right out and says that she wonders if Howard has a set of calipers to measure people's skulls, which is a reference to traditional racist ideas of Eugenics that are still being bandied about by racists today. In a subtle way, it's very current to what's going on in the United States right now. 


Eugenics is definitely tied to racism. It's tied to other things, too, at the same time, but one of the nexuses is definitely race. There is a racial pyramid, basically, where the darker you get, the worse that Eugenicists think that you are. It’s also tied to your ethnic identity in an uncomfortable way and sometimes a codifying way. 

I think that's also an important part of the book that at no point does Noemi allow those attitudes to affect how she feels about herself.

She's a bit weirded out.

Which is a natural reaction for anybody with a strong sense of self. Her reaction is that of a person who does not consider herself inferior to anyone.


One of the other themes that I found to be very poignant is that Noemi, her cousin Catalina and Francis are all characters that the rest of the family think of as weak because they have gentle and cooperative qualities to their personality. I was wondering if it was important for you to show gentleness and sensitivity rather than brute strength. 

I like to do dualities a lot in my fiction, so one of the several dualities that you see in this one, specifically, is Francis and [Catalina's husband] Virgil. Virgil is billed as the prototypical Gothic romantic hero, which normally is a Byronic hero who is mad, bad and dangerous to know.


The template of Lord Byron.

Yeah. So you're going back to [Wuthering Heights'] Heathcliff, and those sorts of characters, also like [Jane Eyre's] Mr. Rochester. Those kinds of characters who inspire fright, as well as desire, in the female characters. It's a very popular character trope, one that we still find nowadays. If you look at 50 Shades of Grey, that character is basically the evolution of the proto-Gothic hero, the dominant hero and the submissive heroine and that kind of dynamic, but he's still attractive, right? In Gothic fiction, that is what you generally find as a male interest for the heroine. That is the guy.


Francis Doyle is the polar opposite. He's a completely different character. He is sensitive, kind, and he is a victim. He has been basically living in a cult for his whole life. When you live in a cult, things are very difficult psychologically for you. It's very hard to break out of a cult. He's basically the victim and he is this very kind and intellectual character. To me, it shows a different kind of male character within the narrative. We get to meet Virgil, who is the dominant Heathcliff-type character. We get to meet his father who is very much like Virgil. Then in opposition to them, we have men like Francis. We have men like the town doctor and, while we don't get to see Noemi’s father very much, we have the impression that he's not such a bad guy either. The town doctor is certainly somebody who is trying to do the best that he can within the parameters that he has within the society in the town. I think it shows you that even though the Doyles think that this is the only way to exist as a family unit or to be a man within a family unit, that there are other ways of being.

So in a way, they're trying to gaslight Noemi and Catalina to tell them that this is a perfect little kind of family, that this is the way things should be. Howard emphasizes that in all his rituals and in the way that he's got everything set up. His view that this is the perfect little family. Hopefully readers are not gaslit by this and they realize that even though you're being told, 'No, this is the perfect way, this is the way it should be,' that there are other ways to exist. There are other ways to interact with each other. Francis is white, he is not mixed race or Indigenous, but he is not exploitative in his relationships with people. I don't think it is necessarily your melanin content that determines how you treat others.

Normally in society, this is the way things have been set up. White supremacy is this cancerous force that infects a lot of people. After being sold that story, after being gaslit into that thought pattern, then they may grow up to be abusive and unkind. But it doesn't mean that if you are white, if you're a European person, that if you're born nowadays, that you have to be an abusive person at all. We exist within a society and we accept the going narrative of our society. But sometimes, that story is wrong. In the case of white supremacy, the story that whiteness makes you better and that you have to oppress the other is a fake story. It's a false narrative. It's something people use to try to feed to others and perpetuate the false narrative. But you shouldn't accept that story as being true. I think Francis has his serious doubts about everything that's going on there. But he is at the same time an abuse victim and it's difficult to get out of a cycle of abuse.


I believe your book is incredibly rich with those themes and ideas, not just of decolonization, but from the trauma that cult members or victims of familial abuse suffer from. Gothic and Horror have those themes, of family ties gone bad and of societal pressures, but those themes have not been used in quite this way. 

Gothic is a weird genre. I think it's something that either you like or you don't because it comes loaded with a lot of history and a lot of tropes. If you don't like some of the tropes like a big dark house, then it’s difficult to get over that. It's part of the setup.


Do you have any projects coming up in the future that you can talk about?

I have reissues of a couple of my novels coming up, Certain Dark Things, which is kind of like a neo-noir vampire story set in Mexico City. That will be out in September, through Tor Books. I also have a new novel. It's not horror or anything fantastic. But it is my newest novel that will be out in August. It's called Velvet Was The Night, which is more of a thriller set in the 1970s in Mexico City against the background of political unrest. 


Mexican Gothic is truly an innovative and bold novel. Why do I say that? Well, for the most part, even when a Gothic story is created by a Mexican, like Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak – which is a fantastic film – the characters do not reflect the background of the creator. While an artist has no obligation to only write about people of their own heritage, the Gothic genre has mostly continued to tell the stories of the standard Anglo characters and standard settings.


Of late, the idea of decolonization has flowered and spread into different areas of life. Decolonization is a reclaiming of your heritage, that of your people and your country. Rather than writing another story that follows the familiar settings and characters, Moreno-Garcia has used the setting of her homeland and the people that inhabit it to expand the genre and give mainstream representation to the Mexican people within the genre space. Representation is important because it gives people a way to relate to characters or media and encourages nascent artists to create “what they know,” as most artists usually do. Rather than allowing Anglo-Saxon characters and settings to dominate the field and thus remain as the default in all types of creative spaces, decolonization and representation allow for more diverse stories and characters to become accepted and take their rightful space as the norm.

But make no mistake, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has also written a fabulously entertaining and multi-layered Gothic tale that takes the genre to a new level. She and Mexican Gothic are part of the future of the genre.