A good gothic novel leaves the reader unable to trust anything—certainly not the narrator and often not even the conclusion. It’s this uncertainty that makes for two thoroughly electric reads.
Set on a bleak stretch of Cornish coastline, Laura Purcell’s The House of Whispers blends madness, disease and violent folklore together with truly terrifying results. Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House, the remote home of Louise Pinecroft, to serve as nurse and maid. In the aftermath of a stroke, Louise is a silent and eerie patient. She sits in a frigid room, watching her collection of bone china as if she expects it to run off. Adding to Hester’s unease is Creeda, a member of the staff whose obsession with folk tales of cruel, vengeful faeries is as bizarre as it is chilling.
Hester is not the naive, virginal heroine that gothics of the 1970s and ’80s relied on; she is often selfish, dependent on the praise and attention of her employers in a way that feels alarmingly co-dependent, and increasingly reliant on gin and laudanum to numb herself. Hester fled London after her rash behavior led to a tragedy, and as events at Morvoren House become more frightening, she has nowhere else to go. Through Hester, the reader experiences an atmosphere of increasing claustrophobia and desperation that makes this novel both terrifying and impossible to put down.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia begins as a dreamy gothic mystery but quickly unfolds into a visceral, almost hallucinogenic nightmare. Noemí Taboada is enjoying life as a young socialite in 1950s Mexico City when she receives a bizarre letter from her newlywed cousin, Catalina Doyle. Catalina insists that her husband, Virgil, is poisoning her, and Noemí travels to their estate of High Place to investigate.
Symbols of rot are everywhere in Moreno-Garcia’s writing; mold and mushrooms seem to grow on every surface, and Noemí feels like the estate is decaying under her feet. Worse yet, Catalina’s madness seems to be contagious, and even as Noemí tries to convince herself that her cousin is merely ill, she begins to experience vivid nightmares. The Doyle family’s strange rituals and total isolation from their community similarly unnerve Noemí, preventing her from ever feeling safe.
Like characters in The House of Whispers, the family featured in Mexican Gothic is hiding some truly vile secrets. But while much of the violence in The House of Whispers takes place off-screen, Moreno-Garcia puts it front and center, delivering a distinctive and cinematic horror novel that is not for the faint of heart.