For fans of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, part of the joy in anticipating her latest novel is wondering what genre the author will use as a canvas for her talents this time. While often falling somewhere within the category of speculative fiction, the tones and settings of her work are legion, from a thrilling tale of rival vampire gangs in Mexico City to a romance between telekinetics in a Belle Epoque-inspired world. We talked to Moreno-Garcia about drawing from the gothic thriller for her latest novel, Mexican Gothic, and how she defied its conventions based on her own family history.
What inspired you to write a gothic novel?
My most recent novels were Gods of Jade and Shadow, a fantasy quest across 1920s Mexico, and Untamed Shore, a noir set in 1970s Baja California. I wanted to try my hand at something different and gothic novels are by default very melodramatic types of narratives with many meaty elements to choose from. Plus, they seem to have gone out of vogue so it was fun to go into a sub-genre where few people are going these days.
Why did you choose to set this novel in the 1950s?
Real life historical constraints. I wanted it to take place in a time period where Mexican mines would have closed so that we were in a town that was once active and now was dying. This would have to mean after the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero conflict ended. That placed me solidly in the 1930s or 40s. I ended choosing the early 1950s because I knew enough about it from stories in my family and it’s the beginning of a huge period of industrial change in Mexico.
“For them, it’s probably better to live in a rotting house than to have to accept their heyday is long past.”
In many ways, Noemí defies gothic heroine conventions—she’s not naïve or a tragic figure, rather she’s confident, worldly and aware of her agency. How did you develop her character?
Years ago I had a lovely picture of a great-aunt of mine, which I lost when I moved. It showed her in a fancy dress with a gentleman, sometime in the 1950s. She was wearing a dress that bared her shoulders and looked extremely confident and pretty. I began to imagine the party she attended and the character grew from there. Mexican and Latin American characters are often shown as people who are suffering, uneducated immigrants and I wanted a character that doesn’t fit the stereotypes readers expect. No brown woman who is riding La Bestia and yelling in italics “dios mio!” every other sentence and reminding you how wretched she is.
High Place is almost a character in itself in this novel. Were you inspired by an actual house or location or was it purely a place in your imagination?
The town that inspired this novel is real. It’s called Real del Monte and it’s in the mountains of Hidalgo. It was formerly controlled by British forces and there was a very important mine in the area. There is also a British cemetery in the town, which I’ve visited and which I thought looked like something out of an old horror movie. The town is very cold and misty. People are surprised by this every time I tell them a town in Mexico could be cold, but it’s true. It also rains quite a bit at certain times of the year. The geography of Hidalgo is very interesting.
Symbols of decay play a significant role in this novel. Can you talk about how you tied those symbols of rot to the Doyle family specifically and why?
I think it might be interesting to have a haunted house that is in a new pristine condition. Perhaps a cursed Airbnb. But I love old things, so in this case everything is falling apart. At the same time, the Doyles just keep clinging to their majestic past and outdated lifestyle. For them, it’s probably better to live in a rotting house than to have to accept their heyday is long past. But it’s not like anyone who has ever oppressed others wants to hand away the keys to the house.
Many Gothics contain supernatural elements. How did you determine how “ghostly” this novel will be?
Ah, the Scooby-Doo factor. Gothic novels are classified by scholars often as “male” or “female.” The male ones have explicit supernatural or fantastical elements and are more violent. The female ones don’t have supernatural elements, and at the end, what seems like a haunting is revealed to have a natural source. There’s also an important romantic element. I think I created a conundrum of classification because Mexican Gothic is all of the above at the same time.
The female characters in this novel are all under some form of patriarchal control. Noemí is at High Place at the behest of her father, Virgil controls Catalina and Howard controls everyone. Was this purely a function of when the novel was set or was this intended to be a commentary on the dangers of the patriarchy?
When my grandmother was a young woman in the 1950s, she wanted to attend medical school. Her father wouldn’t let her because that meant she would go to school with men, so instead she went to secretarial school and then married. This was very much the rule in that time and place: Women in Mexico got the right to vote in 1953. You’d marry and you were under the control of either a husband or a father. But if you go back, gothic novels are very patriarchal. It’s a “master of the manor” situation where the woman is often in a subordinate position to the man, which also produces a frisson of erotic excitement. At the same time, Noemí seems to be very much aware of all of this. If she were a modern woman, she’d probably dub herself a Final Girl.
Many Gothics explore toxic families, but in this case the Doyles literally and figuratively poison the community they exploit. Were they based on any real family or were they meant to represent colonialism?
Mexico is a country that has been constantly in the thrall of colonizers, and they have often exploited its mineral riches. It started with the Spaniards but it didn’t end there. The first mining strike in North America happened in Real del Monte due to poor labor conditions. Colonization worked in other insidious ways. In the 1850s, the British government plotted ways to steal Mayan ruins. Around that time, two young children with a congenital disease, taken from El Salvador, were exhibited in London as “Aztec Children” and used to theorize on ideas of race, race-mixing and biological fitness. Eugenicist discourse, which lasted well into the mid-20th century and beyond around the world, often mixed with notions of race. The Doyles are an invention, but the eugenicist principles spouted by the patriarch of the family were real.
I absolutely loved this novel. Are you planning on returning to this genre?
Gothic horror? Not right now. I am trying to sell a noir and I have a sword and sorcery novella out sometime next year. But the other day I had a good idea for a Satanic panic book. We’ll see.
Author photo by Martin Dee.