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Can mushrooms glow? What kind of cigarettes were popular in 1950’s Mexico City? Can we ever escape the sins of our forefathers? Are our temperaments bound by our genes or can we become whoever we choose?
All of these questions are asked (and some are answered) in Moreno-Garcia’s perfectly-paced gothic horror: Mexican Gothic. Our protagonist Noemi is refreshingly confident, a stark contrast to DuMaurier’s narrator in Rebecca, the original gothic romance. Noemi is sent to visit her cousin at High Place after receiving a strange letter. She must leave busy Mexico City, full of parties and piano recitals, for the dreary isolated estate. The English family that her cousin married into is creepy as **** and our heroine does her best to shrug off their casual mentions of bizarre theories on racial supremacy and genetic purity.
Cheers to the author, because she has provided so much bonus material for Mexican Gothic fans, including (eek!) a playlist! (every book should have a playlist); a paper doll of Noemi, the main character; a book club kit; and a photo of the real place that the town in Mexican Gothic is based on–a town called Real del Monte/Mineral del Monte (photo provided by the author through Goodreads).
Morena-Garcia developed the horror component of Mexican Gothic really well and the balance of scares, plot reveals, and drama was pretty perfect. I think the excellent pacing is part of the reason Mexican Gothic has so many good reviews—its so easy to binge-read. I felt firmly grounded in the setting of 1950’s Mexico and appreciated the little details she included, like the stories that Noemi grows up reading, the words she uses for playing cards, and the types of remedies that were available.
If you’ve ever read DuMaurier’s classic gothic novel Rebecca (or seen one of the several film adaptations) you’ll have a fun time comparing and contrasting the two works (#booknerd). Not to be too spoiler-ee, but the main character in Mexican Gothic had a confidence and logic that really redeemed womenkind after DuMaurier’s isolated and awkward main character. Now that I think about it, she was not unlike Francis’ character. Perhaps in these gothic novels, one or more of the characters must be emotionally manipulated?…
Mexican Gothic has been picked up for a limited series by Hulu with producers Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos. I would absolutely love to see this novel translated into some stunning and grotesque visuals!
Wine Selection & Tasting Notes
D’Autrefois Reserve Pinot Noir 2018. Jammy and dry. No trace of mushroom.
We have to talk about how unique and effective the use of mushrooms were in this gothic horror. I have read short stories that utilize mushrooms, but not for a novel-length story, it was so cool in Mexican Gothic! It’s like a super cool mix of psychedelic horror, magical realism, and body horror. I haven’t read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, but the reviews make me think it has similar elements. Morena-Garcia kept the body horror in check so I didn’t feel too too grossed out at any point.
Also, something unexpected happened while I read this book. While reading all this weird and creepy mushroom horror I got sucked into the world of mushrooms and even grew my own pink oyster mushrooms. (There is a whole selection of YouTubers dedicated to this topic!) Check out this article on The New Yorkers exploring The Mushroom as a Muse, the portraits within “celebrate the grotesqueness of her fungal subjects, and insist on their aesthetic eloquence.”
I really enjoyed the sexual tension throughout the story with both brothers. And I’ve already gushed about the innovative mushroom horror. And the element that put this novel over the top for me is the underlying question that persists throughout the story and is stated out loud by Francis at the end: “What if it’s never gone? What if it’s in me?”
Francis is talking about the parasitic people-eating mushroom spore…but is he really? What if the mushroom spore was simply a life-prolonging hallucinogen and Francis’ grandfather happened to be a psychotic controlling murderer? Then Francis may be worried about passing on the legacy of murder and manipulation—not to mention heartless exploitation of miners. This probing question is a big one: how much of who we are can we control? How much is pre-determined by our genes? How much is determined by choices made for us when we are children? And how much of who we are is from a fourth avenue: epigenetics: how our genetics reacts to the world around us. For example, freaky mushroom spores in remote estates in Mexico? In Mexican Gothic, Francis’ question goes unanswered, and Noemi promises that he won’t be alone.
Mexican Gothic Discussion Questions
In what way were the mushroom mind-control spores like toxic ideas that get passed down in families and societies, such as the beliefs held by the Doyle family on curating your family tree based on beauty and determining genetic superiority or inferiority based on race.
Consider also how the Doyle family, for generations, destroyed the bodies on women and children in order to further the legacy of one man, copied into the body of other men…
“The fungus needed a human mind that could serve as a vessel for memories, that could offer control.”
Is Noemi’s observation rooted in her time, or does it also apply to present day?
“She thought that men such as her father could be stern and men could be cold like Virgil, but women needed to be liked or they’d be in trouble. A woman who is not liked is a bitch, and a bitch can hardly do anything: all avenues are closed to her.”
In Mexican Gothic, the “haunting” was a mushroom spore that had melded with the mind of a human, able to store memories and prolong life. Was it also mind-altering? Was it physically preventing people from leaving or just making people believe they couldn’t leave?
“Noemí, just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted.”
With the existence of cordyceps – mushrooms that invade the bodies of insects and sometimes control their minds before destroying their bodies – just how far off is Moreno-Garcia’s story from reality? Could a mushroom ever evolve that attacks human? If it did, how would we stop it? What if, before it killed us, it made us sexier or nicer or happier—as the cicada-destroying fungus makes the male cicada call other male cicadas to it in order to spread the spores more rapidly?