Mexican Gothic (A Book Review)

True to its name, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia at its heart is a gothic story.

Like most gothic stories, it centers on an old house and a family with secrets in all its dark, secret passage. The story starts when the protagonist, Noemi Taboada, gets a letter from her cousin Catalina who recently married into the Doyle family and moved to their residence in The High Place. But something is wrong and Noemi goes there in an attempt to figure out what it is—a perfect gothic set up filled with mysterious potential.

I’m not sure what I expected when stepping into the book. I boarded the hype train with this one and thought I would settle into an unsettling tale in an unfamiliar setting. I also grew up on Gothic novels so I had some trope expectations that I was ready to check off. Beyond that, I had no clear expectations.

What I noticed first about the story was the dreamy way it was written. Noemi has a strong voice in the narrative, but the prose lingers on its descriptions. It starts a bit slow as it establishes the setting, making High Place as much a character in the book as the people who occupy it.  It also loves the big words that litter the narrative that the reader can trip over if they’re not used to it. (My favorite is “mandibular prognathism.)

As the story picks up, I became entranced. Its dreaminess is what I ends up hooking me into the story. This book has some excellent horror writing in its dream sequences. They’re filled with flesh like walls and other sorts of grotesque imagery that I won’t spoil here. Most of its horror of this grotesque nature. When night falls in High Place, the house seems to breathe and twist with the monsters that lie beneath.

And the monsters all around. I won’t say much on this point other than the characters in this book are really well written. Even as you detest them and they transform in every which way, I appreciated how they added to the horror.  There is some commentary on sexism, racism, and colonialism woven into this book’s themes. There’s discussions of control especially as it relates to the story’s female characters. This story does take place in 1950s Mexico. I’ll let that speak for itself.

If you like gothic or horror, I really think you should give this book a read. It’s admittingly slow for the first 30-50 pages, but if you’re patient you’ll be treated to something really special. This is one of my favorite books from last year and upon reflecting on the story and it’s themes, I feel that way more and more.

The Monster of Elendhaven

The Thing didn’t know who he was or where he came from. But in time he knew other things. How to steal, how to blend into the shadows, how to kill easy with the flick of his wrist. A genuine monster who couldn’t be killed. He called himself Johann, the monster of Elendhaven. 

This monster is drawn to the last of an old family, Florian Leikenbloom. He’s a sorcerer with a dark past and darker intentions. Together they seek revenge for the city.

I was first drawn to this book by its cover. I like a good monster story and this book hooked me instantly. It also didn’t disappoint. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a dark fantasy. It was dark, beautiful, and grotesque in all the right ways.

This novella packs so much into its 159 pages. It brings forth a lush fantasy world in Elendhaven, isolated in the north by a churning black sea rife with seals and monsters. It’s a society build up and cursed by industry. A rot fermenting deep in its waters and boiling up in plague. 

The characters were also really enjoyable. I liked how twisted the main characters were and how their darknesses feed off each other. I enjoyed every page.

My only complaint is that I wish this book was longer. I would’ve loved to see more of them and more about its magic systems. 

My Rating:

[Goodreads Summary]:

The city of Elendhaven sulks on the edge of the ocean. Wracked by plague, abandoned by the South, stripped of industry and left to die. But not everything dies so easily. A thing without a name stalks the city, a thing shaped like a man, with a dark heart and long pale fingers yearning to wrap around throats. A monster who cannot die. His frail master sends him out on errands, twisting him with magic, crafting a plan too cruel to name, while the monster’s heart grows fonder and colder and more cunning.

These monsters of Elendhaven will have their revenge on everyone who wronged the city, even if they have to burn the world to do it.

Prosper's Demon

Prosper’s Demons by K. J. Parker is a curious little novella. It got a lot of things right for me.

The narrator is a morally gray exorcist of demons. Demons in this Renaissance-esque landscape possess people and make them do terrible things. Exorcist don’t negotiate. They do what they need to to extract them. It hurts the demons a lot but the results in the death of the possessed. There’s little room for doubt in these matters.

I’m a big fan of an emotionally questionable protagonist. The narrator of this story was witty and uncompromising in his duties. But the narrative seems to challenge him in the character of Prosper of Schanz who’s possession promises to bring some good to the human race. At least in the short term. Seeing him debate this with the spirit proper was some one the highlights of the book. That and his acerbic wit.

But that narrator also hurts the book, strangely enough. The reader is set firmly in his thoughts. The world wasn’t as explored as I would’ve liked and the spirits, Them, are hard to picture. That’s the point to a certain extent but they never really have any narrative weight due to how the narrator talks about Them.

I feel like I would’ve enjoyed the story if we were just one step outside his head. I want to get arm deep in this world but the narrator’s perspective never gives me a chance to relish the detail. I ultimately thought it was an OK book for this reason.

My Rating:

Book Summary:

The unnamed and morally questionable narrator is an exorcist with great follow-through and few doubts. His methods aren’t delicate but they’re undeniably effective: he’ll get the demon out — he just doesn’t particularly care what happens to the person.

Prosper of Schanz is a man of science, determined to raise the world’s first philosopher-king, reared according to the purest principles. Too bad he’s demonically possessed.

The Hunger

Though I love reading history, I’ve only occasionally dipped my toe in the realm of historical fiction. I’ve got nothing against the genre. I’m just quicker to pick up a nonfiction book delving into the topic than a fictionalized one.

But The Hunger by Alma Katsu, proved to be quite the treat.

I find the story of the Donner Party fascinating. The Donner Party is the true frontier horror story of a family caravan, hope set on starting anew in California, finding themselves trapped in the wilderness and the terrible winter of 1846-1847. As their supplies dwindle, people start dying of hunger and quickly turn against each other for survival. In the end, they’re forced to cannibalize members of their own party.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The human eating is a bit overblown in the collective imagination of this history compared to the true horror of being in a situation that you can’t escape. The animal in us lashes out when found in that corner. If you want to learn more, one book I highly recommend is The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis. It’s a near 500 book tome but the history is woven into a rich narrative that’s worth all the paper.

 It’s interesting exploring how Manifest Destiny gets corrupted by greed and how the hope turns in on itself. 

The Hunger by Alma Katsu explores these things and more. She takes a few liberties with the historical account but her choices breathes life into these characters.  Each character is escaping from something. Whether that be a certain situation or a dark secret. They pin their hopes on California to do away with their sins but they quickly realize there’s no escaping them.

There’s also a thrilling supernatural bent to the narrative. I won’t spoil too much but let’s just say there be monsters. I think the most compelling thing I found was how people are so quick to turn on each other and how strife ends being the main reason why most of the cast dies off. 

This was a brilliant horror story, dripping in dread. 

My Rating:

4 stars

[Goodreads Summary]

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”