From Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein to Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House and beyond, gothic horror novels have captivated readers for generations with their use of the mysterious, the supernatural, the psychological, and the grotesque. Mexican Gothic (Del Rey, 2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and What Big Teeth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) by Rose Szabo continue the legacy of their literary ancestors while adding their own unique twists and turns on gothic tropes.
Set in Mexico in the 1950s, Mexican Gothic begins with the young socialite Noemí Taboada receiving a curious letter from her cousin Catalina, who is newly married and living in the remote countryside town of El Triunfo. At the behest of her worried father, Noemí reluctantly agrees to visit her cousin in exchange for her father’s permission to enroll in a master’s degree program in anthropology. Upon arrival at High Place, the mansion where Catalina lives with her blond-haired, blue-eyed English husband, Virgil Doyle, and his family, it is easy for Noemí to see why her cousin might be feeling so frantic. The mansion is in a state of disrepair, with mold growing on the walls and rooms vacant under cover of dusty sheets. There is no electricity, only candles and oil lamps, adding to the dreariness of the place. The ouroboros, a symbol depicting a snake eating its own tail, is unnervingly visible everywhere in the home’s décor. Outside, an adjacent cemetery is perpetually thick with fog, and an abandoned silver mine is a physical reminder of the Doyle family’s fading fortune.
With the exception of Virgil’s introspective cousin, Francis, the family is somehow even less welcoming than the house: Francis’s mother Florence is immediately cold to her, policing Noemí’s actions and her time spent with Catalina; Howard, Virgil’s father and the aged and ailing family patriarch, comments on Noemí’s dark skin and is expressly clear in his interest in eugenics; and Virgil oscillates between being congenial and callous. It isn’t long before Noemí is having nightmares and wondering if the things Catalina wrote in her letter were true.
While the prose of What Big Teeth differs because of its target audience—it is a work of young adult fiction—the narrative style shares similarities with Mexican Gothic. After an incident at her boarding school, Eleanor Zarrin returns to her home in a remote town in Maine, with little memory of the family she hasn’t seen or heard from in years. The Zarrin family is an eclectic menagerie of supernatural creatures, to say the least, who are simultaneously welcoming and terrifying to Eleanor. After a tragic event leaves the Zarrins broken, Eleanor finds purpose in putting her family back together and working through their grief. However, things go awry and their situation goes from bad to worse. To say more would be to give away the secrets of the house and the family who inhabit it—and this is not a novel you want spoiled for you.
The influence of works like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is evident in both novels, and readers will delight in the slow unraveling of the mysteries at the center of each narrative. While Mexican Gothic is slightly better-paced, the twists in What Big Teeth are less opaque. However, both novels offer satisfying revelations and resolutions, and will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
For more information on Moreno-Garcia and Szabo, and for additional information and examples of gothic horror, visit the links below.