Mexican Gothic author Silvia Moreno-Garcia on why white supremacy is a cult

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Although it may seem impossible given how strangely time is moving these days, Halloween was just last week. To celebrate, the Vox Book Club met up with Silvia Moreno-Garcia to discuss her novel Mexican Gothic, our October book pick. Moreno-Garcia, who in addition to being a bestselling author has a masters degree in science and technology, took us all to school on the history of gothic literature, the communication skills of mushrooms, and why being attracted to someone does not mean you are “open 24/7 like the 7-Eleven.”

Check out the video above to watch our full conversation. I’ve also collected a few highlights, lightly edited for length and clarity, below.

Once you’re finished here, if you would like a book to help you deal with the state of vibrating uncertainty in which the prolonged 2020 election has left us all, you might take a look at our November book pick, Trust Exercise. We’ll start our discussion of that book on November 20; sign up for our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything in the meantime.

Now let’s get to the gothic.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the way it’s building a whole conversation with classic 18th- or 19th-century gothic literature. What is your relationship with gothic literature like, and what elements did you really want to explore in this book?

It was one of the first types of speculative fiction that I encountered, because the first horror author that I read was Edgar Allan Poe. And after him came H.P. Lovecraft. Somewhere in the middle of that, in my teens, I read Horacio Quiroga. And I read a lot of what you would consider the bread-and-butter classics: Frankenstein, Dracula, Carmilla, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’ve been familiar with horror literature in general, and with gothic literature in particular, for a really long time.

I wasn’t very much interested in what is called gothic romance or a female gothic. I was always more into what is termed the male gothic, which is gothic books that have supernatural elements, graphic violence, and that kind of stuff. Sometimes we also call it gothic horror, as opposed to what we consider to be the female gothic, which is more like Scooby-Doo types of stories. Jane Eyre kinds of tales, in which a young woman goes to a distant location, meets some dude, and then there’s some kind of mystery to unravel.

There is a happy ending — that is mostly the desire of that kind of story. Especially when you’re talking about the mid-20th century gothic romance revival, the new gothic romances. Those are the ones that came out in paperback form and that we associate with the gothic form, because they have a woman running away from a castle. There’s always a mystery, but there’s not a supernatural element, and the romance is really the emphasis.

It’s a liminal category, the gothic, and this is one side of it. But I was always more into the horror gothic. Into the Draculas of the world and the Carmillas.

A lot of the classic gothic literature from that time is working with a very colonialist set of fears about basically everyone outside of Europe. And as I was reading Mexican Gothic, I kept thinking, well, it was projection all along, because all of those anxieties that they’re attributing to non-Europeans actually apply way more to the British Empire. So how did you think about creating that kind of reversal as you wrote?

One thing that happens with gothic novels is the idea of the evil Other. That’s quite clear if you read Walpole or Radcliffe. It’s often an evil Italian or an evil Spaniard. Catholicism is mixed with that. It’s like these exotic evil Catholic people that are coming to pervert us.

Once you move from the 1700s into the 1800s, the British Empire is expanding. At the same time, gothic literature is also expanding, and it’s finding other sources of frightening Others from parts of Europe that Radcliffe might have mined. So not necessarily Italy or Spain. That’s when you get Dracula, who’s coming from Eastern Europe. The source of evil is now not Spain, it’s Transylvania, Romania.

And then you have also this idea of decay and danger in things like Jane Eyre, where there’s the mad wife in the attic. She is white, but she is Creole. So she is a white-born woman raised in the Caribbean, and that has a lot of important implications in this time period. If you read the literature of the time and how people are talking about folks that are living and growing up in the Caribbean, there is very much a sense that there is a danger that you are going to be degraded, that something happens physically that brings you down. It diminishes your whiteness and contaminates you.

So you find that going on in gothic fiction. The Other, the person who is not an Anglo-Saxon Protestant upstanding male white person, is always a source of anxiety in many different ways for people. Even if they’re not the outright villain, they’re still a source of anxiety in some way.

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And then in Mexican Gothic, standing as a response to the creepy Doyles whose Englishness becomes a source of anxiety, you get Noemí being a brown woman who is sexually confident and gets to be the avatar of modernity and cosmopolitanism. What did it mean to you to be able to build a character like that?

I think one of the problems that happens with representations of — well, I’ll say with Mexicans, but in general with Latin Americans — is that we only get one type of story told. In general, the type of story that you get if you’re Latin American and you’re reading something in the English language — because it’s different if you’re reading Spanish fiction — you don’t get any genre fiction at all. The stories that you can tell are very limited. Normally they limit you to the suffering illegal immigrant.

So I wanted to do something that was in genre, because I like genre. I wanted to do something that was horror, not [hardship and suffering porn]. And I wanted to write something that reflected some of the people that I knew. Some of the people that I saw reflected in my life and society growing up.

I was inspired by a great-aunt that I had, who dressed very well, very fashionably, and liked to go to parties. She was, quote-unquote, very “modern” in her time.

I was talking to somebody else and they were also showing me photos of their grandmother and some great-aunts, too. Around the same time, 1958, 1960s. And they were all dressed like Mexican Audrey Hepburns.

I think we don’t think about that when we think about Mexican people, when we think about Latin American people. We don’t imagine them having full and interesting lives in the same way that we imagine white people having full and interesting lives. But they did. Not everybody lived in the countryside. Some people lived in the city. Not everybody was from the same social class. People were of different social classes. Not everybody was necessarily from the same ethnic background, either. We have indigenous people, and we also had different waves of immigrants. We had a big Lebanese wave. I come from a city that had a huge Chinese population at a certain point in time.

So there’s all these nuances that get lost sometimes when you read these stories about us. And in every story that I write, I want to bring a little bit of that.

I wanted to talk a little about the figure of Virgil, who is such an interesting take on the archetype of the gothic hero. A lot of times that character is morally disgusting, but if you look at someone like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, his creepiness seems to be supposed to make him more romantic and sexy. But with Virgil, every time he was sexy, it seemed like I got more creeped out by him. So how do you find and create that balance as you write?

Yeah, Virgil is supposed to be a typical Byronic hero, mad, bad, and dangerous to know. That applies to a wide number of men that appear in gothic fiction.

One thing that happens with gothic fiction, and I think the person who explores this most keenly is probably Angela Carter in her collection of retold fairy tales, is that gothic fiction seems to echo certain fairy tales. It definitely seems to echo “Beauty and the Beast,” and it seems to echo “Bluebeard” to a certain degree: A man that you don’t know if you can trust him. In “Beauty and the Beast,” it turns out that he’s a nice guy in the end, so these fairy tales combine a happy ending and love with a feeling of darkness at the same time.

And we could say that gothic fiction does the same thing. I mean, in Rebecca, ultimately, she is happy because she finds out that her husband murdered his previous wife, which means that he didn’t really love her that much after all. So the cathartic reveal there for her is kind of like, “I am the best kind of woman in the equation.” But on the other hand, she doesn’t really seem to ponder the implications of living with somebody who is certainly a murderer and who’s possibly not telling her everything. It’s his version of the story. We never see Rebecca by herself, so we really don’t know that she was such a terrible person as he says.

Fairy tales tend to have this play, where you’ve got the love story, but you also have this darkness. And women seem to like that. It’s a fantasy space, right? I think some people sometimes don’t understand that, and they think that a fantasy space is the same as a real space, but it’s not. It’s also an erotic space, and certainly Angela Carter, in her fairy tales, brings out the erotic elements in all of them. Her version of “Bluebeard” is very erotic, and her version of “Little Red Riding Hood” also. She pulls at these threads that fairy tales have, these elements that they have that we don’t think about much.

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Fairy tales definitely have that light/dark erotic tingle to them, and Byronic heroes go back to that. You know, like, he’s bad for you, but you kind of like that.

So that’s the appeal of the Byronic hero, among other things, because Byronic heroes tend to also be very wealthy and very powerful. Things that we appreciate in society normally.

Especially in men.

They wield power, they are the lord of the manor. Often they’re physically imposing and very physically attractive, too.

So there’s something about that, right? That nexus of power, that nexus of sex, that nexus of the fairy tale, that people really kind of like, and women especially seem to really enjoy.

I wanted to toy around with it and poke at it. If we really had Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester nowadays hanging around with us, he would probably be fairly disgusting, and we would probably feel fairly threatened. So Virgil is the horrific explosion of all these gothic romantic elements taken to the dark side.

And then, in contrast to Virgil, you get that really compelling comparison with Francis, who is well-meaning but trapped within the legacy of his family’s monstrousness. At the end, there’s a little possibility of hope for Francis and Noemí finding some sort of happiness together. Do you think they will? Or do you want to leave that in ambiguity forever?

I want to leave it in ambiguity forever. But I will say that one thing that I like to read is true crime fiction. And one of the types of crimes that I find most interesting are cults.

There’s all kinds of cults. Not necessarily horror kind of cults. Some cults just take all your money, and then you’re left broke and you’re an old lady. Some other ones do get very weird. They tell you that aliens will come and save you and take you to the Nebulon Galaxy and everybody kills themselves and horrible things happen.

But the interesting thing about cults is always you hear somebody talking about what it was like living in the cult, and then what it was like coming out of the cult. But the first question that I always ask myself is, “How did you get into the cult?”

Francis is kind of an abuse victim and a cult victim. He doesn’t know anything else, so he’s been abused for a really long time and is in this very weird cult.

But I also think that white supremacy is like a horrible, dangerous cult, and like an infection. And it doesn’t just harm — I mean, it harms people of color definitely. Certainly African American people, Latinos, when somebody tries to hurt them, they are the most harmed. But I think it also harms the white people within.

It’s a dangerous kind of place, I think, white supremacy. And if you get into it, you really start losing touch with reality, and it’s almost like you’re the member of a suicidal cult to me.

I love the big reveal of the mushrooms. How did you hit on the idea that the mushrooms would be the mechanism by which Howard is able to achieve his omnipotence?

I actually really like mushrooms. I edited an anthology called Fungi with Orrin Grey many years ago, and it was because we were both interested in doing something about mushrooms.

They are an interesting organism because they’re not a plant and they’re not an animal. I know that they exist in botanical collections, but they really are not plants. They are a different kind of kingdom. And they form something that is called a mycorrhiza that is a mutual symbiotic association between the fungus and the plant in its root system. What happens is that there is basically a mushroom network underground that we don’t see, and that is what connects the forest. And through that you can have sugar and water and mineral exchanges. You can withstand disease. You can have resistance to insects.

Suzanne Simard, who is a researcher over at the University of British Columbia, came up with this term called the hub tree or mother tree. She figured out that trees communicate with each other. There’s a central tree in the middle of the forest. Through the mycorrhizal network, it can send information, so certain other trees that need nutrients get an exchange of nutrients. It can do a lot of really, really cool things.

The way it does that is there’s a mycelium colony that colonizes all the trees and all the plants and is allowing different species to communicate with each other. It has that central node, the hub tree, the mother tree.

So I think a lot of people, when they read the book, they think it’s outlandish and maybe even a little bit dumb. But there’s real science behind it.

I think we can open it up for audience Q&A now. Marika asks, “The sexism and racism behind Otherness in this genre really stands out to me in Mexican Gothic. I love that the creepy Other was this European family. Do you think it’s possible to move away from the idea of Otherness as a source of fascination and horror, or is the best solution to alter the perspective such that the Other is always something different?”

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Well, definitely not all horror novels used the Other as an element of terror, and not even all gothic fiction uses the Other as an element of terror. If you look at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the element of terror there is within you, right? That you don’t know what resides within your own psyche.

I think there are other ways of manifesting horror. But I also think that because the Other, the deviancy, has for a really long time been people of color, that there’s enough space to play with that in various settings and ways. So that you can’t say, “Okay, we did it once, and now that it’s been done, nobody ever do it again.”

It looks like we have a few different people asking about the pacing of Mexican Gothic and how everything is sort of slow and moody for the first portions of the book, and then once you hit the reveal it’s like, action, thriller time! So I think people are wondering how you developed that structure and when you decide to kick it in high gear.

It was a 70/30 rule. I said, 70 percent will be quiet, and then 30 percent will just push the pedal down.

I mean, gothics are slow. I had somebody that had never read Dracula before and they read it and they told me, “It’s just a bunch of journal entries. It’s such a boring piece of crap.” And I said, “Yes, it is.” Well, not just journal entries, but like train tape timetables and lots of stuff. It does tell a story, and it does get kind of creepy, but they wanted the vampire jumping out on page two and biting into somebody, and that just doesn’t happen.

Gothic has this slow, moody, syrupy sort of pace. That is what gives gothic its shape.

So I was trying to respect that for most of the book. But then I flip it around in the end and it becomes an explosion of violence and horror. But you know, if you read The Monk, you know The Monk gets pretty crazy at the end. It’s like, the devil is here, and now I am raping this chick that I wanted, but she’s also related to me and I didn’t know and I’m going to hell. It’s just one thing after the other.

Amanda wants to know about the mechanics of Virgil having influence over Noemí in the shared dreams. He has a line about her being his from the start. Does the sexual attraction fuel the influence that Virgil has over her?

We get at one point that she likes guys who look like Pedro Infante, a movie star. So she definitely has a type, and it’s more the Virgil type than the Francis kind of situation. So definitely there is some sexual attraction.

But at one point the other thing that she expresses, or I hope that comes through, is that sexual attraction doesn’t mean that you are going to actually consent to sleep with somebody. You can find somebody interesting and attractive. It doesn’t mean that you’re open 24/7 like the 7-Eleven, just come in anytime you want, just because you find somebody attractive.

It doesn’t mean she’s going to act on it. She likes her cousin. She’s not going to do that.

And he’s just thinking, “Well, this is a green light, all signs go, everything is allowed.” That’s another thing that is not right, when somebody just assumes, “Oh well, she let me hold her hand,” or, “She let me kiss her, so now everything in the whole menu is in there.” He’s that kind of guy. He thinks like, if you shook his hand, everything is permitted. That’s not right, Virgil!