Review 2025: Mexican Gothic

It’s 1950 Mexico City. Noemí Taboada is a university student, but mostly she’s a socialite from a wealthy family aiming to have as much fun as possible.

Noemí’s father has received a disturbing letter from her cousin Catalina, who recently married a man no one knows very well. It sounds like Catalina is mentally disturbed. So, he asks Noemí to visit Catalina to find out what’s going on.

Catalina has married Virgil Doyle, the son of silver mine owners originally from England. But the silver has run out, and Noemí finds High Place a crumbling Victorian mansion. The family is not welcoming, and they impose a lot of rules, including only infrequent visits to Catalina. Catalina herself seems at first simply ill—she has tuberculosis—but later babbles about something listening, something in the walls.

Although the youngest son of the family, Francis, is friendly and helps her out, the rest of the family remains cold. Noemí herself begins having bizarre dreams.

Some readers may have a problem with how slowly this novel gets going, because the only thing that happens for quite a while is these dreams, but eventually the action picks up. Other readers have complained at the unlikelihood of the secrets revealed. That bothered me at first, but then I thought it was in the spirit of the original gothic novels. I decided it wasn’t any less likely than the notion of vampires or zombies and in these days a lot more original.

The novel is atmospheric, the heroine feisty, the ending quite suspenseful. It delivers what it promises.

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Review 1880: The Castle of Otranto

I first read The Castle of Otranto too long ago as assignment for high school and thought it was very silly. However, it was the first gothic novel, written in 1764, and led the way toward a fascination with Gothic culture in a country littered with ruined Gothic churches and abbeys as a result of the so-called “Bloodless Revolution.” So, I put it on my Classics Club list to see what I think about it now.

Well, it’s a silly book. It is represented in the Preface as a manuscript written sometime between 1095 and 1243. Practically the first thing that happens in it is that Conrad, the son of Manfred, prince of Otranto, has a gigantic helmet fall on him out of nowhere and crush him to death on the day he is to be betrothed to Isabella, the Marquiz of Vincenza’s daughter. This is the first supernatural event in a very short book that includes walking portraits, statues crying tears of blood, and various enormous body parts appearing in the castle.

Why? It appears that Manfred’s grandfather took the castle unlawfully, and the legend is that his family may hold it until its real owner grows too large to inhabit it. Hence, the enormous body parts.

This novel exhibits all the hallmarks of the subsequent gothic novels, many of which aren’t that palatable to modern readers—overblown speeches, submissive and virtuous women (Manfred’s wife even being so submissive as to agree to her own divorce), a nearly insane villain in Manfred, a hero in disguise, a lot of fainting, and supernatural events.

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Review 1863: Not the End of the World

I was fairly sure I had read everything by Kate Atkinson, but I couldn’t remember Not the End of the World. So, I decided to revisit it.

This collection of stories is a relatively early book. Some of the stories are apocalyptic or macabre, some have an element of magical realism, some are whimsical, some capture a moment in ordinary life. Although the stories stand alone, some of them are linked by recurring characters or by more subtle means. I suspect, if you were very attentive, you could find many links. For example, in the first story, “Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping,” the two have a conversation about wedding favors that is repeated in “Wedding Favors” between two different characters. And is the accident driven past by a character in one story the one that kills another character in another story?

Atkinson’s prose is, as always, witty and vivid. I found a few of the characters, like the battling teenage siblings in “Dissonance,” irritating but realistic. On the other hand, a boy who looks like a fish turns out to be the son of Triton. A bold girl removes a cloak from an old lady and the old lady disintegrates. A dead woman tries to get back her life. An adopted alley cat grows bigger and bigger and bigger.

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Review 1860: Luckenbooth

I just loved Jenni Fagan’s other books, so I was expecting a lot from Luckenbooth. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite deliver.

The devil’s daughter launches herself off the island where she was born, using her own coffin for a boat. She arrives at a tenement in Edinburgh to take on the function her father has sold her for, to be the surrogate mother for Mr. Uldam’s child with his fiancée Elise.

This is the first of nine story threads that proceed up the nine floors of 10 Luckenbooth Close, a building of secrets and horrors. The novel has a specific structure. It is split into thirds, with each third featuring the tales of residents on three floors of the building, and each thread advancing a decade in time, beginning in 1910. On the second floor, a transgender woman attends a transgressive party in 1928. On the third floor, a black Southern American works in the bone library of a veterinary school in 1939, and so on. The building hides some horrors that are finally revealed in 1999, when Dot, who is squatting in the derelict building, rips out the walls of the lower floors. But these secrets are no big surprise.

The stories are written in modern vernacular, which I suppose is a stylistic choice, but found it grating, especially for Levi’s letters to his brother. He’s the black American from Louisiana, and besides not sounding 1939ish, he doesn’t sound American, he doesn’t sound black, and he definitely doesn’t sound Southern. In fact, the more I think about it, I feel this choice to use modern vernacular indicates a general attitude of laziness. As an example, Levi chooses to explain things to his brother that his brother would know—like the building being called tenement, as if the U. S. hasn’t had tenements for hundreds of years. In fact, Levi is unbelievably naïve for a black man from the American South. The rich get everything while the poor get nothing? What a surprise!

Another example is that for a gothic novel that is supposed to convey the dark history of Edinburgh, there is an amazing lack of a sense of place (except for in the building) until 1999. Does this suggest that the author thus evaded any research into the appearance of Edinburgh in the past?

I can go on about this, but I just want to bring up a few more things. One is the polemic passages in the novel. There are long passages of ranting about such subjects as the treatment of the poor or women. I would have thought these ideas could have been worked in differently.

Next, I don’t know anything about William S. Burroughs, for example, whether he believed what Fagan has him say. All I know is, after the first few paragraphs when he started talking, I started flipping pages.

Finally, there is a gangster standoff in 1977 where what is said is so unlikely that I could barely stand it. It seems like it might have been a juvenile idea of a “cool” scene.

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Review 1851: The House of Whispers

Hester Why travels to the Cornish coast to take up a position as a lady’s maid. Right away, we know something is wrong, because Hester is traveling under an assumed name and is drinking. When she arrives at Morvoren House, it seems a strange household. The mistress, Louise Pinecroft, is a frail woman who hardly speaks and refuses to leave a drawing room full of china, even though the room is freezing. Aside from an adopted daughter who, although adult, is treated like a child, there are only servants, including Creeda, a disturbing woman who is obsessed with fairies.

Forty years earlier, Louise Pinecroft and her father arrive at Morvoren House. Dr. Pinecroft has purchased the house because it sits above some caves on a beach. He has a theory that clean, damp sea air could cure consumptives, so he has arranged for some consumptive convicts to live in huts built in the caves below the house. Neither Louise nor her father is thinking very clearly, because their entire family recently died of consumption, after which Dr. Pinecroft lost all his patients because he couldn’t save his family.

This gothic novel is set in two unnamed periods, most likely in the 19th century. It is about two women whose need to be needed basically shipwrecks their lives. It is fairly creepy, although I thought the ending was kind of all over the place. Still, Purcell knows how to write a page-turner.

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Review 1843: The Shape of Darkness

Newly recovered from a vicious bout of pneumonia, Agnes is still weak, but she is so poor she has returned to her job as a silhouette maker. Her mother is ailing, and she also has her nephew Cedric to support. Then she notices that her last few customers have been murdered—their throats slit.

Pearl is an 11-year-old albino who up until recently has been appearing as a ghost in her sister Myrtle’s seances. But Pearl seems to have a gift herself, so Myrtle has been advertising her as the White Sylph. Certainly something happens when she attempts to contact the spirits. She, though, doesn’t know what, because she passes out.

Agnes, worried that someone is targeting her business, decides that Pearl can help her.

Although I have been enjoying Purcell’s novels and this one is creepily Gothic, set as it is in old, dilapidated houses in Victorian Bath, it took me a while to get into it. However, I had patience that paid off. I had lots of theories about what was going on, but there’s no way I could have guessed the truth.

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Review 1774: The Silent Companions

In the mid-1800’s, a badly burned Elsie Bainbridge is confined to an asylum. She is said to be dangerous. She cannot speak and has not been able to tell what happened to her. Her doctor suggests that writing her version may save her from being executed.

In 1635, Josiah and Anne Bainbridge excitedly begin preparing for the arrival at their home, The Bridge, of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Josiah decides, however, that their daughter Hetta will not participate in the festivities. Hetta was born with a deformed tongue, and Anne blames herself, because she took herbs to conceive when her doctors said she could not.

Elsie’s written account begins when she arrives at The Bridge to live there after her husband’s unexpected death. She finds the house decrepit and the people in the neighborhood unwelcoming. Then she and her companion, Sarah, find the silent companions, some wooden cut-out figures that appear lifelike.

This novel seemed as if it was going to be a good old creep fest. It was certainly a ghost story, but I prefer something—I was going to say that could actually happen, but that’s silly. I guess I prefer something more subtle without freakish gory events.

As far as the approach taken to the material is concerned, although all the chapters except the ones set in the asylum are supposed to be written, the later ones as Elsie’s account and the earlier as a diary, neither of them are convincing as such.

Although I make a final caveat that I don’t believe the doctor’s treatment reflects psychiatric treatment of the times, I am not saying I disliked this novel. I thought both stories were compelling, but not so much so that I didn’t think of these things while I was reading it.

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Review 1662: The Poison Thread

Dorothea Trueblood is a youngish Victorian heiress who prefers to spend her days pursuing charitable causes rather than in socializing. Her conservative father wants her to marry as highly as possible, but she has secretly engaged herself to a police constable. Something keeps her from breaking the news to her father, even though she is of age.

She is fascinated by phrenology, so one of her charities is Oakgate Prison, where she visits prisoners in hopes of measuring their heads. Therefore, she is excited when Ruth Butterham, a young maid who murdered her employer, comes to the prison.

Ruth begins to tell Dottie her story, and it’s not long before Dottie realizes that Ruth is telling her she killed people by putting bad thoughts into the sewing she was doing for them. Dottie doesn’t find an enlarged organ of deceit in Ruth, but she can only assume she is lying.

This gothic novel has quite a lot going for it. It pins you to the page while you wonder where it is going. I was suspicious of Dottie at first, thinking her interest in Ruth a bit salacious. But I liked Ruth more. This is quite a nice dark book.

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Review 1649: The Hoarder (aka Mr. Flood’s Last Resort)

Best of Ten!
Let me just start out by saying I hate the trend of changing the name of a book from the British edition to the U. S. edition. In this case, I got caught out buying both versions of this novel just because I didn’t realize they were the same. I loved this novel, but I don’t need two copies of it. If they are going to do this, the least they could do is warn us in really big letters on the cover.

____________________________

As with Things in Jars, it took a bit of time before I plunged myself into the eccentric world of The Hoarder. But when I did, I was all in.

Maud Drennan is a care worker whose job it is to feed the difficult Cathal Flood and attempt to make some headway in cleaning his house, for the old man is a hoarder. There are odd rumors surrounding Flood, not only about his recent behavior—he is supposed to have tried to brain carer Sam Hebden with a hurley—but also about his past—his wife died after falling down the stairs.

Maud herself is a little eccentric. She is followed around by the ghosts of saints, particularly St. Dymphna and St. Valentine, and her best friend is Renata, an agoraphobic transgender woman with an elaborate wardrobe. It is Renata who suggests that perhaps it was Cathal Flood who pushed his wife down the stairs.

Certainly, something is going on, because Maud is approached by Gabriel Flood, Cathal’s son, who is looking for something in the house. Then, Renata and Maud discover that Gabriel had a sister, Maggie, who disappeared as a teenager. Maud’s sister, we learn, also disappeared, so Maud becomes immersed in an investigation and attempts to search the blocked-off portions of Cathal Flood’s house.

This novel is a bit gothic, a bit funny, a bit haunting, and Kidd’s writing is brilliant. Love this one. Need more.

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Review 1625: The Secret of Greylands

The Secret of Greylands is 219 pages long, and I realized the secret about 200 pages before the main characters did. Nevertheless, I found it an entertaining gothic novel, atmospheric and with a likable heroine.

Lady Cynthia Letchingham flees her new marriage when she finds out her husband ruined her best friend. She has nowhere to go, but she recently received a curious letter from her older cousin Hannah asking her to visit, so she goes to Hannah’s home at Greylands.

Hannah has married a much younger man, Mr. Gillman, who tries to send Cynthia away when she arrives, only to become a little more welcoming after he finds out she is friendless and hasn’t seen her cousin since she was a little girl. He doesn’t allow her to see Hannah, who he says has fallen and is paralyzed in bed, until the arrival of another cousin, Sybil. Cynthia has to admit Sybil looks a lot like Hannah when she finally meets her.

Hannah seems excitable and demanding but not fearful as she was in her letter except of having her door unlocked. Nevertheless, Cynthia can’t help feeling something is amiss, as she confides to the neighbor, Mr. Heriot.

There are plenty of hints about the true state of affairs at Greylands, including an outspoken parrot, a neglected pet, mysterious goings on at night, and Hannah’s hands, but the characters can’t quite put two and two together. However, it’s a fun read, and I enjoyed it. This is another good older (1924) mystery from Dean Street Press.

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