Published: 30th June 2020
Trigger warnings: Attempted rape, misogyny, incest, frightening scenes
This was a buddy read with my friend Pauliina @ The Bookaholic Dreamer. I really enjoyed discussing this one with her, especially as it helped us both make sense of the many concepts and curiosities of the book. Thank you to Pauliina for making it such a fun experience.
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemí’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemí, mesmerised by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.
This is a story that contains terror in abundance and conjures unsettling vibes everywhere you look, with every turn of the page representing a further descent into its haunted realm. Told with an impressive degree of literary elegance which is complimented by a palpable atmosphere of prevailing menace; it is equally undermined by a chronic lack of development in several key aspects.
Some of the traditional horror tropes do make an appearance here, but it goes to considerable extremes by introducing an intriguing, if rather outlandish concept that sees everything take a decidedly paranormal turn. While the outcome is something undeniably gripping and full of unique imagination, it does not quite come together as a whole and so ultimately the execution leaves a bit to be desired.
A socialite floating among the more glamorous circles of Mexico City, Noemi Taboada receives a mysterious and panicked letter from her cousin Catalina, who was recently married to her rich English husband Virgil Doyle and lives at his family’s rural mansion. The letter makes little in the way of sense as Catalina asks desperately to be rescued, describing her new home as a place of evil and darkness.
Sufficiently concerned for Catalina’s welfare, Noemi’s father sends her to High Place to investigate what is happening. When she arrives, Noemi is greeted with open hostility and finds Catalina confined to her room, occasionally lucid but otherwise not herself. The family doctor insists she has tuberculosis, but a sceptical Noemi goes to the nearest town to gain a second opinion, creating further tension with Virgil and his family.
As Noemi’s stay at High Place continues, everything about the house becomes unsettling, and it goes far beyond the curious residents and the Draconian rules they force her to abide by. At night, the house invades her thoughts with disturbing visions, making it seem that something is alive within the walls. As these encounters become more surreal, it becomes apparent that a shocking incident in the family’s past may hold all the secrets to what is really going on.
The element of mystery and foreboding is there from the very start, with Catalina’s enigmatic letter and Noemi’s arrival at the oppressive High Place laying promising foundations. All of the Doyle family except the youngest son Francis is either sinister or unwelcoming, which makes it interesting to try and work out who is most worthy of suspicion. At this stage the plot is quite back and forth, before the horrific truth of the house is revealed.
Everything points to a supernatural force being present, but what we get is even more unusual and bizarre than you could possibly expect. It is twisted and frightening, giving events an entirely new context and making it a highly uncomfortable read as certain characters display their true colours. Admittedly, it was hard to decide if the concept was inspired or just a little crazy.
What is not in doubt, however, is that it is not given anywhere near enough depth. Some of the chapters where Noemi was experiencing visions were unclear and difficult to follow, while there were other explanations given that came across as random or did not especially ring true. In short, there are so many extraordinary things going on in that house, and the world-building barely scratches the surface.
The uneven pacing might be a contributing factor towards this. For most of the way it is relatively slow and deliberate, but then it increases rapidly in the final few chapters and too much is left to be resolved in a very short time. This section arguably moves along too quickly, and despite its ability to absorb, opportunities to develop the story are sacrificed and the reader is left to take several things at face value.
Written in the third person, the narrative focuses on Noemi’s perspective and what we see on the page neatly reflects her thoughts. Although she is spirited, clever, and can certainly hold her own in a battle of wits, there is an abruptness about Noemi that makes her slightly tricky to connect with at times. Her relationship with Francis is also an ongoing sub-plot, and what starts as an unlikely romance becomes something worth investing in.
Virgil is absolutely one of the most horrible, evil characters I have ever come across. He is incredibly creepy and his behaviour around Noemi is so unsettling, particularly after we find out the truth about the family’s existence. Much of that revolves around his elderly father Howard, who also makes your skin crawl with subtle remarks about eugenics, and grotesque revelations about his physical state.
Sadly, the other characters seriously lack depth. The worst example is Catalina, who despite being portrayed as complex and headstrong, the reader barely gets to know. Florence also could have been explored more instead of existing only to treat Noemi with contempt, which makes her rather two-dimensional. The same can be said for one or two others, but on the bright side I did like Marta the apothecary, who was crafty as well as entertaining.
The eeriness of High Place makes an impression straightaway, with the secluded location and adjacent graveyard complimenting its dingy interiors. Once the hauntings start taking place, this setting and all the pathogens that lurk within it become central to the plot, capturing the very sense of the walls closing in on you. It would have been nice to learn more about the forces that rule High Place, but in terms of atmosphere it is spot on.
For anyone new to Silvio Moreno-Garcia’s work, the writing style is distinctively articulate, full of artful sentences and enjoyably eccentric descriptions. It reflects the story’s element of horror very well and immerses the reader within it to great effect, adding to that feeling of discomfort. The only real problem here is that she does not get the most out of the concept.
Overall, in spite of all the good things about this book, it creates a lingering sense of frustration at the failure to develop characters and important plot strands. The atmosphere and threat is everything you could possibly ask for as the house provides a delightfully intimidating backdrop, and the ingredients are all there to make it a fantastic read. Sadly, there are some crucial things missing which prevent it from fully living up to its potential.
As an author, Silvia Moreno-Garcia is known for her versatility, writing a string of successful novels in recent years across a range of genres. Preceded by Science Fiction and fantasy efforts such as The Beautiful Ones and the acclaimed Gods Of Jade And Shadow, she published Mexican Gothic in 2020 and it won a Goodreads Choice Award.
A historical fiction follow-up entitled Velvet Was The Night was released in 2021. Moreno-Garcia was born in Mexico, but now lives in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
It is unique and full of atmosphere, but development of the concept and characters is sorely missing and that is where it lets itself down. Points for creativity; we just needed more.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐