A Tale of Two Gothics: Mexican Gothic and the Turnout
A reminder, this is not a review. It's an analysis of what I learned reading these books that I can apply as a writer. Turn back mateys; spoilers be ahead.
During Spring Book Binge 2022, I found myself listening to two different gothic stories back to back. I guess I was in a gothic story place.
I don't necessarily have a specific genre that I read. I read everything. I lean toward crime fiction, but I also enjoy romance, fantasy, paranormal, and even the occasional sci-fi or dystopian. My exposure to gothic storytelling is limited. Gothic, in my reading history, has been primarily a Bronte style: big looming house, brooding love interest, naive young female protagonist, and a false perception of supernatural elements. In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the noises in the attic were not ghosts, but the current Mrs. Rochester striving to get out. The ghost nun in Villette was the disguise of Ginerva's boyfriend sneaking into the school. In Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, the ghost of Cathy torments a houseguest and Heathcliff at the beginning, but is never seen again, and could have been rationalized away as a fever dream. I guess one might also count my favorite preteen author, V.C. Andrews as a gothic writer with many soap opera twists and turns (and incest, don't forget the incest).
I had forgotten that sometimes the supernatural elements are not a misdirect, an allegory, or a metaphor -- sometimes they are real.
Mexican Gothic takes on the gothic genre with a real supernatural element -- the house actually is possessed. It uses the supernatural in a naturalistic way; instead of ghosts, it's a species of mushroom. It's also a house that is stuck in a different time -- which reminds me of Southern Gothic. In Southern Gothic, the house represents a bygone era that the owners are clinging to in a false belief that it's going to make a huge comeback. In Mexican Gothic, the owner of the house is unclear -- is it the mushrooms possessing the owner, or is the owner possessing the mushrooms to possess the ... the symbol of the snake eating itself reappears throughout the novel is fitting.
I liked the contrast of the modern protagonist against the house. She is not naive to the world, but definitely naive to this world. She is spoiled and used to using her charm to get her way. She wants to study and go to university, which is radical for even the world she exits before entering the creepy house. If you have a character who doesn't understand how a world works, you need... an exposition character. Francis becomes Noemi's confidant and guides her through the family history and customs. And while he doesn't reveal everything immediately -- otherwise it would have been a "Noemi you in danger, girl", situation and would have altered the pacing. This exposition character is drawn to Noemi while also lives in terror of spilling too many secrets.
In the Bronte tradition, the exposition characters are often people who work in the house, so their loyalty is connected to keeping their place of employment. In Jane Eyre, Mrs. Fairfax is the exposition character for Thornfield Hall, even trying to warn Jane to not get involved with Rochester. In Wuthering Heights, it's Nelly Dean who is one of my favorite Bronte characters because she spills all the tea and is all the way over Heathcliff and Cathy and their doomed romance.
Something the novel does well is its use of altered reality. This reminded me of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. In many of the possession scenes, the reader is not aware that they have entered into this altered reality. The writer, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is incredibly deft in leading the reader into these dream spaces without making them seem too unreal while also seeming believably shocking that they are happening. The breathing wallpaper, the unexpected steaming bathwater, and realistic visions all seem like she is using artistic license to create atmosphere and then the reader realizes it's not figurative -- it's literal. I would pull out specific passages, but sadly, I listened to this novel instead of physically reading it.
What I learned from reading this novel: the importance of an exposition character, how to use a reoccurring symbolic thematic image, and the jarring literal unreality.
The Turnout by Megan Abbott is an abstract approach to a gothic story. Entirely modern, instead of the big gothic house, it's a ballet studio getting ready for their annual money-maker -- The Nutcracker. If we can stipulate that VC Andrews wrote gothic novels, then this would fit into that tradition. In The Turnout, the family is haunted, not the house.
And while most gothic stories have a young naive protagonist, this one does not. Dara is a grown woman, who runs her ballet studio with a chilly disposition. She teaches the older students. She believes in order and discipline. Her sister Marie teaches the younger children, and she is a hot mess. Their parents died together in a car accident, and they live together in the house connected to the studio with Dara's husband Charlie.
While they teach the students of their town, the family is isolated. They don't go out with friends, they don't engage in the community, and they don't have hobbies or associations outside of their insular little world of the studio. Which makes the interloper Derek entering their world so incredibly jarring for Dara.
Abbott is working with an atmospheric gothic, playing on senses and textures. The sounds and smells of the ballet studio -- bodies pushing themselves in the performance of others (something I love about all of her work -- she writes about women who are pushing their bodies beyond normal functionality). She describes changing rooms of pink tulle and dank sweat. Ballet is bloody and ugly: the beautiful and the rotten.
The ghost of this story is not a literal ghost or even the illusion of a literal ghost, but Dara's faulty memory of her mother and her childhood. And with the 1st-person narration, everything is filtered through Dara's isolated gaze.
Both Dara and Marie are odd. They were homeschooled -- and not in a modern way where the parents bend over backward to make sure their children are still socialized. They focused their entire lives on dance. Charlie was a child their parents helped raise -- so in a way, Charlie was chosen for Dara (or Marie) by their mother. The character of Derek enters with what those in the outside world might call charisma. He smiles, which unnerves Dara. He uses colloquialisms and tries to joke with Dara. She hates him for it. It's an interesting juxtaposition. It's also a move from the Southern Gothic tradition. In fact, not that I am considering it this might be in line with a Flannery O'Conner story. She often works with antagonists who should not be trusted but the protagonist has no reason not to trust them.
If the goal of a writer is to make sure the reader is one step ahead of the character but not so far ahead that they become frustrated with the protagonist, Abbott is walking a fine line. The reader suspects something is amiss because she is so unnerved by him, so the reader focuses all their attention on what he might be up to. This is the mystery that keeps the reader going. Abbott is an excellent crime writer, often dealing with investigating who murdered another person. Here, the mystery is what Derek is up to, or whether he is up to anything at all.
What I learned from this novel: Atmosphere is everything, danger can appear with a smile on its face, and how to keep the reader only one step ahead instead of five.