Locus Awards: Horror: Mexican Gothic with a side of Plain Bad Heroines

Mexican Gothic and Plain Bad Heroines are two of the best horror stories you will read this year. They are both in the shortlist for the Locus Awards this weekend, (26 June), they have also been nominated in other award rounds - Mexican Gothic for the Nebula Awards (where it was beaten in best novel by Martha Wells' Network Effect) and Plain Bad Heroines made it into the Stonewall awards shortlist.

Here is just a taste of what you're in for.

"...he is trying to poison me. This house is sick with rot, stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment."  Catalina. 

Mexican Gothic

An independent heroine, fighting for a career in anthropology, finds herself fighting for her life in this sumptuous Victorian gothic horror classic with a Mexican twist. Set in 1949, the tale quickly reverts to the Victorian era as our heroine Noemí answers her cousin's distress call from her new home in her husband's ancient manor. This is not an era of women's rights. Cousin Catalina's plea is dismissed by Noemí's father, as "...nothing but exaggerations and marital trouble..." and a possible "plea for attention". 

In Noemí's experience, 

"...any pleasant activity must also involve the acquisition of a spouse. That is, she should never have fun for the sake of having fun, but only as a way to obtain a husband." 

Her features, not her mind, are considered her greatest asset:

"Marriage could hardly be like the passionate romances one read about in books... men would be solicitous and well-behaved when they courted... but once they married, the flowers wilted." 

The story is told in fairytale form - the original tradition of horror storytelling. Sylvia Moreno-Garcia's characters are not dependable - their behaviour can turn, confusing the reader's sympathies. The inhabitants of the Doyle estate are cut off from the village below in an isolated setting atop a mountain; complete with mist, trees growing over the road, and a manor ruled by a matriarch who appears to be decaying along with the old house. 

As soon as Noemí enters this environment, she is suspicious of her cousin's new family. They impose restrictions on her freedom and will not release her cousin to be examined by any other than their own doctor.

Noemí begins almost immediately to have bad dreams, of an erotic nature. She begins to sleepwalk, the lines blurring between her dream state and reality. 

Catalina's new family dismiss Noemi's suspicions, labelling her "flighty" and "crazy".

If Noemí is the heroine, then Francis Doyle is the anti-hero: pasty, thin, shy and ordered about by the rest - yet it is him they plan to marry Noemí to. He is a painter, a sketcher of mushrooms. Not Noemí's usual type at all, "...he had a plain face, mismatched even. She liked this man's quirks and imperfections, the lack of playboy smarts coupled with a quiet intelligence." p.281 

But it is the matriarch of the family she must fear:

"Howard Doyle turned his head upon the pillow and looked at her. His lips were as bloated as his leg, crusted with black growths, and a trail of dark fluid dripped down his chin, staining his bedclothes..." 

Not for the squeamish. What is it that lives in the cemetery? And what has this to do with mushrooms?!  This is body horror that would make Poe squirm.

Plain Bad Heroines

"I have reached a truly wonderful state of miserable morbid unhappiness … May I never become that abnormal, merciless animal, that deformed monstrosity—a virtuous woman" (Mary MacLane) 

I'm smashing on this deliciously frightening horror by Emily Danforth. Plain Bad Heroines is a book about a book, about a movie, about some very bad goings-on in a young ladies' boarding school in Rhode Island, concerning a book, circa 1902.

Confused? Let's start at the beginning, with "smashing". To "smash" on someone is to have a crush on them. 

Which was quite the done thing in early twentieth century America, especially if you were a young woman in an all-girl school. It was common to express a "smash" by offering a lock of hair in a locket.

In 1902, Clara and Florence, students at Brookhants School for girls are two such young women infatuated with each other. They are also obsessed with a book, The Story of Mary MacLane, (subtitled, "I await the Devil's coming"!); written by an early feminist who endorses lesbianism and independence. They aren't the only ones with such infatuations.

They form the Plain Bad Heroine's Society - initiation involving being stung by the yellow-jacket wasps that infest the school's orchard, feeding on the Black Oxford apples that grow there.

When something terrible happens to the two (a deadly attack by said wasps), the book disappears, only to turn up again at the scene of another unfortunate death. What is the connection?

In the present day, Merritt Emmons writes a book; The Happenings at Brookhants - guided by a descendent of principal Libbie Brookhants (or Library, as she was better known). The book chronicles a series of events that appear to lend weight to rumours of hauntings at the school.

When the book is optioned for a narrative, cinema verité style film, the hauntings begin to manifest in the present day. But are they only special effects, designed to give the film a 'Blair Witch' edge?

I'll leave that up to you to decide, Dear Reader.

When the story first flipped from the horrors of 1902 to modern day Hollywood, I was disappointed, thinking I would prefer the historic, sepia-soaked setting. But the characters in the modern day are excellent too - and as past events begin to repeat themselves, there are frights a-plenty: the timeline complementing the original story.

The deadly wasps proliferate the book. They are there at the attack on Flo and Clara. They issue forth from bathroom taps to drive poor Libbie and her partner Alex mad, they are cleverly mirrored in the fashionable 'wasp' waists of the day and they turn up to menace our modern-day heroines, Harper, Audrey and Merritt, who are making the movie.

These three are also "smashing" on each other. 

The school motto, esse quam videri, (to be, rather than to seem) is in nice juxtaposition with the Hollywood way, which is more like 'fake it till you make it.'

Highlights include a visit to the Chicago World Fair, macabre Russian Dolls, an ancient curse, Hollywood scream-queens and a sprinkling of "movie -magic fairy dust." 

This book is so good, I couldn't put it down.

"Doesn't any of this sound even a little bit fun?" 

Further reading