It was somewhere around the fourth month of rambling around my living quarters, assessing the decay of my own norms (exactly how long had I been wearing this pair of leggings?), that I had an epiphany: I, like so many others, was now living inside a long, twisty, startling Gothic horror novel.
The signs were all there:
- Claustrophobia inside your home
- An ominous, unseen enemy lurking outside
- Nagging questions about what is true and what can be believed
- Endless hours to ruminate and fret
- Wealth and power transformed into rot and ruin
Sound familiar? We’re at the point in the story where the beleaguered heroine realizes the danger she’s in but has to open every last cursed door to find a way — any way — out of a crumbling mansion.
My reading list for the past several months looks like a quest for a how-to guide on surviving this period of madness. I haven’t had the attention span for epic fantasy for months; science fiction feels too escapist. But books about dead towns and haunted manors and occult comeuppance? I feel that in my bones.
Poison & Plague
The actual opening scene of Caitlin Starling’s new Gothic novella Yellow Jessamine features a conversation about the burning of a plague ship and the slow death of a once-elite port city in a war-torn empire. For a moment I wondered if it had been mislabeled as fiction.
As Evelyn Perdanu, the reclusive shipping magnate at the heart of this story, reflects: “Delphinium had been left to rot, as the last old bones of the government refused to capitulate. Around them, in client cities and far-flung colonies, the empire continued under its new masters, prospering. But from her perch on the balcony, Evelyn could only smell the stench of decay, the sickly-sweet deliquescence of pride, of money, of men.”
The next time you’re doomscrolling Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, note the mix of stories and topics you see: civil unrest over racial and economic injustice, disputes over scientific fact and “liberty,” and an endless drumbeat of celebrity quarantine videos. Tell me then whether you too can understand the “sickly-sweet deliquescence of pride, of money, of men.”
That Sinking Feeling
No other book, though, has been so on-the-nose of 2020 than Alma Katsu’s The Deep, an eerie romp aboard the decks of the Titanic. I first read it in the Before Times of January. Still, I think of it often, particularly when I see large family photos or photos of birthday parties or, worst of all, photos from vacations and Disney World, and I remember I haven’t been inside a grocery store since April.
As Katsu writes, “We are all, men and women, creatures of desires both good and bad. But everything has a price, and the price of indulging in that which is bad for us is often guilt; and too much guilt results in a sickness of the mind. We have poisoned our conscience, and something poisoned will need treatment one day—or it will rot.”
That poison of the conscience has the potential to sink ships and empires. What’s most worrisome, however, is that like Katsu’s characters in The Deep, many of us don’t seem to understand we’re already paying the price.
When I think about Gothic horror, however, no quality is more essential than this: a house from which you desperately want to escape. If that ain’t a mood.
Obviously, Silvia Moreno-Garcia imagined and wrote Mexican Gothic long before 2020, but she could not have picked a more troublingly perfect time to release it than the summer of this cursed year.
In the novel, socialite Noemí Taboada is drawn to the 1950s Mexican countryside by a confusing, yet urgent S.O.S. from her cousin Catalina. She arrives at gloomy, remote High Place to rescue Catalina — from something or someone — and spends the rest of the novel trying to break free from a rotting mansion and its diseased grounds.
Supernatural elements aside, Mexican Gothic is the ultimate quarantine read. It is the uncorseted, modern update on the classic “lady in a large ball gown runs desperately down a staircase” Gothic story. If I had to paint a picture of my emotional state for the past six months, it would look like that image: panicked but privileged, rambling the same halls over and over again, fleeing an unseen enemy.
After a spring and summer of pandemic, we now enter a turbulent, chaotic fall (still of pandemic). The hope I cling to is the same one Moreno-Garcia leaves her characters with: “The future, she thought, could not be predicted, and the shape of things could not be divined. To think otherwise was absurd. But they were young that morning, and they could cling to hope. Hope that the world could be remade, kinder and sweeter.”