The Only Good Indians, & Mexican Gothic
Updated: Nov 7, 2022
Both Mexican Gothic and The Only Good Indians have been on my 'to read' list for the last year or so. I had been unfamiliar with Moreno-Garcia and Graham Jones, despite both having published novels previous to these two works - five in the former's case, a dozen or more for the latter. I first became aware of them when both books were nominated for the Bram Stoker award for 2020, with The Only Good Indians going on to win best novel. In fact Jones's next novel, My Heart is a Chainsaw, also picked up best novel for 2021.
I guess I really should keep up, but between what I get sent for review and what I choose to read for myself, these two slipped through the net until recently. However, that failing has been rectified, with both books accompanying me on a recent cycling trip to Mallorca. An accident on the second day of cycling meant I had more time than I'd planned to spend reading.
Of the two, Stephen Graham Jones's novel was more to my taste. His writing is both taut and literary, displaying both economy and conviction in his characterisation, and a solid grasp in creating and maintaining tension. There's a sense too, in his supple, committed prose and his facility and willingness to play with familiar horror tropes, of a writer confident enough of his abilities to really stretch himself. As a native American, he brings a new--at least to me--perspective and authenticity to the material, a sense that, rather than seeing things from the point of view of an outsider to this milieu, a white saviour come to put the world to rights, we're being positioned firmly on the inside of things. The reservation setting is not incidental; the lived experience of these Blackfoot men is key to understanding the forces at work on them, and the decisions they make.
Right from the start, when we're introduced to Ricky, one of four men, who ten years previously, were involved in the incident which precipitates the novel's revenge narrative, Jones manages to elicit our sympathy for his characters, only to repeatedly have them act in ways which cause us to question our feelings about them. This creates a sense of uncertainty and destabilisation that adds to the sense of dread that gradually begins to permeate the narrative. By the time we catch up with Cass and Gabe, the last two of the Blackfeet protagonists, the feeling that both these deeply flawed men are hurtling toward an inevitable fate, is almost unbearable.
The skeleton on which the narrative hangs is essentially a revenge story. Four young men participate in an out of season elk hunt, straying on to land reserved for the tribal elders. Circumstances lead to a herd of elks being trapped in snow bordered hollow, where they are killed in what more or less becomes a turkey shoot. One of the elks, killed by Lewis, turns out to be pregnant, and he buries the foetus and vows to donate all the meat from the mother to the tribe elders. All of this is fleshed out analeptically in the course of Lewis's story, which itself follows on a month or so after Ricky is beaten to death in the novel's prologue. Ricky, prone to getting in fights with white men, might have gotten away but for an encounter with a strangely menacing elk outside a bar. When tribal postman Lewis begins to have visions of a young elk, it prompts him to remember the night of the hunt and his own guilt at the ensuing slaughter. It also raises the possibility that in killing all those elk, and in particular the pregnant beast and her calf, Lewis and his friends have inadvertently drawn a curse down on themselves, one that takes the form of an elk spirit, the Po'noka. It is this spirit, which, at least until the final section of the novel, Jones depicts only fleetingly, that seeks to avenge itself on the four hunters.
Unlike more conventional revenge narratives, say Hannibal or Carrie, what unsettles us is that none of the four men are particularly bad, at least not in the sense of displaying villainous traits. They are, for the most part, ordinary guys, screwed up to varying degrees by their own failings and by the particular social circumstances into which they were born. They have drink problems, they have difficulties finding and holding onto jobs, and in maintaining stable relationships with their partners and their kids. In other words, they are much like most men. But these are not evil bastards, and this is where the novel's power arises--there's a terrible sense of injustice, of feeling that none of these guys deserve what happens to them. After all, they had already been punished--with having to forfeit the meat and serving hunting bans--for the illegal hunt.
And as if to compound things, we have to also take account of the fate of their friends, loved ones, and kids. The Po'noka, in it's seemingly unquenchable thirst for revenge, seems to have much in common with the mafioso who threatens to visit his wrath not just on his enemies, but on their wives and children. If Ricky, Lewis, Cass and Gabe do not deserve the violence inflcited upon them, how much more intolerable is the suffering and harm meted out to Peta, Jo and Denorah?
It's been a while since I've read a horror novel that provoked such visceral feelings in me, and it's to Jones's credit that those powerful emotions don't ever feel forced or out of place. There's a brooding sense of confusion, even anger, in the novel, a sense of men trapped by circumstance and tradition, of their attempts to get beyond those confines inevitably doomed to failure. Jones's use of present tense and the deceptive ease which which he moves between focalisers, gives the narrative a sense of immediacy and momentum that sends us racing toward the climax, and leaves us all but breathless at the end.
Mexican Gothic, which I read first, is a different beast altogether, one that left me strangely dissatisfied, and a little perplexed at all the praise it has earned. It's well enough written without grabbing the reader by the throat the way Jones's book does, and it has a complex, gutsy, sometimes vain and flighty, but always strong-willed protagonist in Noemi Taboada.
Moreno-Garcia locates her narrative in the early 1950s, with the first chapters set in Mexico City before the action moves to High Place, a gothic mansion set on a hill above the small town of El Triunfo, some hundreds of miles from the capital. Noemi, a young socialite, is summoned to High Place by her recently married cousin Catalina, who writes that her husband, Virgil Doyle, is slowly poisoning her and that High Place is corrupt and haunted by ghosts. What follows, despite the Mexican setting, is a pretty conventional gothic fantasy, one that self-consciously alludes to Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but also to Daphne Du Maurier and, particularly in High Place being built on the profits from mining, to Guillermo del Toro's film Crimson Peak. This is all well and good, as gothic tropes seem to lend themselves to reinvention and subversion, and Moreno-Garcia does indeed tick off many of the familiar touchstones from the gothic checklist--a decaying, haunted mansion on a hill; a woman manipulated and cowed by a mysterious, controlling husband; a sleepwalking heroine; a corrupt patriarch tapping into supernatural forces to extend his life; fog, lots of fog, and slime; an incestuous family; ghosts.
Yet, in spite of Moreno-Garcia's attempts to freshen things up by foregrounding the links to colonialism that are hinted at in works like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, and making explicit the Doyles' racism and exploitation of their Mexican workers, it all feels a little too familiar, almost a kind of karoake gothic. Unlike Stephen Graham Jones, whose narrative is specifically informed and enriched by its native American characters and locale, Moreno-Garcia makes little use of her Mexican setting--the Doyles are English colonialists, one doesn't get any sense of Noemi's Mexican heritage, only of her class background (to the extent she could be a fiesty socialite from any number of novels set in the US or England); the terrain of High Place could be Gothic Central, located in 19th Century New England, or the wilds of Cornwall or Scotland, rather than the mountains of central Mexico.
Another problem is the novel's pacing. For the first 200 pages, as the author has Noemi move, as though by rote, through a series of seemingly mandatory encounters--in the mist-shrouded family cemetery, in dark, plunging hallways and hidden rooms, in rooms and galleries that are forbidden to her, in subterranean chambers beneath the house--not a lot seems to happen. Noemi spends time trying to learn the truth from her cousin but doesn't get very far; she eats most of her meals alone; she smokes a lot of cigarettes, develops an affection for Virgil's sensitive nephew, Francis, and provokes the ire of his mother, Florence. At times Virgil seems civil, almost charming, while at others he's beastly. One begins to wonder why the impetuous Noemi doesn't simply pack up and return to Mexico City. In fact, such is the sense of ennui hovering over the narrative, that this is precisely what Noemi decides to do.
And then, 200 pages in, as if aware of the extent to which things are dragging, Moreno-Garcia finally livens things up by introducing elements that lift the slow-moving narrative out of familiar territory and into something more otherworldly, something almost Lovecraftian. We realise the naming of the family patriarch was no accident. The discovery of Howard's keen interest in eugenics, particularly in relation to the way in which it informs his family's use of a strange, life-prolonging fungus, finally lends the novel elements that have been largely absent--horror, and a real sense of dread, particularly when we learn that Howard has been manipulating events right from the start, using Catalina's plight to lure Noemi to High Place in order that she be used to introduce a fresh bloodline into the family's deteriorating gene pool.
That narrative shot in the arm is sustained through to the climax, and the author handles the final, apocalyptic showdown with surprising verve (surprising, given what came before). The final chapter wraps things up too neatly, the emphasis on romantic fulfilment, the legacy of exploitation and racism, pushed once more to the margins. There's no doubting Moreno-Garcia's skill as a writer--Noemi, despite the hoops that the author has her jump through, remains a compelling and unpredictable protagonist--or her respect for and insight into gothic traditions. And perhaps therein lies the problem, that she shows too much reverence for the conventions. I was left with a sense of unfulfilled expectations, of a bolder, more confrontational narrative struggling to shed its generic constraints.
Mike O'Driscoll © 2022