Here’s the quick synopsis and chapter by chapter summary for Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
Table of Contents
Quick Plot Synopsis
For a non-spoiler version of the plot summary, see The Bibliofile’s review of Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Noemí Taboada is a 22-year-old wealthy socialite. She goes to see her cousin Catalina, who is living with her husband’s family in the High Place, a mansion located near a small village in the mountains. Catalina has written asking for help. She sees ghosts and believes that her husband, Virgil, is poisoning her. Virgil Doyle comes from a once-wealthy family that has run out of money. Noemí worries that the Doyles are after Catalina’s bank account.
At the High Place, Catalina has a fever and is ranting about ghosts in the walls. She is being treated by the family doctor, Dr. Arthur Cummins. Noemí is given limited access to Catalina. Catalina asks Noemí to secretly pick up medicine (a tincture) from the town healer, Marta Duval. But the tincture causes a seizure, and Noemí’s visits with Catalina are limited further.
Noemí eventually learns that High Place was built by the Doyle brothers, Leland and Howard (Virgil’s father). They also re-opened the town’s old silver mines. Howard’s first wife was Agnes, who died. Howard remarried Agnes’s sister, Alice, and they had two children, Ruth and Virgil. Meanwhile, Leland married Dorothy, and they had Michael and Florence.
Ruth fell in love with a man who mysteriously disappeared. Instead, Ruth was ordered to marry Michael. Before the wedding, she drugs and shoots up the household. Leland, Dorothy, Michael and Alice were killed. Then, Ruth killed herself. The mines were closed around that time. Florence later married and had Francis. But her husband, Richard, went raving mad and was found dead in a ravine. Now, the only Doyles left are Howard, Florence, Francis and Virgil.
As Noemí stays in the house, she starts to dream of ghosts, have strange visions involving the Foyles and she sees a golden woman climbing out from the walls. Noemí forges a friendship with Francis, but he warns her not to trust the rest of them. Virgil is charming but seems predatory. Florence is strict and scolds Noemí constantly. And Howard is old, controlling and a eugenics enthusiast. There are also rumors that the family is cursed. In addition to the family’s sordid history, there is a sickness that has at times caused fevers, madness and death in many of the family’s workers and staff.
As Noemí’s dreams get worse and she starts sleepwalking, and she decides to leave High Place for now. At that point, the Doyles reveal they have no intention of letting her go. They tell her the truth, that Howard discovered a long time ago a mushroom that had the ability to heal and extend life. It is especially potent within the Doyle’s bloodline, which is why they have an incestuous family history. This house and the air in it is infused with the mushroom’s spores, which has grown around and under it, forming a symbiotic relationship with the house and its inhabitants. It also allows a level of control over people that have inhaled its spores.
The spores have an ability to collect and store memories. Noemí’s visions are actually the family’s collective memories, which they call “the gloom.” Howard sacrificed his first wife, Agnes, through a ritual that turned her into the mind and hub for the spores to spring forth from. Howard is actually around three hundred years old. He has the power to transmute his memories into the gloom and then live on in another’s body. He’s been doing this with family members to preserve the potency of his powers.
The Doyles have lately been branching out in terms of marriages (Catalina, Richard, etc.) because their inbreeding is causing infertility. Outsiders react differently to the spores, with some getting fevers and dying (the sickness that killed their workers). But Noemí seems to highly complementary, plus she has the wealth they need to replenish their fortunes. They want Noemí to marry Francis.
Francis knows this is wrong, and he tells Noemí that Marta’s tincture can lessen the spores’ control over people. Francis and Noemí devise a plan for her to go along with the plan temporarily, as he sneaks Noemí and Catalina the tincture. After the wedding ceremony, they want to transmute Howard into Francis. However, Catalina stabs Howard in the eye with a scalpel, and Francis takes Florences gun and shoots her.
They escape into the family crypt, and Noemí sees that the body of Agnes is down there with spores sprouting from her body and her mind still acting as the hub. Virgil stops them. Virgil says he knew about them continuing to take the tincture, but he allowed it because he wanted them to injure Howard. That way, Virgil can take control of the spores. Instead, Francis fights with him, and Noemí lights the body of Agnes on fire. Catalina, Noemí and Francis escape into town with the house ablaze behind them.
The book sends with the police and Noemí’s father headed over to the town to check things out. Francis has a dream about the house healing itself and him inside it, with it emerging stronger than ever. He wonders if he should kill himself. However, Francis and Noemí kiss, and they are hopeful they can build a better future.
Noemí Taboada returns from a costume party at the Tuñóns. Her date, Hugo Duarte, bids her goodnight. Noemí is twenty-two and a bit of a flighty socialite. Hugo is not a serious suitor because his position is too far below hers.
At home, Noemí’s father is concerned about her cousin, Catalina, who has been behaving oddly. Catalina has written them a crazed letter claiming that her husband, Virgil Doyle, is poisoning her and that she sees ghosts. She pleads for Noemí’s help. Neither Noemí nor her father have any idea what’s going on.
Catalina’s parents died when she was younger and she moved in with the Taboadas. Naomi’s father chased away a previous fiancee of Catalina’s, so she conducted her relationship with Virgil secretly. Virgil and Catalina married very quickly. Noemí’s father wonders if Virgil can be trusted. Virgil would be penniless without Catalina, but as long as they are married, Virgil has access to her bank account. (The Doyles were once a wealthy family but their money has run out.) Noemí’s father wants Noemí to go and check out the situation. In exchange, he will give Noemí permission to enroll in a masters anthropology program (both her parents want her to just get married).
Noemí leaves Mexico City and heads for the High Place, located in El Triunfo, a village situated in a forested area on the side of a mountain. Virgil’s younger cousin (once removed), Francis, arrives to pick her up from the station. The High Place is owned by Virgil’s father, Howard Doyle, and both Francis and his mother, Florence, live there. Florence explains that they have limited power and rely instead on candlelight.
At the house, Noemí insists on seeing Catalina, who is being heavily medicated by the Doyles. Catalina weakly tells Noemí that she has a fever and tuberculosis. Before Catalina can say more, Florence whisks her off for her medication, which puts her to sleep.
Over dinner, Florence cuts Noemí off when she asks about the silver mines that the Doyles used to operate, informing her that they don’t talk over dinner. Howard implies that Noemí is inferior because of her indigenous blood. Afterwards, Virgil explains that Dr. Arthur Cummins has been treating Catalina, though Florence administers the medicine. Virgil expresses annoyance at Noemí’s father’s suggestion that they employ a psychiatrist to help.
There are three staff members at the High Place (Lizzie, Charles and Mary), but none of them speak to her. The house is quiet and cold. As Noemí explores, she finds Howard’s many books and journals on eugenics research in the library. Francis is a bit friendlier than the rest of the household. He explains that the family’s mines were flooded in 1915 and the Revolution around that time contributed towards the family’s diminished wealth. He says they keep the house quiet because noises bother Howard.
When they are alone, Catalina asks Noemí to fetch a batch of medicine from a woman in town named Marta Duval. She tells Noemí to speak quietly and be careful because others in the house can hear them. Catalina says there are ghosts in the walls. Before she can explain, the doctor arrives.
Dr. Cummin says that the illness is nothing to worry about, but Noemí insists that something is wrong. Catalina is anxious and listless. Virgil claims that Catalina has always been depressive, but Noemí disagrees. Dr. Cummin expresses annoyance at what he considers Noemí being “agitated”. Still, Noemí insists on a second opinion or taking Catalina to a psychiatrist.
That night, Noemí finds herself fixated on the green and gold wallpaper. She dreams of flowers sprouting from it and a golden woman dressed in lace who is unable to speak.
Noemí asks Francis to borrow his car and drives to a local doctor’s office to ask for a second opinion about Catalina. Dr. Julio Eusebio Camarillo is afraid of angering the Doyles and Dr. Cummin by getting involved, but Noemí convinces him to come. He also tells Noemí about a strange epidemic that used to crop up at the Doyles’ mine from time to time. It involved high fevers, ranting and raving. Many people died.
Next, Noemí visits Marta Duval, who says that no tea can help Catalina. Instead, Martha believes the family is cursed. Ruth Doyle, Howard’s daughter, was supposed to marry to her cousin, Michael. But a week before her wedding day, she shot and killed him, her mother, aunt and uncle. Ruth shot Howard, too, but he survived. Then, Ruth shot herself. Later, Francis went and got suddenly married to a young man, Richard. But before long Richard was ranting and raving about ghosts, and the family soon found him dead at the bottom of the ravine.
Noemí thinks that these are coincidences, and asks for the tea. Marta tells her to come back in a week.
At dinner, Noemí is scolded for smoking in the house and for taking the car without Florence’s permission. Afterwards, Virgil privately apologies to Noemí for it later. That night, Howard tells Noemí about his wife Agnes (died of a disease), and Alice (Agne’s sister who he married afterwards. Alice is Virgil’s mother and was shot by her daughter Ruth).
As she sleeps, Noemí has nightmares of Howard Doyle hovering over her in her sleep and a woman’s voice telling her to wake up.
Dr. Camarillo arrives to look at Catalina, who is initially normal but soon starts complaining of exhaustion and people in the walls. Camarillo recommends a psychiatrist, but there isn’t more he can do. Later, Noemí and Virgil get into an argument over Catalina’s treatment and care.
Noemí also notices there are ouroboros (circular symbol of a snake eating its tail), the family’s heraldic symbol, around the property.
Noemí goes to smoke in the cemetery when she hears a buzzing noise she can’t seem to place. Then, Francis shows up, collecting mushrooms. He tells her about his interest in mushrooms. Noemí gets irritated when Francis reminds her of his mother’s house rules, but then Noemí apologies for it when she realizes he’s not happy about it either.
Noemí and Francis meet up in the library so he can show her his collection of pressed plants. On the library walls, there are paintings of Ruth as well as her victims — Alice, Michael, and Dorothy and Leland (Francis’s grandparents). Noemí asks Francis to drop her off in town the next day and pick her up later. Despite knowing his mother would disapprove, he agrees. Florence later asks Noemí not to talk to Francis about the city and its diversions. She notes that Francis has accepted his life here and it’s better not to put ideas in his head.
Another nightmare. There’s a sound of a beating heart, which Noemí follows and finds Ruth with a rifle. They walk together as a walls beat. She sees Ruth shoot herself and then a vision of the golden woman.
Just then, Virgil wakes her up, telling her that she’s sleepwalking and he walks her back to her room.
Chapter 12 (This part recounts and recaps the Doyle family’s history)
Francis drops Noemí off in town and she goes to find Marta. Noemí picks up the tea, but also asks for more information about the family.
Marta starts her story when the Doyles, Howard and his brother Leland, first came to town to reopen the city’s old mines. They started work constructing the High Place as well. Soon, however, the sickness infected their workers and many died, including Agnes (Howard’s wife). That’s when the cemetery was built.
Eventually, the disease passed, and Howard was remarried to Alice (Agnes’s sister) in 1895. A second wave of the sickness cropped up. Mexican workers without family in town were buried with no headstone or cross, so rumors started about mass graves the Doyles used to bury their dead.
In the past, there was a customary portion of silver (a “partido”) that the workers were paid. However, they ended that practice around then. Aurelio was a worker who was disgruntled about it and got the other men worked up about it too. There was a strike and some fighting. Soon, Aurelio was found dead, and it ended the strike. The mines continued. Ruth was born and many years later Virgil was born. Mr. Leland had children too, Michael and Florence.
Benito, Aurelio’s nephew, goes to work in the house. Ruth and Benito fall in love, despite Ruth being engaged to Michael. It’s rumored that when Howard found out, he almost killed Ruth. Then, Benito disappeared. No one knows if he ran away or died. Before the wedding, it’s rumored that Ruth put a sleeping draught in the food and that’s when she shot everyone.
Marta says that the place is now cursed. It is “mal de aire” which means the air is heavy, weighed down by evil. She gives Noemí a beaded bracelet which she says will serve as a talisman to protect her.
Afterwards, Noemí goes to see Dr. Camarillo about a rash she has on her wrist that she’d developed since being at the house. He gives her an ointment and bandages it up. She also buys a pack of cards. When Francis picks her up, he admits that ended up staying and taking a nap so his mother wouldn’t know he failed to chaperone her around. On the way back, they discuss Ruth and Francis says that Ruth should’ve burned the High Place to the ground.
Noemí surprises Catalina with the medicinal tea and the cards, for them to play with. Catalina takes multiple doses until Noemí stops her. However, Catalina immediately has a seizure. Noemí screams for help, and Mr. Cummins is called. He tells her it was opium. Noemí refuses to tell them where she got it. Afterwards, Virgil scolds Noemí.
Noemí visits the cemetery again and looks at the statue of Agnes. The marker has a one-word epitaph, “Mother”, which she finds strange considering both of Howard’s children were Alice’s. Francis finds her and tells Noemí not to blame herself for what happened. Catalina has taken the tincture before and had a similar reaction. Francis also tells Noemí that he’s tired because Howard has been keeping the family up caring for him. Howard has ulcers that won’t heal, but also won’t kill him.
That night, Noemí dreams again. She enters a clearing where a pregnant woman is in labor. A little girl sits on a chair nearby with a man behind her. The woman gives birth to a tumor. A man says “Death, overcome.”
Francis takes Noemí back into town, but Marta is not home. Noemí goes to talk to Dr. Camarillo. Camarillo says he doesn’t think Catalina’s tincture was opium, because Marta wouldn’t have access to it. She deals in herbs and plants, and poppies (required for opium) don’t grow around here. Camarillo also checks on Noemí’s bandages and is surprised to see her rash has completely healed so quickly.
When Noemí returns, Florence scolds her again, this time for leaving without giving them notice. They also imply that she’s spending too much time with Francis. In anger, Noemí tells Virgil that if something is wrong with Catalina it’s his fault, since he brought her here. Virgil admits that he thinks that when Catalina married him, Catalina had hoped to come in and reform the household to be cheerier, but his father doesn’t allow it.
Virgil also admits he was previously married to Arthur’s daughter. They were unhappy and had a series of miscarriages and she left.
As they chat, Virgil and Noemí reach a bit of a truce. Virgil offers to start looking into psychiatrists for Catalina with Noemí. Afterward, Noemí tries to make peace with Florence, too, but Florence isn’t having it.
Florence now refuses to let Noemí be alone with Catalina. Mary (household help) must keep watch. But, Catalina sneaks Noemí a note instead. On the note, Catalina writes “this is proof” and there is a page that appears to be from Ruth’s diary saying that she plans to kill. Noemí doesn’t understand what the proof is supposed to be for.
Noemí finally flat-out asks Francis if he thinks he’s ever seen ghosts in the house. She discusses two theories about why people see or think they see ghosts — extrasensory perception or the idea that people will these things into being. She also talks about how mercury vapors used in everyday items like paint used to make people think they were going mad. Francis doesn’t answer, but says that he thinks Noemí should leave because “just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted.” He compares her to his deceased father. Finally, he tells her not to trust Howard, Florence or Virgil.
Noemí takes a bath and falls asleep. She dreams that Virgil walks in. She’s unable to move and he kisses her. Then, the ceiling disappears and she sees a snake emerge from an egg, forming itself into an ouroboros. She awakes dressed in an open bathrobe, having sleepwalked into Virgil’s room, dripping and barefoot. He offers her some wine and walks her back.
The next morning Noemí tries to see Catalina, but Florence insists isn’t not possible. She gets angry, saying that Florence has demanded that she warn her before visiting Catalina but has set up a schedule where it’s impossible for Noemí to see her.
In her room, she is reading a moldy book when she notices her wallpaper seems to move, and the colors change. She rushes into the bathroom and slashes her face. The room returns to normal, but she doesn’t know what caused the hallucinations. Florence and Virgil show up, insisting they heard her yell, though Noemí is certain she didn’t.
Finally, Noemí decides she needs to depart High Place for the time being. She intends to come back, but she knows getting away from there will be better for her for now. Virgil agrees to take her to town tomorrow.
Noemí packs a suitcase, with plans to go to the larger town nearby of Pachuca, write her father and find a psychiatrist to help Catalina. At dinner, Virgil mentions that they plan on re-opening the mines soon, using Catalina’s money to fund the re-opening.
Before she leaves, they take Noemí to see Howard, who is lying in bed. He is very pale and one of his legs is badly bloated and covered in boils. Virgil urges her to get closer, she refuses, but he forces her. Then, Howard puts his tongue down her throat.
Suddenly, she has a vision of herself in a cave. A young Howard Doyle is drinking a burning liquid from a cup in hopes of finding a remedy for his ailment. He’s surrounded by poor townsfolk and a priest. This liquid they use for healing, Doyle believes can grant eternal life. After he drinks, he kills the priest and lights the cave on fire with all the people in it. Doyle and a pregnant woman leave the cave by boat.
When the vision stops, Noemí wants to throw up. Francis gives her some water. He explains that Howard discovered a mushroom that could extend life, cure diseases and keep you healthy. What Noemí experienced was something they call “the gloom” — it’s a repository of memories. The fungus grows around and under the house, and it can create symbiotic relationships with its host (“Mycorrhiza”). Collectively, it creates a web of memories which they call the gloom.
In other words, the hallucination and vivid dreams she’s been having is because of the fungus connected to the house. Catalina, too, is not crazy. She’s been affected by the gloom. The fungus affects people in different ways. Some of them die. For others, it addles their brains, which is why their servants don’t really speak. For others, like Noemí, they have a symbiotic relationship with the fungus, so they don’t have those effects.
For the Doyles, their blood is special. It is especially potent with them and can make them immortal. Howard has lived many lives, in different bodies. He is probably around three hundred years old. He can transfer his consciousness from the gloom into a different body. For generations, the bloodline has been kept in the family, hence the incest and marrying of cousins. Agnes and Alice were his sisters.
Now, Howard wants Noemí to be part of their family. Francis says Howard won’t permit Noemí to leave. His father, Richard, wanted to leave and instead the gloom drove him mad. It’s clear Noemí is very compatible with the fungus, and they want her to stay. The women in the family have had trouble bearing children, and they need money. Noemí could provide both.
Noemí angrily tries to leave, but is suddenly sapped of strength. She sees the ritual that began it all. Doyle must’ve done his research and perfected this ritual to ensure it would work. After the pregnant woman gives birth, Howard cuts off pieces of the baby to feed to everyone. They then throw the woman who has given birth into a pit by the altar. By sacrificing her, she will erupt with the fungus to serve as the mind of the gloom.
Noemí is still having a vision but doesn’t realize it. She’s now back in the room. She tells Doyle she will not join them and attacks him. But he turns into a snake that wraps around her.
In her ear, the voice of the woman keeps telling her to “Open your eyes.”
The next morning, Virgil wants to see Noemí, but Noemí rushes out instead. Something in the air makes her run out of breath and collapse. Then Virgil goes out and picks her up to bring her back in. He forces her to bathe while he watches.
Dr. Cummins comes to inspect her. He admits that he’s a Doyle, but a distant relative. He also tells her that if she tries to leave, the house will attack again.
Privately, Francis tells Noemí he wants to help her. They must speak Spanish, because the house doesn’t know Spanish. He also kept the tincture, which can lessen the house’s hold on you. Cigarettes also irritate the house. Francis says that Howard wants Noemí to join the family by marrying Francis. It’ll be better for her for the time being if she goes along with it. Howard won’t outright force Noemí to marry him, since trying to control everyone’s actions all the time is too exhausting. They have to be somewhat compliant.
Noemí takes the tincture, which puts her to sleep as Marta had warned it would. She dreams of Ruth, telling her she needs to kill Howard and that she (Ruth) didn’t do it right. Noemí remembers to open her eyes and then the vision disappears.
Noemí speaks to Virgil who admits that they buried bodies in the cemetery to help keep the soil fertile. He also tells her about how the sterility from inbreeding (plus a need for more money) led to their need to branch out from their own family. They tell her to write a letter saying that she plans to stay until the end of the year. At that point, she’ll write another, saying she intends to be married.
She writes the letter and Francis extricates her from the situation. When she asks for a weapon, he offers her the blade from his razor.
Now that the jig is up, they allow Noemí access to Catalina more freely. Noemí is also having Francis secretly administer the tincture to Catalina as well. Florence has Noemí try on her wedding dress which is stitch together from their other wedding dresses as part of a tradition.
Francis notes that Howard needs to transmutate soon. He wasn’t strong enough to for a long time after he and many members of the family were shot by Ruth. Before that, he was waiting for a man in the family to come of age (24-ish). Virgil had been too young.
Francis also tells her that when Noemí flees, he’s can’t come along. They’re interconnected and it would make them easier to find. Catalina once tried to flee (when she was still taking the tincture), but she didn’t have the right supplies. Francis has been collecting supplies for Noemí. Noemí keeps insisting he come with her, but Francis keeps trying to tell her it’ll never work. He’s too deeply ingrained.
That night, Noemí dreams of Ruth. They converse. Noemí asks Ruth if she thought a Doyle could ever leave. Ruth says she thought she could run away, but there’s a compulsion to stay.
That evening, they have the wedding ceremony. A banquet and then a ceremony. As part of the ceremony, two pieces of mushroom are handed to Noemí and Francis, and they are told to eat it. Afterwards, Noemí goes back to her room. Virgil shows up, telling her that knows she’s been taking the tincture.
He tells her that the mushroom was an aphrodisiac, and he moves to take off her dress. Noemí finds that a small part of her desires him, but she also remembers about her razor. She shoves him away, and grabs the tincture from him and finds her razor. She takes a sip and goes to find Catalina.
Noemí finds Catalina unresponsive. Mary tries to stop her from taking Catalina, and Noemí has no choice but to slash Mary with the razor. Francis shows up and together they get Catalina so they can leave.
However, Florence stops them. She has a gun. She marches them into Howard’s room, saying that they need to transmutate Howard now. He is going to take over Francis’s body. Noemí regrets not killing Virgil when she had the chance.
They force the three of them to pray, and Noemí hears a buzzing sound. Then, she notices that Catalina has gotten ahold of the doctor’s scalpel. She stabs Howard in the face, causing Florence, Francis and Dr, Cummins to spasm and fall. Florence moves to shoot Noemí, but Francis lunges at her. After a scuffle, Florence lies shot.
Howard is still alive and compels Francis to obey him, but Noemí grabs the gun from Francis. She shoots Howard twice, grabs Francis and flees with him and Catalina.
As they run through the house, they see visions of the bannister turning to eels, but Francis says the house it causing these visions to get them to stay. They find Francis’s hidden stash of supplies in a small pantry. They don’t have the keys, so they head toward the burial chamber to escape the house.
Noemí recognizes the chamber from her visions, the place where the ritual was held and the woman was thrown into the pit. On a dais, her body is still there, frozen and sprouting mushrooms that erupt from all sides — it’s the source of the buzzing Noemí had heard around the house. Noemí realizes that the woman was Agnes.
Noemí now understands that before Doyle, there was a ritual priests would do involving the mushrooms and sacrificing themselves (letting other people eat the priest’s flesh) to help pass on memories to their people. Doyle must’ve used this and built upon it, sacrificing Agnes to serve as a central hub and brain for this mechanism, and allowing children to be eaten to fortify its bonds.
Suddenly, Virgil shows up. He says that Noemí has played into his plan. He let her have the tincture on purpose, so she could injure Howard. Virgil wanted him dead so that he could control the gloom instead. The tincture doesn’t last long though, and spores are still everywhere.
In her hand, the knife turns hot, forcing Noemí to drop it. However, Francis intervenes and he and Virgil fight. As they do, Noemí realizes that Agnes is in an eternal nightmare and the buzzing is her voice. She needs to be released. With that, Noemí tosses her lantern at Agnes’s face. Virgil and Francis collapse. Catalina stabs Francis in the eye.
Catalina and Noemí carry Francis out. They reach the gates of High Place and behind them, the house is ablaze.
A few days later, they are all resting at Dr. Camarillo’s place. Marta brought them more of the tincture, which they all took. Catalina and Noemí experienced headaches and nausea, but Francis fell into a long sleep. The police and her father are all headed here to find out what happened. Noemí assures Catalina that her father will smooth things over.
When Francis awakes, Noemí tells him that he can come stay with them in Mexico City. He tells her that he dreamed that the house had repaired itself with him inside. He dreamed that it was even grander than before. Francis tells her that some mushrooms sprout more easily after a forest fire. Francis wonders if he should kill himself to end it all for good.
The book ends with them kissing. Noemí fears that there may be an inevitability and curse in his blood, but hopes that together they can remake their world to be kinder and sweeter.