Silvia Moreno-Garcia on the Evolution of the Horror Genre, #OwnVoices, & Her Latest Novel, 'Mexican Gothic'

Nebula Award–nominated Silvia Moreno-Garcia is known for novels that feature stellar worldbuilding, complex characters, and immersive stories spanning multiple genres, from crime fiction to fantasy to horror. LJ 's horror columnist caught up with the author to talk about her writing process, diversity in fiction, and her latest work, Mexican Gothic.

Nebula Award–nominated Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Gods of Jade and Shadow) is known for photo of Silvia Moreno-Garcianovels that feature stellar worldbuilding, complex characters, and immersive stories spanning multiple genres, from crime fiction to fantasy to horror. LJ 's horror columnist caught up with the author to talk about her writing process, diversity in fiction, and her latest work, Mexican Gothic.

The following conversation has been slightly edited for length.

You’ve written prolifically across several speculative fiction genres. What about the “what if” of the form inspires you?

I like realist literature quite a bit. Growing up [in Mexico], there weren’t strict lines or restrictions between the categories of realism and the fantastic; it was easy to see them blending together. Also, the reality in Latin America is very strange. Gabriel García Márquez once said: “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.”

Your upcoming release, Mexican Gothic, is influenced by classic gothic horror, and while set in 1950s Mexico, it is also firmly rooted in a 21st-century style. What drew you to this historical subgenre?

There used to be these paperbacks around my house that had the famous gothic covers of the 1960s. You know, those horror or mystery covers featuring a woman running away from a castle. If you cracked them open [and read] the actual books, they weren’t very good...but the covers captured my imagination. I liked the aesthetic. Later on I learned about what scholars call the “real” gothic novels written in the 1800s. There’s a large scholarly field looking at [gothic horror] such as [Matthew Gregory Lewis’s] The Monk.

I watched the movies of Mexican filmmaker Carlos Enrique Taboada, who is less known in the United States, who made several moody films in the gothic mold, including Hasta el viento tiene miedo. There probably wouldn’t be a Guillermo del Toro without Taboada.

In addition to novels, you have written guides to speculative fiction, edited a literary magazine, and mentored new writers. What advice can you offer to acquaint new readers and library workers with these genres?

It used to be easy to know what was new in the field of speculative fiction. There were a few imprints to watch, and you would get their catalogs regularly. Nowadays, we have many more imprints and smaller players. At the same time, we are seeing an increasing “genrefication” of mainstream literature and the rise of upmarket commercial fiction, which means you can have books [across] genres published by imprints that are not dedicated to speculative fiction, which makes it harder to survey the field. I would recommend keeping an eye out for genre books in unexpected places and to champion smaller presses.

The push toward more diverse books has been very welcoming, but we must look for recommendations beyond the usual suspects. For instance, Octavia Butler was a major figure in speculative fiction, but often people default to her and her alone. It creates a Highlander phenomenon where “there can be only one.” 

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In America we do associate these Gothic tales as beginning in 19th-century England, yet that is a privileged, white-centric position. Are there other creators who have influenced you over the years?

There are several works that fall in the category of Weird fiction or just plain unclassifiable that I think most readers wouldn’t associate with Latin America, because there is an expectation of magic realism and also of a certain kind of exoticism. So Amparo Davila—translated for the first time a couple of years ago with The Houseguest: And Other Stories—who wrote horror, though her work doesn’t have that quaint, exotic feel. Reading it, some people might criticize it and say the story takes place “anywhere,” which is a pejorative characteristic people sometimes deploy with certain types of writing that they expect to somehow embody their vision of a culture. But obviously Amparo is writing in the 1960s, she is writing in Mexico, and she is not feeding an external vision of Mexico. Her stories have all these upper-class markers—they don’t just float in space—but it doesn’t “feel” like how people expect Mexico to feel, and I kind of love them for that and also just because they are very strange, unclassifiable stories. It feels very Shirley Jacksonian, but of course we are not allowed to call any Latin American writer Shirley Jacksonian. They’re only supposed to be like Gabriel García Márquez. As much as I quoted him before, literature didn’t begin and end with him.

Incidentally, Davila seems to have been the inspiration for The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, which is described as a “Gothic tale of destabilized male-female binaries and subverted literary tropes” on the back flap of the English-language translation.

You are a vocal author in the #OwnVoices movement. Why is it so important for our fiction to carry the voices of all people and experiences? How do you incorporate your own heritage into your stories?

There are people doing crucial work to diversify publishing, and I tip my (small) hat to POC [People of Color] in Publishing and other similar organizations. 

I write about Mexico simply because it interests me, and I don’t think the world is exactly full of books set in Mexico. I never thought I shouldn’t write about Mexico—despite the industry letting me know that they weren’t terribly interested in that part of the world. I’ve basically been very stubborn.

I remember shopping one of my books and one editor said the book was good, but it was set in Mexico, so they wouldn’t buy it. It would not sell, they said. That made me laugh. I wanted to ask them, “What is your data set? Have you ever bought a book set in Mexico? What about all the books set in the States that haven’t done well?”

Imagine there’s a race. Every runner has a lane. But there’s a gigantic boulder in the path of the writers of color competing in the race. Now imagine those writers still climb the boulder, like I’ve done, and reach the finish line. You might say that’s a great triumph! And, sure, it is. But I don’t believe people should have to be climbing boulders. It’s not fair, it’s not right. 

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Why do you love horror, both as an author and a reader?

I mean...what’s not to love? It’s like riding an emotional roller coaster. There are also many gradients of horror, so people who don’t want graphic stuff don’t have to be reading about zombies devouring humans. There’s even stuff that is quite funny. I’m thinking of The Laundry Files by Charles Stross, which is basically like The Office but with Lovecraftian elements. I think people assume horror means violent slashers, but if you look back at the roots of the genre, you’ve got stuff that is very subtle and psychological.

Why do you think horror is so popular right now? Where do you see the genre going as it basks in its current mainstream spotlight?

I think we should differentiate between horror in film and horror in books. Film has always had a sweet spot for horror because it’s cheap and can therefore be fairly profitable. However, lately we’re seeing what people are calling “elevated horror.” We’ve always had “elevated horror”; it’s not like it was invented last year, if by that you mean works that were not merely exploitation vehicles. Look at Val Lewton; he made a number of elevated horror films and that was about seven decades ago. But streaming services have really allowed small budget horror to flourish and for horror with higher production values—good direction, good scripts, ambitious concepts—to get some attention. That’s the current wave of elevated horror, where you have movies like Get Out.

Horror in books is a different tale. We had a boom and bust in that industry. Big sales in the late 1970s and the 1980s—all those covers from Paperbacks from Hell come from that era—and then the complete collapse of the industry in the 1990s. The Abyss Dell line was the swan song of horror. Horror writers of that era either went to specialized small presses or changed genres. Some switched to thrillers, for example. The horror writing community has never quite recovered from that collapse. 

However, we’ve been seeing a lot of genre-blending in the past few years. Books that might have been considered horror in the 1980s—Station Eleven, for example, with its pandemic story, would have been shelved next to The Stand—but now these stories seem to be released under lines that don’t specialize in horror.

With the arrival of Tor Nightfire, that might change. Having a major horror-dedicated imprint is important for the genre, but it also signals that publishers are seeing the financial possibilities of horror more clearly. I predict a lot of writers who we don’t associate with this genre might be trying their hands at it in the near future. We might see reissues of older books or authors who have been in the micropresses offered contracts with larger companies. And more YA horror.

Horror has been the sad runt of the litter for many years. So it’s nice to just see people are now able to say the “H” word without whispering, like it’s a dirty word.

Becky Spratford is a readers’ advisory (RA) specialist in northern Illinois and the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror (2d ed., ALA). She runs the popular blogs and Readers can connect with her on Twitter @RAforAll.

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