Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s shapeshifting visions of Mexico

On the shelf

Doctor Moreau’s daughter

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Rey: 320 pages, $28

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The fictions of Silvia Moreno-Garcia are rich in shapeshifters, like the ever-changing ones normal in her novel “The Return of the Sorceress” or the supernatural beings in “Gods of Jade and Shadow”. And they are the focus of her latest novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, which reshapes HG Wells’ classic tale of terrifying human-animal hybrids into a suspenseful and romantic anti-colonial adventure set in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Like Wells, however, the most important shape-shifter of these stories is their creator — the author herself. Moreno-Garcia, a Mexican-Canadian immigrant, now 41, may have appeared fully formed by magic with the best-selling Mexican Gothic, but she hasn’t since Over the years it has been further developed across genres and moves with apparent ease between fantasy, mystery, science fiction, horror and noir.

However, the basis of their stories rarely changes. It’s the constant rumble of history—the smoldering revolution among the Mayan rebels outside the Moreau estate in her latest novel, for example. If you read her work as thoroughly as it deserves to be read — beyond the thrills — or if you speak to Moreno-Garcia, as I did via Zoom, while she sat at her Vancouver home, you will seeing what lies below is even more amazing: a perspective on Mexican history as broad and comprehensive as you’re likely to see in fiction — not to mention a best-seller list.

Book cover depicting a woman in a dress standing in an archway

No wonder the author grew up surrounded by journalists with a penchant for fantastic stories. “My parents were very unconventional,” Moreno-Garcia says of her early years in Mexico City. “My mother was a sci-fi and horror fan. she read [Frank Herbert’s] ‘Dune’, Stephen King – and she had a love affair with HP Lovecraft’s work.”

Young Silvia read everything, in Spanish and English, from the Bible to mythology; She dove into her mother’s library and, from a young age, was buying paperback classics — Poe was her favorite — at Gandhi Bookstore, a Mexican chain. Reading became the young girl’s passion; socializing, not so much. “People thought I was weird,” she says.

Just as formative was Moreno-Garcia’s initiation into even older narrative traditions. Her great-grandmother “was illiterate,” the author recalls. “So for them, stories were told, not written, and everything had a pace. You couldn’t rush my great-grandmother when she spoke. you let them talk You trusted her.”

Following her parents’ path into journalism, she left Mexico on several scholarships to attend Endicott College in Massachusetts, where she worked for the student newspaper. After graduating in 2003, she returned to Mexico to marry her long-distance boyfriend. Soon after, the couple emigrated to Canada for better opportunities. Her husband worked three jobs while Moreno-Garcia looked after their newborn and tried to make ends meet as a journalist. But she found journalism more difficult than her parents’ job (the rise of the internet didn’t help). Her escape was the stories her mother devoured and her great-grandmother told—and the stories she began to invent.

"Gods of Jade and Shadow" by Silvia Moreno Garcia

“As desperate as the circumstances were at the time,” she says now, “I found that writing put me in an imaginary state where I could freely write whatever interested me.” It also paid off surprisingly well; as of 2006 she has written and published more than 70 short stories. Her big break came in 2011 when her horror story Scale as Pale as Moonlight won a prestigious short game competition. “That $3,000 price tag told me I could make it as a writer,” she says.

After editing anthologies and starting an independent publishing company, Moreno-Garcia published her debut novel, Signal to Noise, in 2015, which was nominated for multiple fantasy awards. At the same time, she also worked as a communications coordinator for the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia, where she was pursuing a master’s degree in science and technology studies. Her master’s thesis was a feminist critique of the misogynistic and eugenic ideas in the work of Lovecraft—her mother’s favorite writer, no less—that joined a wave of revisionist views of the troubled author and cemented her own ambivalent attitude toward her genre progenitors.

With her second novel, Certain Dark Things, which can only be described as a narco vampire horror story, readers began to notice how real and how rooted in Latin American history and myth – their fantasies were. Science fiction critic Amal El-Mohtar praised the novel for “presenting Mexico City as a real place, a city with history, neighborhoods, subways, beauty and ugliness, problems. It is not a book that renders Mexico City according to its distance from New York City or even the United States; The face of this book faces Guatemala, Cuba, Brazil.”

Although she calls herself “Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination,” Moreno-Garcia’s vision is laser-like on her homeland. Where she roams freely is genre. She doesn’t write in any particular mode, but lets the story guide her. “Sometimes I would give myself a challenge, like writing a novel about swords and sorcery, which ended up being called ‘The Sorceress Returns,'” she says. “Sometimes I end up with a book that defies classification, like ‘Signal to Noise’: is it a drama or an urban fantasy?”

A few genre-bending books later, she published the blockbuster Mexican Gothic, a chilling 1950s tale that explores racism, colonialism, and eugenics. After a handful of awards and nominations, more than a year on the Times Best Seller list and 500,000 copies sold, came Velvet Was the Night, a moody, music-saturated neo-noir set in 1970s Mexico City that became known as the Dirty War .

“People were expecting a horror novel,” Moreno-Garcia says of Velvet, which was nominated for the 2021 LA Times Book Prize in the Mystery/Thriller category. “Although it got good reviews, there were some people who were surprised and even dismayed. Authors tend to stick to a genre and even a book series, and I don’t do that. Because of this, it’s been a lot harder for me to get book deals, but I’m in a good position now where I’ve been able to convince my publisher to buy my next book, even if it means a category change.”

Book cover with woman in a dress holding flowers

In The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, Moreno-Garcia transforms again, weaving a slow-burning saga with a macabre thrill of sci-fi. Her inspiration, of course, was Wells’ “Island”, both in its basic premise – a mad doctor developing hybrid creatures in a remote area – and in its spirit.

“Wells didn’t write science fiction or horror,” explains Moreno-Garcia. “He wrote ‘scientific romances.’ We now consider him one of the progenitors of the modern sci-fi novel, but in his day things were much more free-flowing. That’s how I approached the writing of Daughter – I tried not to be too attached to the expectations of modern categories and to be more steeped in the spirit of the 19’sth century and early 20thth century of fantastic literature.”

She was also inspired by films like The Black Cat, Island of Lost Souls, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. “If you go back to those black and white streaks, desire and love are a big part of the stories,” she says. The spark of the novel is ignited by the love story between Carlota Moreau, the scientist’s daughter, and the ranch’s overseer, Montgomery Laughton, a dissolute Englishman hired by the colonial landowner to fund the doctor’s experiments.

“Look at Nosferatu, look at Karloff as a mummy or King Kong infatuated with Fay Wray,” the author continues.These days we’re all tied in knots and acting like the kid in The Princess Bride and wondering if this is a “kissing book,” but rarely has a book or movie been just one thing. So, in the spirit of Wells and other fantastic creators, I figured this was a ‘many things’ book.”

Like these early science fiction writers, she also deals with social upheavals and questions of fairness and equality; Unlike them, she is much more attuned to those who have long been excluded from such conversations (and books). The Daughter of Doctor Moreau draws readers’ attention to those who are often marginalized or totally ignored in literature and history – whether it be an independent-minded daughter absent from the original story, Doctor Moreau’s hybrids Creatures or these Mayan rebels in 1870s Mexico.

"Velvet was the night" by Silvia Moreno Garcia

“When I look at old movies, old pulp fiction, there’s obviously racist stereotypes, sexist ideas, colonialist attitudes, whatever,” she says. “But I often find things that stimulate my imagination. For me it is a starting point.”

Where you go from there – well, that’s the story. Whatever genre Moreno-Garcia chooses, her great-grandmother’s storytelling style is always evident: “She set you on a path that would eventually lead you to a wonderful revelation, but there was no point in asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ This broke the bond of trust between narrator and listener. And that’s how I write. I ask the readers to follow me into the forest. You won’t get lost, hold my hand and I’ll tell you a story.”

Woods is a book critic, editor and author of The Mysteries of Charlotte Justice. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s shapeshifting visions of Mexico

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