This month, we asked readers to submit their spooky book picks. Here are the top three most recommended titles
In September, we asked readers to help us determine this month’s selection by submitting their favorite spooky books on Instagram. We culled together the responses to tally the most requested books, and the top three suggested were: “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson and “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be reading all three along with you and discussing the selections. We also have a surprise interview lined up for the end of the month, so be sure to watch this page and the newsletter for more details!
Note: The Ballerina Book Club October pick will focus on Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic.” All three titles are discussed below.
Note: The Ballerina Book Club newsletter goes out weekly on Thursday or Friday.
“Mexican Gothic”: Chapters 1–8
“The Haunting of Hill House”: Chapters 1–2
“A Deadly Education”: Chapters 1–4
“Mexican Gothic”: Chapters 9–14
“The Haunting of Hill House”: Chapters 3–4
“A Deadly Education”: Chapters 5–22
“Mexican Gothic”: Chapters 15–21
“The Haunting of Hill House”: Chapters 5–6
“Mexican Gothic”: Chapters 22–27
“The Haunting of Hill House”: Chapters 7–9
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“Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic” takes readers back to 1950s Mexico, where we’re introduced to the well-heeled socialite Noemí Taboada. A frantic letter quickly summons our protagonist to an isolated mansion in an old mining town, which has been colonized by her newlywedded cousin’s English family. Once at the house, the tropes that wallpaper the gothic genre greet Noemí, setting us up for the creep of demonic danger that ensues.
READING NOTES PART I:
When we first meet Noemí, she has just been whisked from a party, her suitor following her with a papier-mache horse’s head tucked under his arm. She arrives home to find her father in his office waiting on her return. Catalina, our socialite’s cousin, has sent an unnerving letter home from High Place, the expansive estate where the cousin is shut up with her new husband Virgil’s family, the Doyles.
“He is trying to poison me,” Catalina writes, with disturbing drawings dotting the edges of the missive. “This house is sick with rot, stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.”
Though her father suggests it may be a “ploy for attention,” the letter prompts him to send Noemí to check up on the family, setting into motion doubts about the Doyles’ funds (which the father suggests have “run dry”). Her reward for successfully ascertaining the conditions of her cousin is permission to enroll in her choice university to study anthropology. She shrugs off any doubts placed on her by her father and his assertions of her “flightiness,” and she agrees to the task.
As her train climbs farther away from her home in Mexico City and closer to the cold climate of High Place, the landscape shifts from “bucolic” to desolate. Once inside the town of El Triunfo, everything has an air of decay — the brilliance of what was once shiny now dulled.
At the mansion (which is “very English,” complete with imported European soil), the Doyles greet Noemí with all the warmth of a frozen pond. This stiffness continues as we get to know the family members, led by a patriarch who is deeply entrenched in eugenics.
It doesn’t take long for the gothic elements promised in the title to shine, coming into full glow once Noemí begins to further investigate the state of her cousin (reader, it’s not great!) and starts having her own reactions to the house and its inhabitants (seen and unseen).
- Noemí describes her parents’ house as “decorated in a modern style, which seemed to echo the newness of the occupants’ money.” This contrasts greatly to what she finds at High Place, a stately Victorian home covered in a thick coat of dust. What do the homes signify and how do the depictions relate to the gothic genre?
- How does Noemí present herself at the beginning of the book, and how does it change?
- Noemí’s father says that she is “stubborn about all the wrong things.” What is expected of her? How does it differ for what she seeks for herself?
- Fairy tales are cited frequently. What does this add to the story?
- What role do animals play in the ecosystem of El Triunfo?
- El Triunfo was once a prosperous mining town and now it stands as a relic of what once was. How does this feeling extend to the Doyles and their home? What do they hold on to and what has slipped away?
- What role does colonialism play on creating this environment?
- What do you make of the soil for High Place being imported from Europe?
- Francis Doyle, Virgil’s cousin, says High Place is “very English.” In what ways? How does this contribute to the horror of the book?
- What do you make of Howard Doyles’ obsession with eugenics, beauty, mating and purity?
- What’s going on with Catalina?
- Soon after arriving to High Place, Noemí begins to have nightmares. When she goes into town to help Catalina, she finds that her remedy helps with sleeping. What do you make of this?
- A recurring motif is the ouroboros. What could this signify?
- Noemí has a gift for identifying chemicals. How does this play out?
- In the greenhouse, Noemí notices a shine in the eye of a snake on the ceiling; a few moments later, she sees Virgil’s eyes light up. Connection?
“The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson
A classic. Written in 1959 by gothic horror queen Shirley Jackson, “The Haunting of Hill House” is a ghost story that roots its terror in the psychological. The book centers on Eleanor Vance, who is invited to Hill House as part of a supernatural investigation led by Dr. John Montague. Over time, as the evil in the house takes hold, Eleanor’s handle on what’s real and what’s in her head evaporates.
READING NOTES PART I:
As Eleanor sets off to Hill House, she proclaims that time is starting. One of a dozen “assistants” chosen to participate (and only one of two to show up) in a paranormal investigation led by Dr. Montague, our protagonist begins her journey to the mansion in a car she (kind of) steals from her sister. Along the way, she has fanciful daydreams of dwelling within the abodes she cruises by.
Upon arriving to her fated destination, she faces immediate regret. Hill House, we quickly learn, is “vile” and “diseased.” The dutiful (and forewarning) housekeepers that we meet do not allay these fears. Once inside, Mrs. Dudley, wife of the gatekeeper, sees Eleanor to her room, a blue wallpapered affair in which all joy has been sucked and evaporated by the house itself.
Soon, the second guest, Theodora, joins Eleanor in a room connected by a bathroom. They become quick friends, sharing a lurking unease about the house itself.
- Can a house be evil?
- Eleanor imagines entire lives for herself as she drives to Hill House. What is the significance of this?
- What do you make of the townspeople in Hillsdale saying “People leave this town … they don’t come here”?
- Why does Mr. Dudley insist that Eleanor doesn’t want to come into the house? Why does he care?
- What instances of “clashing disharmony” weave their way through Hill House?
- What do you make of the stillness that settles over the mansion?
- Of the “pressing silence,” Eleanor says, “I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster … and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.” Thoughts?
- What draws Theodora and Eleanor together so quickly? What does Theo mean when she proclaims them cousins?
- What role does clothing play in character development? (Bonus: this question also applies to Mexican Gothic!)
“A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik
The latest from “Spinning Silver” author Naomi Novik unfolds within the walls of Scholomance, a school of dark magic filled with monsters and purportedly helmed by the Devil. The book follows El Higgins who must make it to graduation or not make it out at all. On her website, Novik explains that at the heart of this story (the first in a new trilogy) are the questions: “Who are the students in its classrooms and why would they or their parents accept the price the school exacts?”
Since the publication of the book last week, readers online have taken Novik to task for her portrayals of BIPOC characters. Critics have stated that the text contains reductive and offensive details regarding race and culture, specifically surrounding depictions of the book’s biracial main character and a passage about “lockleeches” (a made-up word for mites that latch on to dreadlocks).
Novik, who is white, has not publicly commented on her Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or website. The questions below are meant to integrate online conversation within Ballerina Book Club to facilitate honest discussion about the depictions of race and culture within the book and genre.
READING NOTES PART I
The story begins with El (whose full name is Galadriel) deciding that Orion Lake, the school’s hero, needs to die. The proclamation comes shortly after he saves her from a soul-eater, exploding its putrid guts in her bedroom and enraging El, who is suspicious of Orion’s heroics. Over the ensuing chapters, the push-and-pull relationship between the two students unfolds, bringing with it a sheet of politics that blankets the conniving and insidious class constructs at the core of the book.
The students are divided into three academic tracts (incantations, alchemy and artifice) based on their affinities, or their natural magical abilities. El, who begins the book with seemingly no friends, chooses incantations, partly because it is the “only one you can practice in your own cell.” Spells open up to students based on the languages they learn, a factor that contributes to one of the book’s major sticking points. Here, languages, detached from cultural contexts, become trading cards used to gain power. (More on the dynamics of this in the discussion questions below.) As for El’s affinity, it’s important to note that she is prophesied to cause “mass destruction” as a powerful, dark sorceress, and as such, all the spells that come to her from “the void” (a literal dark space that shoots out books) are incongruous with life.
As for the school, it’s a deadly education, indeed. As El outlines, less than a quarter of the students make it out of the graduation gates alive. Rather than teachers lurking the halls, monsters prey on the students, making it so that it’s so perilous to be alone that the young wizards forgo nearly everything to avoid death (sometimes at the hands of each other). Those who form alliances with various enclaves have a better chance of surviving, setting up a distinct class structure built on its own forms of societal wealth. These bonds stretch beyond the circular walls of the death-trap school to the time after graduation, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be much fun either …
The chapters read for this week’s assignment spend a large portion of time explaining the rules of the magical world, which functions on accruing “mana,” a Polynesian word that seems to be used here as it is in games such as Magic the Gathering — a point that some readers have criticized as a systemic and tone-deaf flaw.
- “A Deadly Education” has been touted as an answer to the Harry Potter series, but critics point out that it contains many of the same pitfalls. What systemic issues are at play here, and how can they be addressed?
- El’s father, who is Indian, dies before he can make it out of the school, and her parents do not exchange information about their lives outside of the school before he does. As a result, she is raised solely by her mother (who is Welsh) in a commune, separated from her family on her dad’s side.
El explains that when her mother took her to see her dad’s family, her great-grandmother “took one look at [her] and fell down in a visionary fit and said [she] was a burdened soul and would bring death and destruction to all the enclaves in the world if [she weren’t] stopped.” The family then tried to kill her. The rift ripples to how students from Mumbai, India, at school avoid her. What does this separation from El’s Indian side of the family mean for her character? What do you make of Novik’s choice?
- “Mana” — like money — is acquired through work and hoarded by those who have power. How does the book’s use link to conceptions of capitalism? What do you make of this usage?
- The school, which is in England, was largely built by the Manchester enclave, resulting in disproportionate seats going to UK residents, despite having a global student body. What power dynamic does this set up and how does it relate to colonialism? What do you think of the ways Novik handles (or doesn’t handle) these intricacies?
- In step, the most powerful enclaves are described as New York and London. How does this reinforce notions of Western power?
- The two prevailing languages at Scholomance are Mandarin and English, making it so that if you know both you can “probably use at least half the spells in wide circulation at the school.” Other languages are set up on a tiered scale of utility and value. What power dynamics does this establish?
- “The school takes a lot of liberties with the definition of ‘knowing’ a language,” says El, admitting that she “muddle[s]” her way through spells in French and Spanish. What are the implications?
- In the first four chapters, El faces racist comments outside of the school but not within. Why?
- Now, consider the passage: “Wizards tend to mix a lot more, since we all get jumbled in here together during our formative years, and the distinction that matters is between the enclavers and the rest of us have-nots.” What do you think of this statement? What enclaves have the most power and how does this relate to, complicate or undermine this notion?
- What do you make of El’s reluctance to embrace her affinity for mass destruction and her plans to deploy it only to gain entry into enclaves closer to her senior year?
- Though there are no teachers at the school, El says that “anyone who gets in doesn’t need external motivation.” Why?
- The world of the school, by design, is self-reinforcing. What issues does this lead to?
- Why do parents continue to send their children to a school that kills?
- El repeatedly says no one except for her mother likes her. What are the implications of this?
- Speaking of her mother, she is a powerful entity within the world, but El decides not to capitalize on her name to make advances within the school. Why?
- El’s full name is Galadriel. How does her character map on to Tolkien’s?
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