The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw: Horror Book Review

The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw: Horror Book Review

Just one more twisted fairy tale, The salt gets heavy is inspired by various mermaid lore and legends, spreading the myth on an operating table and dismantling it little by little. This short, sharp novella skins its characters – often quite literally – in order to perform a surgical and bizarre satire of happy endings. Cassandra KhawThe writing is masterful and its horror is gruesome and joyous, rendered in macabre prose that you have to pick between your teeth.

An unnamed plague doctor escorts a mermaid across the land as she attempts to return to the ocean. The mermaid had long been a concubine of the local prince; his children are far wilder and have either escaped to the sea or wreaked havoc on their father’s kingdom. As the plague doctor and the mermaid travel, they come across a village of murderous child servants led by three saints who boast of immortality.

Picture: Used with permission from Tor Nightfire, an imprint of Tor Publishing Group, a business division of Macmillan Publishers. Art by Morgan Sorensen (@see_machine), Design by Esther S. Kim.

Echoes of a dozen fairy tales echo through the book. Short asides from the mermaid, our first-person narrator, offer a mirror to the story. These moments are hard truths delivered between gruesome games. Throughout the book there are illustrations of the kind of common and cruel indifferences that often mark ancient fairy tales. There’s still empathy, we still hurt for the plague doctor and the mermaid, but the book doesn’t pretend the pain is a mystery, creating a tapestry out of trauma.

In The salt gets heavy is an exploration of the body – who owns your body, who sees it, what can it create? There’s a kind of anger with bodies, a frustration that the body can heal from evil, that sometimes time doesn’t matter when it comes to healing, and how the simple having a body gives people a unifying language to communicate with. The mermaid embodies a sort of diaspora narrative, ready to destroy everything around her if she can cling to something that seems stable, if she can have hope.

There is a distinct and unrelenting horror to the writing of this book. One of the main lines, uttered by the mermaid after literally eating human parts that were cut up and thrown away, is “There’s nothing wrong with being a freak.” Exquisitely dictating disgust, The salt got heavy composes an opera of gore and viscera, mixing desire and repulsion to create a work.

This book is full of horrors that resemble a fever dream, written as some sort of terrorized stream of consciousness. But the ending is hopeful, a kind of sweet twist that feels like a nod to fairy tale addenda, telling you that maybe it’s not all bad, maybe there’s has a house, maybe after 500 years of good deeds, even monsters get souls. It’s a nice ending. It’s the one we want to imagine we all deserve.

Finally, a note: I usually annotate my books. Besides the fact that I often need to write about the books after reading them, I like to write down thoughts, reactions and moments that surprised me while reading. Rarely have I annotated a book so often or with so many exclamation points as I did while reading. The salt becomes heavy. Khaw’s line writing is masterful, experimental and evocative, with meaning inferred between the scalpels of the meat of the story.

The salt gets heavy it’s horror, yes, but it’s more like a fable – a story told around campfires about monster hunters and monster fuckers, with your friends screaming from the treeline, trying to scare you. It is a book that is irresponsible in its cruelty, but cautious in its intimacy. With a language that seems unique to its pages, The salt gets heavy is the kind of book that sticks to the roof of your mouth and lurks in the darkest corners of your mind long after you finish it, like a wolf, like a shark, like a monster.

The salt gets heavy by Cassandra Khaw is now available wherever books are sold.

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