Narrator: Susan Dalian
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Length: 2 hours and 54 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on May 2, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
From USA Today bestselling author Cassandra Khaw comes The Salt Grows Heavy, a razor-sharp and bewitching fairytale of discovering the darkness in the world, and the darkness within oneself.
You may think you know how the fairytale goes: a mermaid comes to shore and weds the prince. But what the fables forget is that mermaids have teeth. And now, her daughters have devoured the kingdom and burned it to ashes.
On the run, the mermaid is joined by a mysterious plague doctor with a darkness of their own. Deep in the eerie, snow-crusted forest, the pair stumble upon a village of ageless children who thirst for blood, and the three 'saints' who control them.
The mermaid and her doctor must embrace the cruellest parts of their true nature if they hope to survive.
Three different stories, all irreparably skewered and vivisected, are stitched together to make one bloody, creepy, startling ode of a horror story in The Salt Grows Heavy. But as haunting and compelling as the story is, I didn’t pick this up for its story.
Because what makes this tale stick in the mind and the ribs and the craw isn’t the story nearly as much as it is the soaring, lyrical language in which it is told.
After repeated Disney incarnations, in the popular imagination The Little Mermaid is a romance with a happy ending, even though the original Hans Christian Andersen version was a lot more equivocal.
The Salt Grows Heavy takes that romantic tale and sieves it through a much gorier and grimmer lens – much like the original, unexpurgated Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Then it strips the skin from the story’s bones and makes it a whole lot bloodier.
This so-called mermaid did not leave the sea for love of any prince. She was captured by a rapacious king who kept her as his literal trophy wife through sorcery and brutality. When we first meet her, she has already had her revenge for decades of rape and torment. Her daughters, just as much monsters as their mother, have killed and eaten the entire kingdom.
She decides to leave those bones to her daughters, and set out on a journey. After all, the marrow has literally been sucked out of her revenge. But she does not travel alone. One brave or foolish soul, if not a bit of both, volunteers to accompany her. It is ‘her’ Plague Doctor, someone who has secrets of their own, hidden behind their profession’s iconic mask.
So they set off on a journey, two monsters together. For she is most definitely a monster, and the Plague Doctor is a patchwork creature not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, made of bits and pieces of dead things with a mind of their own.
What they find along their way is something that neither of them ever imagined. They find beauty, and love, and nature “red in tooth and claw”, including their own.
But if the Plague Doctor is Frankenstein’s monster, then the doctor himself – or themselves – can’t be far away. With an entirely new – and even more rapacious – pack of monster acolytes to carry out their bloody, gruesome work.
Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I loved the author’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth, in spite of not being all that much of a horror reader. What I loved about that earlier book was the absolutely unholy lyricality of the language in which the story was told. It was horror as poetry and it captured me from the very first.
Therefore, The Salt Grows Heavy is one of the very rare occasions where I picked a book, not for its story, but for the language in which that story is told; haunting, creepy and beautiful at the same time.
The story combines The Little Mermaid, Frankenstein, and The Lost Boys (both the movie and the original Peter Pan interpretations fit) by sticking them into a blender, bones and all, and watching the blood fountain up as the blades gnaw at their meat.
It wasn’t quite as cohesive a story as Nothing But Blackened Teeth, but as I was listening to it, that didn’t matter AT ALL. I was so caught up in how she was describing EVERYTHING that I couldn’t stop listening – no matter how gorge inducing the scene she was describing might have been.
But I discovered, as I did with Nothing But Blackened Teeth, that the story lost its punch for me when I attempted to finish by reading the text. It wasn’t half so compelling a story in my head as it was when I felt myself inserted into the head of that misnamed mermaid.
So even when we see the even awfuller stuff coming – when she sees it coming – it was her voice that allowed me to let it come and let the experience play out to its bloody, bittersweet end.
The Salt Grows Heavy is a tale to be listened to with rapt attention – with ALL the lights on.