The Salt Grows Heavy Is an Elegant Mermaid Nightmare

Books Reviews Cassandra Khaw
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Cassandra Khaw is one of the great craftspeople working in horror literature right now. Through work like their haunting novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth and their recent short fiction collection Breakable Things, Khaw has proven adept at luring readers in with sumptuous, deeply evocative prose that’s there to be savored, then going in for the kill with vicious, often surprisingly emotional terror. In their latest book, The Salt Grows Heavy, Khaw once again brings this brilliant gift to the fore, along with a palpable talent for creepy mythmaking, as the legend of the mermaid takes on bloody new life in this dark, gore-steeped journey.

Khaw’s mermaid is, like so many of her kind in fiction, a creature who came from the sea, went up onto land, and married a prince. But it’s there that the similarities end. The dark bargains that put her in a palace, perhaps against her will, eventually spawn a brood of children that have cast the kingdom in vicious darkness, leaving bodies stacked everywhere while the mermaid herself flees. Longing for agency, freedom, and a life of her own making, she travels with an enigmatic plague doctor as her protector, guide, and fiercely loyal partner in all things. Together, over the course of three brutal nights, they will discover a terrifying alcove of remaining civilization, face relentless enemies, and grow closer with every twitch of the blades that threaten their bond.

Dark fairy tale re-imaginings are a popular subgenre in 21st-century fiction and beyond because they allow for expansion, of course, but also for a more incisive look at the implications and metaphors inherent in each of the original tales. What’s striking about Khaw’s mermaid right away, though, is how little time the author takes for fleshing out the book’s dark world. The world is there, certainly, but this is not an epic fantasy retelling, nor is it a beat-for-beat reboot of whatever version of The Little Mermaid we might choose to discuss at any given moment. Like Nothing But Blackened Teeth before it, The Salt Grows Heavy keeps the roots of its story in the background, informing the text but never taking it over, and implying more than it actually shows about the nature of this mermaid—where she comes from, where she’s going. Instead, the slim volume’s focus is two-fold: Character and terror.

Though we enter her life in a transitional phase and learn only pieces at a time about who she is, Khaw’s mermaid is an immediately vivid, pulsing creature on the page, as she lays out her desires, her fears, and what she’s left behind while in pursuit of something else. Much of this is, of course, thanks to Khaw’s always-stellar craft: diction that reads as much like magical invocation as it does like narration and a focus on the intimacy between the narrator and her plague doctor that will make you want to crawl inside their bond and never leave. The prose is elaborate, elegant, and seductive, but it also never wanders, never loses the thread of violent transformation that Khaw’s really hoping to explore. They’re one of horror’s great practitioners of powerful brevity, and that’s on display here once again.

That violent transformation, when it does come, explodes in some of the most beautifully realized gore in recent horror fiction memory. It’s possible to over-explain the violence in your text, to grow so clinically obsessed with detail and description that the hot-blooded energy of it all starts to go cold. In their approach to horror-laden violence, Khaw never lets up on the evocative, very stylized prose, but also never gives in to telling us too much at any one time. As with the character beats, there is just the right amount of detail, and the brutality of this book will leave you simultaneously wincing and swooning.

But of course, it’s not just that Khaw is great at writing violence, or that they’re great at writing incisive character moments. It’s that they’re great at marrying the two, creating horror that’s simultaneously fantastical and deeply personal, visceral and emotional. The Salt Grows Heavy will hit you in your heart and in your gut at the same time, while never losing its grip on the gorgeous prose that makes Khaw’s work so spellbinding. It’s another riveting success from one of horror’s finest storytellers. 

The Salt Grows Heavy is available now

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.