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The Salt Grows Heavy


The Salt Grows Heavy

I was introduced to Cassandra Khaw with their previous novella, NOTHING BUT BLACKENED TEETH, which involves a haunted wedding party. Being a horror aficionado, I could completely understand why they have been nominated for a British Fantasy Award, Stoker Award, Shirley Jackson Award and World Fantasy Award.

So I jumped at the opportunity to review their latest book, THE SALT GROWS HEAVY. For the uninitiated, it may take some time to get accustomed to Khaw’s writing style, which is unlike anything currently operating in horror or fantasy fiction and drips of immersive imagery, poetry and bleakness throughout.

"Khaw’s way with words is a wonder to behold, and I wish I could spend the entire review just quoting from this work.... Cassandra Khaw is a horror voice we need to watch out for."

The principal character in this tale is a mermaid, though unlike any you have ever seen or imagined prior. Her companion is a creature who is literally a plague doctor, bedecked with the hat and beak of the death bird that it wears proudly upon its face. They do not have names, at least none we can understand, and all we know is that the mermaid is now on land having barely survived the wrath of her two evil spawn children who have devoured her kingdom and destroyed it at the core.

Khaw’s way with words is a wonder to behold, and I wish I could spend the entire review just quoting from this work. One group of lines in particular moved me: “Myths are full of lies. This is not one of them. Names are like selkie-skins, often carelessly attended, left in view of those who would misuse them.” I could read wordsmithing like this all day.

The two “protagonists” venture deeper into the woods and come upon an area inhabited by a myriad of evil children. They appear to do the bidding of three surgeons who refer to themselves as saints. The language here is especially descriptive, and the surgeons are nightmarish to the point that they would make Clive Barker’s Cenobites jealous. The mermaid and the plague doctor do battle with this army of bizarre evil, and not all will come out unscathed or even entirely whole. The mermaid tells the plague doctor, “There is nothing wrong with being a monster,” in an effort to inspire him to overcome this new ordeal in which they find themselves.

I also would like to share this bit of language involving the mermaid taking apart one of the evil children: “The girl inhales to screech, one hitching breath. I bury its denouement in the cellar of my throat, mouth locking over her windpipe, her spine. Her vertebrae break with the crisp, dewed noise of an apple’s skin when it’s first pierced.” Simply spine-tingling and beautiful all at once.

This devilish tale does not end here. There is a treat after the acknowledgements section that includes a short story, “And In Our Daughters, We Find a Voice.” It could be viewed as a darkly horrific retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s immortal “The Little Mermaid.” It also serves as the prequel to the novella we have just read and is equally as mesmerizing. Cassandra Khaw is a horror voice we need to watch out for.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on May 12, 2023

The Salt Grows Heavy
by Cassandra Khaw

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2023
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror
  • Hardcover: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Nightfire
  • ISBN-10: 1250830915
  • ISBN-13: 9781250830913