“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.”
Cassandra Khaw’s new novella, The Salt Grows Heavy, is a darkly beautiful nightmare brought to life, which will drive a dagger through your heart and leave you begging for more.
The Salt Grows Heavy is narrated by a mermaid who, as in The Little Mermaid, has become mute for her royal human partner. But in Khaw’s tale, the mermaid loses her tongue in a bizarreritual of autosarcophagy that promotes spousal fealty and obedience. As the novel opens, the couple’s ravenous daughters have recently devoured their father and the people of his kingdom, reducing the remnants to ash.
In the wake of this cannibalistic apocalypse, the narrator and her companion, an androgynous plague doctor with a raptor-like face, venture to a strange village. The children there appear to be part of a cult controlled by three self-described saints who practice the most macabre forms of surgery in their pursuit of an unspeakable end.
The Salt Grows Heavy is equally grotesque and enchanting. Cassandra Khaw’s writing is immaculate, with every word carefully chosen for maximum impact. The lyricism of her prose is juxtaposed with the horrifying imagery of the story, which includes detailed scenes of bodily mutilation and consumption of human flesh.
For all its horror, The Salt Grows Heavy is also a touchingly restrained love story. A fitting subtitle for Khaw’s novella could be, “Love in the Time of Cannibalism.” Like the classic Love in the Time of Cholera written by the Nobel Prize-winning master of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, The Salt Grows Heavy is ultimately a story about the enduring power of love. But in Cassandra Khaw’s case, this love story is set against the darkest of dark fantasy.
The Salt Grows Heavy feels like a hallucinatory night terror from Hans Christian Andersen. Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid is, of course, much darker than the version popularized by Disney. But Khaw cranks the darkness knob all the way to the “black hole” setting, sucking the reader into the story and refusing to let go.
Unable to extricate myself from Cassandra Khaw’s grasp at the end of the novella, I immediately flipped back to the beginning to prolong my immersive experience in her dark world. The lyricism and inventiveness of Khaw’s prose struck me even more on the second read, as many small details emerged that I had overlooked during my first time through. Ultimately, I forced myself to put the book down, so I could write this review and share the grim beauty of The Salt Grows Heavy with all of you.
The Salt Grows Heavy is a truly mesmerizing story and one of the finest works of horror and dark fantasy I have ever read, dripping with a gruesome and disquieting passion.