“The Salt Grows Heavy” is a tale we’ve heard for generations: a young mermaid falls in love, finds her legs, and finds herself ashore, in the arms of a prince. Or is it?
So many of us have seen the 1989 film made by Disney, and now the latest adaptation made by the company in 2023, produced by Lin Manuel-Miranda and featuring Halle Bailey (you can read about that one here) where a young redhead longs to find her feet–except to explore the human world, she has to give up her voice. The 1989 film won two Oscars and was nominated for a third, and children still wear red wigs on Trick or Treat night to honor their favorite mermaid turned princess.
But, this isn’t the only adaptation of the story, right? In the infamous Hans Christen Anderson version of the Little Mermaid, published in 1837, the Sea Witch comes to the forefront of the tale (no pun intended). In the original story, the Sea Witch gives the young mermaid a draught of, what is presumably a potion that is supposed to make her feel knives in her newfound feet in every step. As a bonus, she’ll also lose her voice–but because the Sea Witch has cut out her tongue. Fun. And, for all of that, at the end of this story, the prince falls for someone else anyway. What a shame.
“It is always interesting to see how often women are described as ravenous when it is the men who, without exception, take without thought of compensation.”
But, mermaids were around long before we’ve come to know them. Our ancestors saw mermaids as water goddesses, beautiful creatures who could bring fertility and nourishment just as easily as they could bring death and destruction. The first recorded mermaid tale was in 1000 B.C.E. when a goddess threw herself in a lake after falling in love with a human. Ovid described the creatures as the “green daughters of the sea.” The Celts picked up the legend, too, saying women became mermaids when they converted from the Old Religion.
There are sirens, nymphs, and water maidens–almost all portrayed more positively in pop culture. But what about the darkness that was so common in older mythology?
Title: The Salt Grows Heavy
Author: Cassandra Khaw
Star Rating: 3.5 stars
Thoughts of the Tale
We don’t see a lot of mermaid books these days, let alone horror-fueled mermaids. I was browsing at my favorite local indie bookstore (their tea selection is sublime) and I came across a copy of The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw. Fairy tale retellings, especially horrific ones, are one of my go-to’s to get out of a slump, and I immediately picked up this little novella and brought it home to settle in.
When I say this is one of the *strangest* things I have EVER read…I seriously mean it. And I say that with full confidence knowing that I have to special order my extreme horror these days because my local bookstores don’t carry it (Seriously, you want to read a weird book? Check out my review on Sister, Maiden, Monster). The Salt Grows Heavy was strange, obscure, and flat out…weird.
In this horror novella, we have two main characters: a mermaid on the run and a plague doctor. The plague doctor has some journey he’s on, but we’re not entirely sure where he’s going or why–only that he’s invited the mermaid on this adventure with him, and that he wears a frightening mask as he walks through the woods. Oh, and the mermaid? She’s the dark reimagining of our nightmares. Think: the prince and the original Hans Christen Anderson mermaid had a baby (two of them actually), and now mama mermaid has no tongue, sharp teeth, and a dead husband…and her children are hungry.
Don’t worry, it gets weirder from there. Shortly after walking through the woods, the pair come across a group of children un-aliving another child believing that they’re able to bring him back to life…if they have a magical “bezoar.” Yup, “bezoar,” as in a calcification found in the gastrointestinal tract that’s supposed to have magical qualities. Because that’s not weird at all.
The Salt Grows Heavy…
What the mermaid, as our narrator, doesn’t know, is that this jump-starts our plague doctor’s journey. Introduces the reader to the strange man under the mask. In the next 80-some pages, the reader comes to understand the way that men have been stitched together, how the bezoar keeps the children alive, and the plague doctor and the mermaid’s role in the story.
It seems that the structuring of the story, coming from the voice of a woman who cannot, effectively, speak, seeks to engage the voices of the oppressed and break the barriers of the ‘myths’ we so commonly come to know with surface-level stories. The reader is constantly tested again and again as we learn new information that disproves the myth that we’ve just learned ten pages prior. It’s an abstract and obscure concept that I could only just quite touch with the tip of my tongue, upon finishing the book–and immediately had me wanting to re-read the novella again.
The Salt Grows Heavy is rather short, coming in at 97 pages. The book expands on Khaw’s earlier short story, “And In Our Daughters, We Find Voice.” Introducing the main character’s daughters and their role in bringing The Salt Grows Heavy to fruition.
what’s it like reading The Salt Grows Heavy
Overall, is this book atmospheric? Yes. Does it have some intense body horror? Also yes. Would I recommend it? Probably, if you like weird stuff.
I did find The Salt Grows Heavy to be under-contextualized and overwritten. Trusting entirely on the confidence (and intellect) of the reader to find their way. While this isn’t an unknown concept in the Horror sphere. It still can be done in an empathetic and artful way. Beautiful prose and comprehension don’t need to be antithetical, but when done right, can be synonymous. Imagine that.
I’ll probably re-read this book, and keep it on my shelf. I did enjoy it, and it did appeal to my undersea curiosity, given my current obsession with mermaids. That being said, I found the prose overwhelming and the plotline underwhelming. Rating this one three and a half stars.
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Jackie Malloy is a fur mom, book reviewer, writer, and lover of literature. She’s currently working on her first novel and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing at Lindenwood University. She loves strange fiction, mythology, and anything paranormal. For more, follow her blog at afterthelastpage.com