A mermaid and a plague doctor walk across a burning kingdom. She doesn’t say anything as she watches her daughters devour the corpse of her husband. Her tongue had been removed, prepared for her to seal a pact of subservience to the prince that lies dead at her feet. The doctor chuckles softly, remarking on the destruction her daughters wrought. Understanding that nothing else remained for this unlikely pair, they begin a journey into the snow covered mountains that surround the now dead kingdom. They encounter a boy, hunting another boy, claiming that he has killed the pig. In their confusion, the mermaid and the doctor follow the boy back to his three saints, who promise eternal life to the cadre of children around them, forever reminding them of the misery that is life. But these saints have a familiar scent about them that brings back a haunted past the doctor thought they had escaped.
Khaw is an undeniable master of prose, and she proves it once again in The Salt Grows Heavy. Each sentence feels perfectly fit to form to elicit both horror and curiosity. Words are arrayed so that they become greater than the sum of their parts. At times you can almost taste them as they roll off the narrator’s tongue. Even though I never read the story aloud, it feels perfectly suited to be told as such a tale. It has a whimsical horror that only dark fantasy can invoke, and I fell for it dearly.
The story itself is deliberate in its delivery. Starting at the end of one story as it meanders into the next, Khaw finds the perfect balance when building out the past of both characters. The narrator, a mermaid, has just left her second world burning to ash at the hands and jaws of her daughters. Her memory of the deep is intangible, her voice robbed through a ritual that required her to literally swallow it as an act of devotion to her princely husband. Her one friend is a mysterious and androgynous plague doctor who is about to crash head first into their own past. As more is revealed about the doctor’s past, the mermaid offers up more of her own story. Their monstrous ways swirl into a delicious drink that goes down bitterly but easily. Neither character felt too heavily the focus, allowing the romance to blossom on a near equal footing, despite the doctor having more talking, and the mermaid controlling the narrative.
This is maintained by the doctor’s knack for conversing with the voiceless mermaid, reading her responses and her intention through her eyes and body language. A deep connection lies between these two and its weight is tangible. It is a bond forged out of seeing the worst in each other, accepting it, and at times goading it. The real magic is that as the reader, I found myself rooting for these “monsters.” Khaw does her best to make their acts grotesque, but in ways that are justifiable. These two aren’t out for petty revenge, though they are enacting a form of vengeance.
The entirety of the story is in tune with fairy tales, walking the line between whimsey and horror. Khaw doesn’t rest on her laurels, adapting one or two stories that are easily recognizable. Instead, she blends several different vibes, inverting stories like the three little pigs, and goldilocks while smashing it against the holy trinity and the little mermaid. The story is rich with distorted themes from all these influences and more, calling into question the nature of who tells stories and for what reasons. I hesitate to say this is a story about storytelling, because it feels more explicitly about who has the power to tell stories and maintain that version. It questions why we want to accept cleaner nicer versions, when the more terrifying nightmare feels fuller and bone deep.
Consumption, especially with regards to the media and culture industry, is a topic rife with debate and concern. Khaw seems to know a feast when she sees one, and really digs in, getting the readers to lick their own chops as well. So much of the story revolves around the act of eating, consuming what lays before you. Whether it’s due to hunger, the search for knowledge, or the acquisition of power, eating plays a vital role within The Salt Grows Heavy. The self cannibalism that signifies submitting to authority, the hunting of one’s peers as if they were a pig to please the immortal saints that grant you an unending existence of pain and suffering, and the eating of organs of the powerful to regain a sense of self and the ability to savor life. It’s a disgusting but poignant reminder of what fairy tales can teach. In some ways this is reflected at the reader asking, how do you consume?
The Salt Grows Heavy is definitely going up there in my favorite novellas. It is a buffet of dark but tasty delights served on a silver platter that beckons you to enjoy every bite. I will definitely be reading it again to sample its many delicacies, both refined and proletarian. If you can stomach a horrible nightmare twisted out of your favorite fairy tales, I urge you to let Khaw serve you one of the more delicious meals I’ve had in a while.
The Salt Grows Heavy – Highly Recommended