The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

The Salt Grows Heavy is a horror novella about a mermaid and a plague doctor who end up in a strange village where children are hunted, harvested, and remade. A mermaid who was mutilated by her husband is now freed from him and travelling with a genderless plague doctor, when they find children hunting another child. What they uncover is three strange surgeons, known as ‘saints’, who have the power to cut people up and put them back together, and the children seem doomed for this to happen forever, unless the mermaid and the plague doctor can disrupt the cycle.

I wouldn’t normally necessarily go for a mermaid story, even a horror one, but having read Khaw’s earlier novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth I was intrigued by this one. There’s some The Little Mermaid vibes in it, though it’s really the central relationship and the story with the village that are most memorable, rather than the mermaid elements. The relationship between the mermaid and the plague doctor was my favourite part of the book, both with similarities in their pasts and their existence, and by the end, closely bonded despite the horror. The prose is filled with imagery and it might be an acquired taste, particularly as being a novella means that little is explained, but I quite liked how alongside the body horror you end up with something quite weird and unusual, sometimes even confusing.

Though it is pretty disorienting at times, The Salt Grows Heavy is also a good example of how the length of a novella can be good for horror, removing the need to really go into detail about how and why and rather focus on weird body horror and some strange characters. The dreamlike fantasy vibe of it wasn’t what I’d usually enjoy, but I did like the character of the plague doctor and the weird horror of the story.